Artie Lange shocked the literary world in 2008 when his memoir Too Fat To Fish became a mega bestseller, debuting at Number One on the New York Times Best Seller List. He was one of the most successful comedians in the country at the time, selling out theaters and reaching millions of listeners a day as Howard Stern’s sidekick. But a little a year over after the book came out, Lange stabbed himself in the stomach nine times while deep in the throes of heroin addiction. He wouldn’t appear on a comedy stage for the next year and a half, and to this day he hasn’t stepped foot back inside Howard Stern’s studio.
Lange’s new book, Crash and Burn, co-written with Anthony Bozza, hits stores on October 29th. It chronicles Lange’s dark descent into depression and heroin addiction and his agonizingly slow return from rock bottom. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the book.
Dale Would Not Be Proud
All I can say is that you only realize how big your mountain is once you’re laying motionless, helpless, and hopeless in the valley below. No one goes there on purpose, if you get what I’m saying, because the only way to find your personal low is to slip and roll down that mountain of yours, straight through to the bottom, no holds barred. Only when you’re in that ditch, lying there in the muddy runoff you’ve made of your life, gazing up at the peak you fell from, do you truly know how small you are and understand how tall you used to be. Down there at the bottom you can finally see the invisible zigzag path you followed, reliving every lump you took along the way. You feel the pain of each one again, and some others for the first time, as behind you the avalanche you’ve made of your life crashes toward you in slow motion, engulfing the people you care about; stifling you with the debris of your existence. The view from that gully is a front-row seat to the mess you’ve made, but it’s not the kind of show you want to see up close and personal. If you’re lucky and if you want to, if you’ve got the strength and good people willing to pick up what remains of you in your life, you can make it out alive and climb back into the world. If any of you reading this feel like you’re close to that pit, please read on: I’ve done your homework for you. At least I hope so, because I’d like to think the time I spent out of my mind will do someone some good. My life changed, so in the end it did me some good, but if I can keep just one person from suffering a fraction of what I had to, then it wasn’t all for nothing. And that means something.
I crashed and burned. I rolled all the way down my fucking hill, man, and I did it in a very big way. It was a slow slide at first, easy enough to ignore, but in the end it was a race to the end and I lapped my best time. Only now can I see just how far back my slip and slide down to Gutter Town took me. I’ve gotta be honest, sometimes I’m impressed with myself, because I held out for a pretty long time going pretty damn hard before I fucked up good enough to wake up. Now that I’ve had enough time to think about it, now that I’m “alive” again for all practical purposes (sorry, ArtiesDeathWatch.com), I can pinpoint the moment that my descent began. Nobody slipped me that one pill that sent me over the edge; that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about. I mean the moment when I began to let duplicity rule my life, when lying to myself and to others, to whatever degree necessary, became completely acceptable to me. I didn’t even shrug at it anymore. That’s when I turned the corner into hell. I can tell you where it happened, and aside from my blackouts, what happened, but I don’t know the why of this shit, only the how, so bear with me; I’m doing my best.
It was November 9th, 2006. I was standing onstage at Carnegie Hall, one of the most prestigious concert venues in the world. It was built in 1891, and has hosted more talent than heaven. Back then I was still with my ex-girlfriend Dana, whom any fan of the Stern Show during my tenure there knows far too much about. At that time she and I had been together for five years, and we were starting to get very serious. I felt that she was probably the only girl who would marry me and so I thought pretty soon I’d do something about that. At least I knew I should do something about it.
Anyway, because of the Stern Show, my stand-up career had taken off and I was booked to play the most beautiful room that any dickhead comic like me could ever dream to play. It’s almost wrong that they book comics there, because the place is far too beautiful for those walls to hear what I say to get laughs. But there I was, and it was a peak achievement for me. I hope to relive it someday and feel the warmth of those stage lights on me again. They didn’t feel like any other lights that have ever shined on me, including the blue and red of law enforcement.
