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'After This,' the Latest from Alice McDermott

Writer Alice McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998 for her novel, Charming Billy. McDermott has just brought out a new novel called After This, and our book critic says that it's a stunner.

06:07

Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 2006: Interview with Artie Lange; Review of Alice Dermott's new novel "After this."

Transcript

DATE September 14, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Artie Lange discusses his new movie "Beer League,"
becoming a radio celebrity, some of the bizarre bits on "Howard
Stern Show," and his dark family history
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A lot of us at FRESH AIR are fans of the "Howard Stern Show," and we know many
of our listeners are, too. We think that he uses the medium of radio
brilliantly, with the help of his regular cast of characters. One of them is
my guest, Artie Lange. Lange is a comic and actor. Since joining the "Howard
Stern Show" in 2001, he's become famous for his hilarious stories, which are
usually about his biggest problems, like drinking, overeating, gambling, and
his on-again/off-again relationship with his girlfriend, who now seems to be
his ex-girlfriend. Artie was an original cast member of the sketch comedy
show "MADtv," and was on the ABC sitcom "Norm." He's appeared in the films
"Dirty Work," "The Bachelor," "Old School," and "Elf." Artie Lange co-wrote
and stars in the new movie comedy "Beer League." The film is about a group of
guys in New Jersey whose softball team is in the league playoffs. For them,
softball is more about drinking beer and goofing off than playing ball.

How close is the character you play in "Beer League" to you?

Mr. ARTIE LANGE: Too close. This would be me if I didn't get lucky and get
into show business. I would be exactly this guy, unfortunately. I'd be, you
know, by the time I was this age, probably, a raging alcoholic playing in a
softball league that I took way too seriously and probably living with my
mother. That sounds like an accurate description.

GROSS: Tell me a story from the movie that actually comes from your real
life.

Mr. LANGE: You know, these leagues are all--they call them "beer leagues,"
they should really call them `hard liquor leagues.' Drinking is just such a
part of the softball culture before, sometimes during, and after a game. I
played in a league where every base was a quarter keg of beer, and you had a
cup in your back pocket. If you got on base, you filled up. And I don't know
who in the town committee allowed this to happen, but within two weeks they
had to, you know, get rid of the league because people were just drunk by the
second inning, throwing bats, and it was violent.

And the fight in the film, in particular the old guy on our team, played by
Seymour Cassel--he has a line in the movie where he tells the one kid to hold
another guy's head while he tries to kick him--that really happened. I played
in a league where a guy who was about 78 years old, who was our pitcher, and a
brawl busted out and he told my friend on our team to hold the kid's head
while he tried to kick him. And he went to kick him and he, you know, he
grabbed his gut and he fell down. We thought he had a heart attack. So it's
basically--the fight in the movie is based on several different fights that
actually happened.

GROSS: You're the lead in your new movie.

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: You co-wrote it, you star in it. You have a girlfriend in it. It's
about you. You're not, like the friend of the lead?

Mr. LANGE: Right, right, right. I play the best friend a lot.

GROSS: So are there things you were able to write for yourself that other
people haven't written for you? In terms of having situations that you want
to play.

Mr. LANGE: Yeah. Well, it's funny. Like, I got a--the parts I played in
other movies, I would just get to come in and do funny stuff. Well, I was in
a movie called "The Bachelor" with Renee Zellweger and Chris O'Donnell. That
was probably the biggest studio film that I had ever been in that I had a big
part in. And I was a little more than just the guy to come in for comic
relief, like I was in "Dirty Work" or this other thing I did, "Lost and
Found." So I did--I had a wife in that movie. And that was a different thing
for me, having a romantic interest that you had to sort of, you know, have a
real moment with that's not about comedy, you know? Like, it's hard for me in
real life, and playing it onscreen with a total stranger was totally foreign
to me.

