Artie Lange on His Suicide Attempt and Life After Howard Stern
It’s lunchtime, and Artie Lange is feeling hungry. He picks up the phone in his sleek Hoboken, New Jersey, apartment, gazing out over his ridiculous, postcard-worthy view of Manhattan. “Hey, it’s Artie,” he says. “Can you send over a large pie with extra cheese? Thanks.” No last name, no address. Minutes later, the pizza arrives. They don’t even charge him since he’s mentioned the place (Uptown Pizza) on the radio so many times, but he still makes sure the delivery guy gets a $20 bill.
Exclusive Book Excerpt: Artie Lange’s ‘Crash and Burn’
Lange looks like he just rolled out of bed. He’s wearing a faded blue T-shirt and sweatpants, and his graying hair is sticking up in every direction. He hasn’t been on The Howard Stern Show, where he became famous as Stern’s foulmouthed sidekick, in three years – not since some really dark things happened.
Addicted to heroin and gambling and hookers, Lange hit bottom in 2010 with a truly gruesome suicide attempt. Reaching for his fifth slice of pizza, Lange casually notes it happened in this very room. He chugged from a bottle of bleach, stabbed himself in the stomach nine times and slit his wrists.
Lange’s mother discovered him and rushed her son to the hospital. He spent the next 18 months bouncing between psych wards and failed detox efforts. All of this happened right as Lange was reaching a level of success few comedians even dream of. After a decade on Stern, he was pulling in $80,000 a weekend doing stand-up. His 2008 memoir, Too Fat to Fish, was a surprise smash, shooting to Number One. He was also in love with a stunning Christie Brinkley look-alike named Adrienne, whom he met at a New Jersey tanning salon. (She’s now his fiancee.)
A new book, Crash and Burn, co-written with Anthony Bozza, comes out October 29th. It tells the whole tale of his return from absolute hell. Over the course of 90 minutes, Rolling Stone spoke with Lange about the book, why he’s unlikely to ever appear on Stern again and coming back from rock bottom.
Did you hesitate about writing this book since it was so personal and so intense?
Well, life is life. I had the book deal, and I was lucky to have had a career where I saved up enough money where I could take a year and eight months off so I could get better. I literally needed that much time. I said, “I need time here, man. I’m as big a mess as you can get.” And it was a public situation, so not only is it what’s happening to in your mind and body, but it’s all happening in a public situation. I didn’t know if I would ever recover from that alone.
And then the physical addiction of it and the depression . . . There’s so many layers to go through. I don’t know if dope causes depression or if depression causes dope . . . I don’t know what came first. It’s too long ago. But I got to a point where I said, “OK, I need to start making some money.” I had taken 200 grand from an $800,000 advance. Too Fat to Fish was so successful that they gave me the 800 G’s real quick, like a month after it came out. And I was like, “OK!”
So I took the 200 G’s, and of course that was spent. My agent said, “Listen, you’re going to have to write the book, and they really want you to write about this. If you don’t, you have to give the money back.” I was like, “Christ! Well, I guess that will be therapeutic, in a way.” They were willing to wait as long as it takes to get a book out.
I think a lot of people are going to read the book and be like, “I don’t understand why this guy is so miserable. He seems to have everything in the world going for him.”
The weirdest and most damning addiction for me, in some ways, was gambling. It’s not wanting to walk away from the table until you lose. I’ve always had that need for instant excitement. It’s like, “OK, well, stuff is going well and it’s boring the hell out of me. How do I make this fucking bad?” And when you’re not married and don’t have kids . . . I hope to God we get married and God blesses us with a child someday. It’ll then be over. I’ll be like, “OK, I’m not bored anymore.”
This is the fourth time that show business has given me another shot. And it’s not just another shot. Two days out of rehab I got this job with DirecTV. Then the deal was back with the book and I was booked to do stand-up in theaters immediately. I was selling out 3,000-seaters again. My first gig back was 3,000 seats, and it sold out. And that night I made 80 grand. So I was like, “OK, I guess I’m back.”
I had a whole new hour of material different from my special. It was about rehab, and it worked. People were interested. And the Stern show creates a family atmosphere. They see me and they want to hug me like I’m a cousin or something that just got better.
Was it hard to come back to this apartment because so much bad stuff happened here?
I’ve been here for 12 years, and I have more good memories than bad ones. God, and I love this view. For someone who has a depressive attitude, when I get up on a day like today and it’s clear and I look at it, it makes me want to just dive into life. When I stabbed myself, I was sitting right there on the corner of the couch. It was six a.m. and the sun was coming up and I looked out at this exact view, and it didn’t save me. I felt like I was looking at it for the last time. I was such a morbid, heroin-crazed fucking thing.
The part of the book where you describe the suicide attempt was hard to read.
