"It's good to be alive," Artie Lange said early in his set Sunday Night at New York's Caroline's Comedy Club. It was good to see him back; it was one of Lange's first high-profile stand-up sets after a nearly two-year hiatus that occurred following his suicide attempt in January 2010. He later spent two stints in rehab and three in psychiatric wards.
Lange left the spotlight at his peak – he was a longtime sidekick on the Howard Stern Show, his memoir Too Fat to Fish was a national bestseller and he regularly performed sold-out theater gigs around the country. Since returning, Lange has done a handful of stand-up shows and begun hosting a Direct TV sports talk show with comic Nick Dipaolo. He never mentioned the tragic incident in the set, but after someone shouted, "What's up with Howard?" Lange said, "Listen man, shit happens. One day you're on top. The next day, you're on top of a ledge."
Lange took the stage to a standing ovation as AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" blared. It was striking to see him in person; his hair and beard have gone greyer, and his onstage demeanor is mellower than it used to be. When the material wasn't razor-sharp, the crowd was there to rally for him, regularly erupting with shouts of "We love you, Artie!"
Lange recalled several anecdotes from his recovery. He remembered gaining "83 pounds in nine days" while in rehab in Chicago. "If you have a cheeseburger with pastrami, they call you a pussy for not dunking it in something," he said. He recalled hiring a personal trainer who suggested running could substitute a heroin high. "I said 'Have you done heroin?' He said 'No.' Then you're not really qualified to be in this fucking argument." He also remembered one facility where a therapist asked patients to Google themselves to prove their significance in the world. "I had 4.2 million hits," Lange said. "The first Web site that came up was called ArtiesBloatedLiver.com"
Lange didn't stay away from his past vices, either. "After I stopped gambling I realized I'm not that big a sports fan," he said. "You know you have a gambling problem when it's 4 a.m. at the Mirage Sports Book and you're walking around going, 'Hey you get the lacrosse scores?'"
He continued, "People who don't have the disease say, 'Artie, you can have one drink, one beer, one five-dollar bet. If I put down a five-dollar bet on roulette in a casino, half an hour later, it's beer, vodka, weed. By 11:30, I'm doing blow off a stripper's ass. By 12:15, I'm doing blow off a stripper's ass who's of legal age. By 8 a.m. I'm running guns to Cuba."
Too often, the show veered into sports jokes and inside humor from his new Direct TV show. There was a slightly funny parody of "Empire State of Mind" that Lange set to lyrics about Boston, and a bit about traveling to the Super Bowl and playing in a celebrity football game that never quite took off.
Still, it was moving to see Lange back onstage. "Thank you for coming. It's very sweet of you," he said late in his set. "I was gone for a couple of years. I want to thank you for not forgetting me."