But, as the lead--see, I just like doing jokes. I don't care about the other
stuff that isn't funny. But you need the other stuff to make a complete
movie. So as the lead, you have to--you have to handle all of the exposition
in the film. Not just the jokes, the storyline, and some of the romantic
stuff and the more sappy stuff that sets up the comedy, the stuff that's sappy
that makes you a more sympathetic character and a more likeable guy to get
away with the funny stuff. So I never really had to do any of that in a
movie. A lot of my dialogue in this movie is exposition to move the story
along, because I'm the guy it's about. And I have a serious girlfriend in the
film, and that's really covered. And, you know, I gave myself a hot chick. I
always said, you know, once people see the girl in the movie that plays my
girlfriend that I get, they're going to think it's in the science fiction
section, not the comedy section. But, you know, I gave myself a hot chick and
there's scenes where, you know, I have to have dinner with her. And it's not
jokes, it's really like, OK, these two guys getting to know each other and,
you know, trying to be sentimental. And that all helps you get away with the
comedy. It sets up the comedy.

I hated doing that. The director had to really keep me focused to get through
the serious, sappy stuff. But watching how he put it together, he was--he was
so right. It really makes you like the two characters and feel for them and
care about them, and it makes every other part of the movie work.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Artie Lange,
from the "Howard Stern Show." He's got a new movie that he co-wrote and stars
in. It's called "Beer League."

Now, the first time you were on "Howard Stern Show" was as a guest with Norm
MacDonald...(network audio difficulties).

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: You were really funny on it. How did you go from being a guest to
being part of the regular cast of characters?

Mr. LANGE: Well, that appearance was to promote a film called "Dirty Work."
And Norm knew how big of a fan of the Stern show I was. He was going in to
promote the film. He said, `Hey, why don't you come with me and maybe, you
know, Howard'll have you on?' And Norm at the time was going through kind of a
crazy separation sort of divorce, and he didn't want to deal with that. And
Howard, you know, always asks those personal questions. So Norm said, `Hey,
if that happens, I'll bring you in and we'll talk about the movie.' So sure
enough, a minute into Norm's interview, that happened. And they bring me in,
and as they're putting the headset on me, Norm says to Howard, on the air--and
I did not he was going to do this--he said, `Howard, you'll love Artie. He
got kicked off of "MADtv" because of cocaine. And I was--on the air, I looked
at him like, `What the hell did you just say?' and Howard, of course, darted
his eyes right to me. And I told this whole story about getting arrested and
almost getting fired and going to rehab, and of course Howard loved that. He
loves stories like that. So he said to Norm, `Bring Artie back when you come
back and we'll hear more stories like that.'

We went back in three more times to promote a sitcom we were doing together
called "Norm." And every time I went in, I would tell another crazy story and
Howard always loved it. And when the "Norm" show got cancelled, it was again
one of those things in life, perfect timing. It was a coincidence. Jackie
Martling, the comedian who was on the show for years, left the show, and they
were looking for another guy. So Howard remembered me from going in with Norm
several times, and two months later they whittled it down to a couple of guys,
and then eventually I got offered the job.

GROSS: Now you know how you're saying Norm MacDonald brought you on because
he didn't want to answer the personal questions that he knew Howard would
ask...

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: You're asked those questions all the time.

Mr. LANGE: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, it's just anything about, you know, drugs, sex, your
girlfriend...

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: ...or your ex-girlfriend, depending on what day it is.

Mr. LANGE: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: So, Art, were you ready for that? Are you comfortable with that? Are
there ever kind of consequences?

Mr. LANGE: Yes, absolutely. I--and again, it's my fault. Before anybody
takes the blame for that, I would have to. I offered it up. From the very
beginning, I was always sort of honest about my life and the bad parts as well
as the good parts. And now, you know, I'm just known for being so honest that
it's almost expected of me to just come clean and say everything.

There are lines I won't cross. Dating someone, that's a fine sort of--that's
a difficult road to go down. And I found the boundaries as we went along.
There's a story about a hooker that ripped me off in Las Vegas for $500 that I
told him off the air. And on the air, he just brought it up, and he said,
`Come on, tell the story, tell the story.' And he ended up getting it out of
me. It happened before I was dating my girlfriend, but we were dating at the
time he got me to tell the story, so it was a very sensitive thing. She was
like, `I can't believe you told that story,' and I said, `Well, it was before
you.' And she goes, `Yeah, but it's still embarrassing and..' So, stuff like
that has happened.