And write! [Laughs] People say to me, “You think you hit rock bottom?” And I’m like, “I hope so.” I don’t know what’s worse . . . At the time I did that, there was a part of me that just wanted to get that heroin feeling or that opiate feeling or whatever. My logic was, “If I get bloody, I’ll get queasy, and I’ll go to sleep.” When you’re on the road a lot, you’re in perpetual search of a good night’s sleep. I thought it would help me get a solid eight hours. But I don’t know what I thought was gonna happen when I got up. Put on a red shirt and hope no one notices?
Somehow, hearing you drank bleach was harder to take than the stabbing.
I thought that would get me drunk. [Laughs] I threw that up two or three times. I had the knife and made it to the bedroom with a trail of blood behind me. I had lost enough blood where I finally did pass out. My mom, my sister, Colin Quinn and a bunch of people were coming over for an intervention-type thing. Thank God I got found by them. They saved my life.
You didn’t slit your throat or stab yourself in the heart. Some part of you must have wanted to live.
I didn’t slit my throat. I did slit my wrists, though. It was weird. I thought about jumping off the terrace when it turned suicidal. I said, “What am I doing? I can’t live like this anymore. Even if I get that heroin feeling, what am I doing?” But I said, “I guarantee it’s not high enough. With my fat ass, I guarantee I’ll just fucking break both my legs and wake up the next day.” But, um . . . [laughs] . . . I didn’t know how to make it permanent. Hang myself? I don’t know how people figured out how to do that.
Still, it sounds to me like part of you didn’t want to die.
It was half-ass, yeah. If there was a gun here I probably wouldn’t have blown my head off, but I don’t know.
I interviewed David Crosby a few months ago. He was telling me he doesn’t know why he’s still alive when so many of his peers are dead.
I ask myself the same question. I do. It’s called survivors guilt. I wrote about Mitch Hedberg and Greg Giraldo in the book because I knew them. Mitch was shooting heroin, which is just so brutal. But with Giraldo, there’s no way he did more drugs than me. There’s no way. Again, it’s just a bad night or whatever. He left behind kids . . . But I totally identify with Crosby.
Look, I make great money at DirecTV. I was just in Tampa two nights ago and played a theater for great money. My best year, back when I was on the Stern show, was 3.5 million bucks. But I have a house down on the shore and I just over-extend myself and do too many one-nighters. I’m forced to do that . . . But I gotta lose weight. That’s always been the case, but I was thin when I was a kid. This is all just bad living. And plane travel is getting worse and worse. My back hurts.
Are you saving money now?
Yeah. Thank God, I saved a bunch of money. I have IRAs like crazy. I have a stock fund. Thank God I have a financial planner who is really conservative. At the end of every year he begs me, “Put money away!” So I have a portfolio that’s really nice and I bought my mom a house. I have this place and I have other real estate. But cash-wise, it got real low for a while.
But the gigs are amazing, and stand-up is such a great thing to know how to do. If you have a following, it’s instant money. You just say to your manager, “I need 50 grand. Book me in St. Louis in some theater.” And that can literally happen. You go get money by telling dick jokes for an hour. It’s like Jesse James. I’m like, “Bam bam bam!” Then I put the money in a trunk and get the fuck out of there. Thank God. In the last 20 years money has never been a problem, and thank God. I will gladly admit, knowing how bad my addiction is, I would have done crimes to get money. I would have stolen shit. So I don’t think I’m better than a thief who steals for dope.
How long have you been clean?
Well, I’m hard on myself. There are some people in the program that say if you have an injury and you take a pain killer as prescribed, you’re OK. I don’t put myself in that category. So a month and a half ago, I took a prescribed Vicodin for back pain. I had an enormous pain that I gotta have surgery for. And I ended up going in and getting an epidural. I didn’t drink with it, but I took a couple of the pills one night and they got me feeling nice. And the next night I took it again for the pain, but I was looking forward to the fucking buzz and that was scary.
There was 10 pills. I finished the prescription, and now I have six weeks and two days. But there are people that go, “That’s fine. You didn’t get more. You didn’t go on a run. It was just prescribed.” But I like to think that I should have tried Advil. But with the epidural and everything . . .
And before that?
Before that was Paris, which was about nine months ago.
Do you still crave it?
Every day. Every day. [Laughs] I know guys who have 20 years now. You’ll be in meetings and they say they still crave it.
How do you resist?
I just concentrate on the positive. My fiancée. My really good friends. I try to go to meetings as much as I can. I wish I could sit here and tell you this insanely great success story from meetings, but I diligently have done it. I do have a sponsor who I’m brutally honest with, but I should be doing that more. There’s a great meeting right before my show down in the Village on Wednesday night and Friday night. I do go, but I should go there every single week, every night.