At the time Dana and I were fighting, mostly because of my habits, which were far from good. I was a decently functioning alcoholic and drug addict, with a concentration in heroin, coke, and whiskey. Really, I’d say I was cheating on Dana with heroin – that dirty opiate bitch will do that to you, ask any addict. I’d been fucking up regularly and obviously, so by then our relationship was dangling by a thread. We hadn’t seen each other at all in the weeks leading up to the show, and things were so tense I wasn’t even sure she’d show up. I didn’t know if we were going to stay together, I didn’t know if she’d even say yes if I asked her to marry me. All I knew was that I wanted her there to see me play Carnegie Hall. Even if we didn’t stay together, it was such a special occasion and such a landmark for me that I needed her there, plain and simple, because she was so important in the grand scheme of my life. She was like another limb to me.
The gig also happened to fall on her birthday, so it was a coup to get her there, considering the circumstances. My good friends the great comedians Joe Matarese, Jimmy Florentine and Greg Fitzsimmons opened the show and killed. Howard Stern and a lot of people from the Stern Show were there, as were many members of my family. I pulled out all the stops for my set. I did over an hour, and I had my equivalent of pyrotechnics: I showed some sketches I’d done at MADtv on the big screen and worked them into my routine. I’m not lying at all: everything went over great and I totally killed. But that wasn’t Dana’s birthday surprise. I mean, I don’t know, maybe she was surprised that I did so well, but she had another thing coming.
The last bit in my set was something I’d done the first time I did an open-mic stand-up, just a few blocks away from Carnegie Hall. I was 19 at the time, and this occurred at the original Improv, which was 13 blocks away on Ninth Avenue and 44th Street. It was a song parody, which was appropriate for the acoustics, based on the theme song to the show Cheers, if it were a gay bar in Boston called Queers. And here’s how it goes: “Going to bars where everyone’s straight gets to be a rut / You want to go where you can get rammed in the butt / And Judy Garland’s all they play / Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows you’re gay / And they’re not afraid to say, ‘When I look at his ass, I lick my chops’ and all the barstools have no tops / You wanna go where everybody knows . . .” And then I pointed the mic toward the audience and the sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall shouted, “You’re gay!”
“That’s not the first time a large group of people has looked at me and shouted ‘You’re gay,'” I said. “It happened to me once at a family wedding in front of my Italian uncles when I was on the dance floor sucking a cock.”
That was the perfect warm-up to bring up Dana for her birthday. “Hey, any Stern Show fans here?” Honestly, that was the most unnecessary question anybody could have asked that room. The place roared. “So you guys know about my girlfriend, Dana, then,” I said. More uproar.
“So it’s Dana’s birthday today. And she’s here!”
Dana came onstage, and I wasn’t sure if she wanted to kill me or kiss me. But everyone was happy to see her in that way that fans of the Stern Show are always happy to see anyone that they’ve gotten to know over the air. Dana is not a ham in any way, so this degree of attention, right up there in her face, got her blushing redder than a whore in church. It got much worse when I instructed all 3000 in attendance to sing her “Happy Birthday.” You can call me corny, you can call me Al; I don’t give a fuck. I was trying to win some points with her, and it seemed like the best way to show her I cared. She was past her last straw with me, which demanded a giant gesture on my part, and as humble as she is, she loved it; I saw it in her eyes as we left the stage to a standing ovation. But that was the end of us; that very night was all she wrote.
Even if it had all worked out, it still would have been a sham, because I did the whole show with two bags of heroin in my pocket, despite the fact that I’d sworn to her I was clean at the time. I don’t think the hall’s patron, Andrew Carnegie, would have approved of me performing while “holding smack,” as they used to say on Starsky and Hutch. I gotta say, it’s pretty pathetic, because I didn’t even need the heroin to get through the show. I wasn’t even close to being that far gone (I still had all of that to look forward to); I just had those bags to celebrate, because at that point in my life I still enjoyed it and I still thought heroin was cool. Well, there was more to it than that; I fucking loved the escape and the long good night that it brought. I had disrespected Dana by lying about my use, and I disrespected the hall. I could have stashed it offstage in my bag or something. I didn’t need to have the drugs in my pocket while I was performing, but I did, because at the time I thought doing that was cool too.