GROSS: Now, listeners know that your girlfriend--or now ex-girlfriend?

Mr. LANGE: Right now, unfortunately, it's ex-girlfriend, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, well she had always wanted you to go into therapy. You got a
lot of issues...

Mr. LANGE: Right. Definitely.

GROSS: ...with gambling, drugs, alcohol, food, other things.

Mr. LANGE: Every self-destructive thing, yeah.

GROSS: Commitment. Yeah. So she wanted you to go into therapy. You've
always avoided therapy. Now my producer Amy pointed out that being on "Howard
Stern Show" is almost like therapy in the sense that you're always talking
about yourself, telling stories about yourself.

Mr. LANGE: Yes.

GROSS: And Howard's always, like, forcing you to go deeper and deeper. Then
my producer Phyllis pointed out, though--although the talk part might sound
like therapy, therapy expects you to change. But on Howard's show, it's kind
of like you're rewarded for that kind of behavior...

Mr. LANGE: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: ...because if you can get a good story out of it, that's all anybody
wants.

Mr. LANGE: Yeah. No. That's very perceptive of both of them, actually.
Yeah, you know, it's weird. A lot of comics--actually, Andrew Dice Clay, who
I met through the show and worked with once, would say, `What do you want to
go through therapy for? The fact that you're so screwed up in the head is why
you're funny. You know, why would you want to fix that?'

And in a way, it makes sense. I guess all comics--at least most of them that
I know--could probably use a good dose of therapy. And a lot of them are
reluctant because they feel some way maybe it'll lose their edge and their
crazy view of life and why they're funny. And that sounds a little ridiculous
to me, but maybe deep down I really do feel that way.

GROSS: Howard's been in therapy for--very intensive therapy--for a long time.

Mr. LANGE: Absolutely. But he says on the air he goes, yeah, four times a
week. That's a lot.

GROSS: Yeah, and, you know, I think about that. I think, OK, he spends most
of the day talking about himself on the show and then he goes to therapy and
talks about himself off the air.

Mr. LANGE: Yes, yes. He's interested in himself, absolutely.

GROSS: But have you seen the therapy change him? I mean, when do you look at
him, do you think, well, `Therapy takes the edge out of comedy'?

Mr. LANGE: Well, personally, I can't comment on that because I didn't know
Howard...

GROSS: Yeah, before the therapy, yeah.

Mr. LANGE: ...personally, before the therapy. As a fan of the show, it's a
much different show from years ago when he was a married guy, sort of
miserable, not in therapy, but it's just as good, but in a different way. And
I think it proves that he's just an amazing broadcaster. He could sort of get
the life he has now, you know, of a multi-multimillionaire who's an icon,
dating a gorgeous model, and living the lifestyle he lives--you know, limos
all over the place. But he's still able to relate to everybody because, you
know, he's just a brilliant communicator. It's just from a different angle
now, you know. He's saying, `Guess what guys? I used to be that guys you
could relate to, but now I'm a guy who was that guy and got all these things
that a lot of people dream of, and I'm telling you what it's like, you know
when you get it,' and...

GROSS: But in a way, it's your job now to be that guy that everybody can
relate to.

Mr. LANGE: I think--I think a lot of people think that, and that was not an
intentional thing. It's amazing. People have so many theories about the
show, like, `Oh, Howard hired you so you could be the regular guy on the show,
to relate to the regular blue-collar regular guy' and it's not that
calculated. It just turns out that I happen to be a guy who is a bit of a
blue-collar slob. And I inherited that role on the show. It's definitely,
the regular-guy sort of viewpoint is definitely what seems to be my role on
the show, but that's not an intentional thing.

GROSS: My guest is Artie Lange. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Artie Lange. He's a cast member of the "Howard Stern
Show."

One of your most famous stories from the "Howard Stern Show" is when--back
when you were a regular on "MADtv," the sketch comedy TV show...