Taping the show at night must be so much easier than taping the Stern Show at six a.m.
Yeah. I’m a comic, so I like to stay nocturnal. I work 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.. The problem is that the Stern show was like having a paper route in the morning, and then I was nocturnal, coming up and down from that, getting on a plane, getting off . . . That’s where the drugs came in. And the kids have these amazing pills these days. Whoever would come to these shows would have everything! They were walking pharmacies! I started doing Adderall to get up to the plane. I’m come down with an opiate or whatever, Xanax. It was crazy.
Your life has to be so much easier now that you don’t have to constantly worry about scoring drugs and maintaining this whole secret life.
It’s a part-time job. In my case, a full-time job. It involves getting money from someone where you’re not really alerting your accountants, the bank, talent promoters at gigs . . . Back at the Stern show, I was making an average of $80,000 a weekend, and some weekend I’d make $100,000. I’d tell my road manager, “Listen, I need $20,000 of that in cash.”
The promoters, especially in Las Vegas, just want to please you. They gave me cash. And my accountant says, “Oh, the gig was for this much.” And I say, “Oh, well, I took some in cash.” So I’d have to pay taxes on it. I always pay taxes. I made sure of that. I mean, that’s what got Al Capone. [Laughs] But I would spend just pure cash on whatever I needed. There was gambling, too, but mostly it was to pay for dope.
Then it’s like, “OK, I’m going to get it. Now, do I get it delivered because I don’t want to be seen? Am I going through withdrawals so I can’t get it because I’m sick? Am I going through withdrawals on the Stern show?” There were times I’d call in sick because I was going through a full-blown withdrawal. I can’t go sit there. I was on camera the entire time!
I had to manage all that. Also, I didn’t know when I was going to get arrested. Am I gonna get killed? It’s still a drug deal. These guys know I have quite a bit of cash on me all the time. And so there’s all that stress and whatever. That’s why that shit is so insidious! It’s all worth it to get fucking high!
It’s almost like you’re two different people. I remember you let that intern on the Stern show sleep on your couch when he had nowhere else to go, but then you get stoned and punch out cops.
I know. Drugs will change your personality. I’d like to think I’m a good person deep down, but I’m definitely a drug addict.
You even loaned Jeff the Drunk money. Not a lot of people would do that.
I relate to him deep down. I always feel like I’m two shitty jokes away from being Jeff the Drunk. [Laughs] But I can be a mark. I can be a sucker. I’ve always been that way.
The nicer way of looking at that is to say you’re a sweet guy that cares about people.
I think that deep down I am. When I grew up kids were saying, “Listen, I’m not saying you have to do this, but if you don’t give me five grand tomorrow I’ll be in jail. Or I’m gonna get shaken down.” And I’m like, “Fuck. I have it. I have the five grand.” I usually wind up doing it. And now, fuck, when I’m cash-poor I think about those kids and I want to strangle them, because I need that money back.
Are your bookings down now that you’re no longer on the Stern show?
I make less money, but I still make great money. I still play theaters. I make an average of $50,000 a weekend. It used to be 80.
That’s still pretty great.
Yeah. I mean, I’m not going to bitch about it. I’m gonna walk around in today’s economy bitching about that? I’ll get hit with a bat. And I make really great money at DirecTV, especially if you talk about today’s economy. There’s also the book deal. It’s gonna be a good year, and it was a good year last year, and I’m getting quite a bit of money for my special. They’re paying stand-up really well these days. Well, certain stand-ups, if you have a following. Again, it’s all the power of the Stern show. I was on that show every morning for eight and a half years, so you make a name for yourself.
Are you going to go back on Howard to promote the book?
I don’t know. I haven’t set foot in there. Howard is afraid he’s gonna say the wrong thing and set me off. He’s like, “God forbid something happens.” What happened was real intense. The times I’ve talked to him, he’s been real supportive. He’s happy for me that I’m back on track and doing better, but actually being on the show . . . He’s afraid something might happen. I’m not saying it won’t happen. Gary [Dell’Abate] has the book. He’s reading the book . . . Look, if he does, he does. I’m not going to put any pressure on him because the guy has done everything for me, and he’s just been amazing. But if he feels it’s too intense and too risky to do it, that’s gonna be his decision. And that’s fine. I told the book company not to press him at all.
I think he got freaked out. He didn’t how bad you were and he believed all your lies, and then he saw the truth and it shattered him.
Right. He was like, “You need professional help.” And he was right, of course. And I was working there when it happened. He’s thinking, “What if he goes back and something triggers something?”
He said recently on the show that you saw him at the hospital when you both visited Robin at the same time.