The heroin was a time bomb in my pocket, or an exotic animal I couldn’t afford to feed forever. It was a fever I had to tend to but continued to ignore. At that point in my life, playing Carnegie Hall was the most significant thing I’d ever done, but as soon as the lights went down, all I could think about was the heroin. After the show I rushed through greeting my friends, family, and peers with the same enthusiasm I muster up ordering a Whopper at Burger King. They were all in my way, because all I wanted was to get to my hotel and sniff a few lines of heroin. It was great when I did – I hoovered up those lines at the speed of snort. I didn’t have a problem; I was only extending the high of the show all night long. After that pit stop, I continued to the after-party, which was at the legendary Caroline’s, about eight blocks away. They had a car reserved for me, but since it was a beautiful and unseasonably warm night, and because I was now high on heroin, I led a pack of my friends there on foot. It was a fun party, and it seemed like Dana was having fun. I hoped so, because I was intent on getting her back for good, which was why I had booked a room at the Ritz-Carlton overlooking Central Park that night, but nothing was going to save us, because Dana knew I was high. She always knew when I was high, because she knew me better than anyone. But even strangers with a rudimentary knowledge of heroin behavior would have known I was high that night. I was all over the place. This next sentence would make no sense outside of the comedy world, but in context, it’s further proof of just how high I was: Howie Mandel showed up, and I shook his hand. Howie Mandel is a great guy, but anyone in the business, and most of his fans, know that he is the world’s biggest germaphobe. He doesn’t shake hands – ever – and that’s the most normal, socially acceptable custom of his. So I did that, went in for the shake, and completely shat on his parade: the guy looked like he’d seen a ghost, and I’ve wondered just how long he boiled that limb to get my cooties off when he got home.
Dana and I left Caroline’s at about two a.m. and took a cab to the Ritz-Carlton, and by the time we got there we were in a cage match-style fight. She was mad, and she had every right to be, and there was no talking us into making up. I kept at it anyway, half fighting, half apologizing, until finally she couldn’t take any more and wanted to go home. I had gotten us this incredible suite to celebrate and hopefully begin again, but at that point I didn’t care.
“Fuck it,” I said. “Fine. Let’s go.”
I drove her home, completely high on dope, which is something I did a lot, I’m ashamed to say. After I dropped her off in Jersey, I drove back to the Ritz and sat alone in my gorgeous twelve-hundred-dollar-a-night room, looking out on Central Park, sipping champagne and snorting heroin all by myself until the sun came up. If that isn’t a cover story worthy of Loser magazine, I don’t know what is. Eventually I nodded off but awoke at nine a.m., depressed and still high. I couldn’t look at those four walls anymore, so I hit the streets and wandered aimlessly around midtown Manhattan. I ate breakfast at the Astro Restaurant on Sixth Avenue: two eggs over easy, home fries and a side of pancakes, plus a big fat glass of chocolate milk, because I love chocolate milk when it’s served in a diner. I loved the food, and I hated myself. I walked out of there and bought the New York Post and the Daily News, then I went down to the subway and rode around on the C and A trains, like Charlie Parker used to, only without the genius talent. I spent about two hours hopping trains, just reading the papers. I didn’t shower before leaving the hotel, and I’d been up all night, so I probably looked broke and homeless, when in reality the night before I’d earned fifty grand playing Carnegie Hall.
When I couldn’t ignore life anymore I went home, and when I got there and looked in the mirror I realized that my relationship with Dana was truly over. And I knew why. I knew exactly why: motherfucking drugs. Drugs are the cheapest kind of magic. They make life amazing for about three hours a day, and for that miracle, they make the other 21 a complete living hell. Drugs ain’t worth it, because they may be a motorboat to some kind of paradise island, but their wake creates a tidal wave of shit. I was starting to smell that tide rolling in, but I was still dead-set on surfing it. Who the fuck am I kidding? In November 2006, I was like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, screaming at the top of my lungs to put the goddamned helicopter down so I could surf that shit tide myself.
Excerpted from Crash and Burn By Artie Lange (with Anthony Bozza) Copyright © 2013 by Arthur Lange, Jr., Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.