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: ...and you were doing a lot of cocaine at the time and you were very
high and totally lacking in sleep--I think it'd been, like, four days without
sleep at this point.

Mr. LANGE: Yes.

GROSS: So the story, it's a really long and very funny kind of tragic
story...

Mr. LANGE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...about how you ended up punching one of the producers and then
fleeing from the cops, because they had called the cops on you.

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: Fleeing from the cops and then you end up punching one of the cops,
and he finds cocaine on you.

Mr. LANGE: Yes.

GROSS: So you're arrested for assaulting an officer and possessing cocaine.
OK, great story, people on "Howard Stern" really loved it. What's it like,
when you're working with Howard and Robin and, say you don't show up? Say
you--I don't know if you're still getting high, whatever. Say something not
quite as out of control like that happens in the context of their show, do
they think it's so funny?

Mr. LANGE: Well, first of all, I stopped doing cocaine. I had to. The last
time I did coke--and from going to rehab, everybody remembers dates. June the
14th, 1997, is the last hit of blow I did, thank God, because I was just
killing me. I still drink, and a lot of people say, `Well how can you do one
without the other?' I've been able to do it, thank God. And, look, I've had
coke put in my hand on the road at gigs, and I'm able to just throw it away.
I just look at it like death, the devil.

But last year, I had a lot of stress. I was traveling to promote a DVD of my
stand-up comedy, and I did six months on the road while I was doing the show
at the same time, weekend gigs. And then I was going in to shooting this film
"Beer League," and I was really, really stressed. And I was drinking a lot on
the road. And when I got back from Chicago, last June, the week after the
gig, in between the road and shooting the movie, I sort of had a breakdown to
where I couldn't get to work. And I've suffered through depressions, and I
think it all stems from addictions. I think my depression was caused by the
drugs I was using way back when, and I think the alcohol that I was consuming
on the road and, just the stress of traveling and the strain caused me to go
into this depression. I couldn't--when I go into these depressions, it's
insane. Like, people, `I get depressed sometimes, too,' but it's a different
kind of thing, and anyone who suffered from this will know what I'm talking
about.

It like, it just stays on you like a wet blanket. You physically can't move,
you're so out of it. You can't function, you can't shave, and like I went
through one of these episodes, you know, last year, and I couldn't make it to
the show for four days. Now, it was way more amplified publicly at this point
because I'm more famous now, and the Stern show is, obviously, a high-profile
thing. And in the context of the show, he just made a joke about it, you
know. It's just, it's a tragic thing, I guess, but, you know, it's a comedy
show and a lot of the material's dark and it's based on our real life, so when
I got back after missing four days, I got teased and reamed and everything
else by the callers, by him, and I never stopped it. I just took it. Because
if you take it, you're able to also dish it out. And I wanted to prove to
myself I had a thick, thick skin and could deal with it. So I dealt with it,
and after a few days it went away.

If I had told him, `Look, this is a serious issue and we shouldn't really
handle it this way on the air,' believe me, he would respect that; that's how
he is. But I never did that. I said, `To hell with it, I'm going to go in
and fess up to what happened and just deal with it,' and that's what I did,
and eventually it went away, you know?

GROSS: Well, getting back to that similarity between being on the show and
being on the therapy, although you're not in therapy, when you go through a
really bad depression like that and then you come on the show...

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: ...and everybody's kind of ribbing you for it, and you're talking
about it and they're talking about it and the callers are talking about it...

Mr. LANGE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...what does--does it help or hurt, in terms of your own emotional
inner life?

Mr. LANGE: I don't know. You see, I created a sort of a monster on the show
with this bit that I do where I go like this with--if somebody's complaining
about something, I'll say, `Wanh!' I do this thing with, you know, the whining
`Wanh' thing, and that became a bit that I did for like a year on the show.
And then, of course, as soon as I got back, the first caller hits me with,
`Wanh, I'm depressed, wanh. Wanh, I got to make a movie and I'm stressed out!
Wanh! So, and I--I mean I have created--God forbid, if I ever died, some of
these crazy fans would show up to my wake and go up to my mother and go,
`Wanh! My fat son died! Wanh!' I mean, they're--I mean, they're that nuts.