Yeah. I saw him there. We talked for an hour. And it was just me, him and Robin for a while. We laughed like old times, like we were on the air. It was the day after Robin’s big operation and she was in great spirits. She looked great. I told her she was just so confident and she really is such a strong person. But we were goofing around with her like everything was fine. We laughed like crazy.
At the end, he gave me a big hug and he said, “Congrats on the show.” I said “Thanks” and “I’ll talk to you soon” or whatever. And then I gave him a big hug. That was it, and I talked to Robin for an hour after that. I sat with her, and if she was scared about what was going to happen, she didn’t let me see. It seems like she got through it, which is great.
It’s weird how time rolls on. Howard is gonna be 60. Bruce Springsteen is almost 65 and time is rolling, man. It’s daunting to think that one day that show might not be around. But I don’t think Howard wants to slow down. I know that money isn’t an issue for Howard. He likes to be relevant, hence the America’s Got Talent thing. And he’s good at it. I think he’s gearing up for another big situation because Howard TV is going away, whether it’s a web thing or another more traditional-type talk show. I don’t know. I would love to see what kind of web presence he would have.
The Howard fans are so conspiracy-minded. I looked on the message board before I came here and everyone seemed insane. Some people thought Robin was never sick and she was under house arrest the whole time. Others are really fixated on you. They think there’s some broader conspiracy to explain why you haven’t been on the show.
I’m sure. I mean, it’s simple enough. He just doesn’t need anything nutty to happen . . . But some of that stuff on the Internet is scary. Robin under house arrest! What do they think she did?
I have no idea. It’s bat-shit crazy. Some people just see conspiracy everywhere.
That’s the epitome of a Stern fan.
But they seem to hate the show, yet they spend all day listening and writing about it online.
It’s true. Then they see you somewhere and they just kiss your ass . . . Again, a radio fan is a certain kind of thing, and then a Howard Stern fan is another type of thing that is much more intense. It’s because he’s so big. I remember how much fun those first four years were. Man, we were on a roll. We’d do a show in the morning and it was really funny. People were calling in going, “God, that was amazing. Everybody is talking about it at work.”
Then you walk down the street and construction workers are having lunch and yelling lines back to you. You felt alive. It was the greatest thing. It wasn’t just New York. It was St. Louis. It was San Francisco. It was Seattle. It was everywhere. I think at one point when we were on regular radio they said that nine million people were listening. It was also a way for people in my life to keep track of what was going on in my life. My cousins, who I wouldn’t see for months, would know what was going on. [Laughs]
You wrote in the book that after your suicide attempt, you held out some hope you’d return to the show at some point.
Sure. In my head I said, “Well, maybe I can still make this work again. Maybe I’m not so ready to move on.” But then I really thought about it. I thought about the position I put them in. I said to myself, “Well, okay, that’s probably not going to work.” But there was definitely a time where I said to myself, “I can do this again.” Then I said to myself, “OK, well, now what?” And my agents and managers didn’t abandon me. They were there and they said, “OK. We’ll just try to find a gig for you.” And then I got a call from Nick DiPaolo. He said that DirecTV was a fan of his and mine and wanted to maybe do this show. And I said, “Oh my God. All right. Let’s get right back on the horse.” And we did a test show and in a few months we had a deal.
Nick left the show earlier this year. Are things cool between the two of you?
We never stopped being friends. We were always friends. It was creative differences that he had with DirecTV. I think he thought it was going to be a show that was more politically minded and they wanted just pure sports and silliness. I am very silly and not politically minded at all, so they just went their separate ways. Nick was like, “Are we cool?” I said, “Yeah! I don’t know if I can host a show. I don’t know if I want to host a show.” When I started doing it I was a little apprehensive, but I have a blast doing it now. It’s a blast, and they treat me really well.
This might sound a little unfair, but some people are going to assume that you’re still taking drugs and you’re just lying to everyone about being clean.
I wouldn’t blame them for thinking that. Those people are going to think whatever they want. There are people who think Robin was under house arrest. [Laughs] All I have to do is keep living my life. I just gotta get up, live life and let the chips fall where they may. I have a job now, so that’s good. I’ll keep doing that until one day I get there and all the doors are locked and my shit is in front.
There’s nothing I can do about what people say. And one day they might be right! You could leave here and I might flip out. I don’t know. I don’t feel steady all the time, but I gotta get to the point where if you leave here and I feel bad I go to an AA meeting. For some reason, I don’t crave liquor, and thank God. I can just go to the corner and get that, but for drugs I don’t even have the contacts anymore. I would have to be like, “Does this number still work? Probably not.” I’d have to go, “Do I have to make phone calls to people who still might know how to get me something?”
Who knows? It would be very difficult, so hopefully by the time all that happens I don’t have that craving anymore, or I’d be smart enough to drag myself to a meeting or something.