So, look, I sat there and I said to myself, `I dish it out and I got to take
this.' And I'm doing OK now. Maybe it helped, but I don't know. I've never
really figured out, in a really deep sort of thorough way what causes that in
my head. I mean, obviously, therapy would...

GROSS: I was going to point that out.

Mr. LANGE: Therapy would help that. But I'm still reluctant to go, and the
only therapy I get is on national radio, so--maybe I'm a human experiment.
We'll see if it's working or not.

GROSS: Do you ever want to say to your fans, when you're really depressed or
unhappy, if like you meet a fan on the street or something, like, `This is not
funny right now, just, like, go away'?

Mr. LANGE: Yeah, there's times I want to, but again, radio fame is such a
different kind of fame than anything else. I've been lucky enough to have
success in a lot of different areas, like movies and television. But when
you're yourself on the radio, being honest, people really feel, when they see
you, that you're their friend. You know, `This is the guy that I drive to
work with every morning, and who tells me all these crazy stories about
himself.'

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LANGE: And I love that relationship. I love it. I think it's so
special. So I treat them like a friend. If they come up to me on the street
and I'm in a little bit of a bad mood, I'll suck it up and try to be nice and
friendly and say hi the same way I would a friend. And it's weird. They know
about my life, and they ask, and a lot of times, again, they're right on the
money. They're very perceptive. And that's touching to me. It's very, it's
a unique thing. So there's times where I feel like saying something but I
don't.

GROSS: Artie Lange will be back in the second half of the show. He's a cast
member of the "Howard Stern Show" and the star of the new movie "Beer League."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of from "Howard Stern Show")

Mr. LANGE: (Singing) Yeah, you...

Mr. HOWARD STERN: Come on, Artie!

Mr. LANGE: (Singing) ...shook me all night long!

(End soundbite)

GROSS: That's Artie Lange showing off one of his lesser talents. Coming up,
we talk more about his life on and off "Howard Stern Show." And Maureen
Corrigan reviews Alice McDermott's new novel.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Artie Lange. He's a
comic and actor, best known as a cast member of the "Howard Stern Show." He
co-wrote and stars in the new movie comedy "Beer League." Let's pick up where
we left off.

You know how you were saying that you fear, like, if you were--if you died,
someone--a fan would come to your funeral and say to your mother, `Wanh! My
fat son died!' You know...

Mr. LANGE: Right, right.

GROSS: So there's actually a Web site, I know you know about this, it's
called Artie Lange death watch.

Mr. LANGE: Yes.

GROSS: And it's headlined, "We are very concerned about the health and
well-being of comedian, actor, and `Howard Stern Show' regular Artie Lange.
This site will be dedicated to monitoring changes in Artie's health, eating
habits, and general sloth." And the Web site explains that they love you.

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: They're not wishing you ill, they're just monitoring you.

Mr. LANGE: They love me, yeah.

GROSS: So what's your reaction to seeing that? Is it creepy?

Mr. LANGE: Yeah, it's a little creepy. It's a little bit of a wake-up call,
too. My mother hates it. You know, we're living in a time where, you know,
this Google thing, you meet somebody out at a bar and they immediately google
your name. And, with me, I'm thinking, like, now I might be going into the
single life again, if I meet a girl at a bar doesn't really know who I am and
googles my name, one of the first things she's going to see is a Web site
predicting my early death, the other one with a pool about when I'll die. And
that's got to freak a person out. It would freak me out. It--actually, I got
life insurance cancelled because of that Web site.

GROSS: No, really?

Mr. LANGE: Yeah, absolutely. The guy, the insurance agent, you know, did a
search for me on the Internet and saw--that's one of several Web sites that
actually...

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

Mr. LANGE: ...predict maybe an early death for me. I outlived them. I
think the earliest they had me going was 36 when I started on the show, so I'm
38 now. But what they'll do is, like, they'll come to my stand-up show and
count the drinks I had and try to see what I ate, like they'll--and like
they'll put it on the Web site. They'll say, `Look, you know, Artie had, you
know, 10 jack-and-waters at the show the other night. He had two chicken
Parmesan sandwiches and so I think, you know, this week he really put a couple
of nails in the coffin.' They'll listen to the show and hear what I ate that
morning. Sometimes Howard'll make me go over what I ate; my menu's a big
feature on the show. And they'll list it on that Web site. They'll update
it, day to day, what I ate, which is very creepy.

And, you know, what am I--we're living in the age of the Internet. Again, I
just got to deal with it. If it really bugged me, I guess I would get into
another profession, but I don't know. I guess I'm fine with it.

GROSS: Well, my theory is, when you meet women who know you that there's,
like, two main categories...

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: ...one would be, `You're a pig, I hate you,' and the other would be,
`You're really funny, I love you and I'm going to heal you, I'm going to
change you.'

Mr. LANGE: Yes.

GROSS: `No other woman could, but I will.'

Mr. LANGE: Right, I think I'm definitely, I'm a project for some women.
And, yeah, there's a lot of women out there who feel like it's a challenge,
almost, and they almost get that motherly thing where, `I can take care of
this guy and change him' and I don't know. I thought I met that woman four
years ago, but I screwed that up, I guess.

It would be...

GROSS: You're going through a break-up live on the air.

Mr. LANGE: Yes. Yes, I know. And it's very--it does, like, actually, the
last couple of days, it was really made sort of official that this is, it
looks like it's not going to--not going to continue. And I'm very sad.
Definitely hurting inside about it. And at the same time, you got to be funny
for five hours. But it's--what makes me really depressed about it is I'm
realizing that, like, if I was a better man, I think we would still be
together, maybe even married now. And I also genuinely wish her happiness.
Like, I don't think I could ever truly be happy knowing Dana was sad. So I
really do love her, but I also realize that I would just be wrong for her.
I'm not--I don't think I'm capable of changing the way she would need me to
change. And that's depressing, you know?

GROSS: My guest is Artie Lange. He's a regular on "Howard Stern Show." He's
a comic and actor, and he has a new movie that he stars in and co-wrote and
it's called "Beer League."

What are the preparations like for the show?

Mr. LANGE: The lack of preparation, early in the morning. I always thought
that, you know, Howard got there at like a quarter to 5 and got bits together
and, you know, every newspaper article he wanted to talk about was out. And
he gets a lot of that done at home through the use of a computer now with
everybody. And like the first time I showed up, I got there at 20 to 6, and
I'm sitting there, I wanted to make sure I'm early, I'm like, `Where's Howard?
Where's Howard?' He walked in at, like, three minutes to 6, said hi to me.
Gary went over a couple of minor things with him, and he went right on the
air. So I got used to that.

The preparation for me is, I mean, I have the dream job. I have no
preparation. Like, all my work is what you hear me say on the air. I'll try
to read the New York Post, page six, because that's probably the part of a
newspaper that he'll refer to the most, so I'll try to get familiar with that
real quick in the morning over a cup of coffee. And then, I--and I like it
this way, because it sounds more conversational--I genuinely have no idea what
he's going to bring up. And my job is just to roll with the punches, whatever
the subject is, and try to add humor to it. And it's been working so far. I
like the spontaneity. I don't like to be overprepared for anything.

GROSS: Let me ask you something about the show that, I just want your
impression on this. Sometimes I think that some of the more, like, homophobic
humor on the show...

Mr. LANGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and misogynist humor on the show, it's like when you're doing it on
the show, I can see you guys are really funny. And even when things rub me
the wrong way...

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: ...you're pros, you're good at what you do. You're all brilliant at
what you do. But then I wonder about the people listening who, you know, if
they think like, `Hey, it's really cool to be homophobic' or `It's like really
cool to just have girls who are strippers and to think of all girls as
strippers.' Do you worry about that at all?

Mr. LANGE: Yes, to a certain extent. I'd be lying if I said I don't worry
about it. But to me, the people you're describing are dumb people, you know.
The "Howard Stern Show" is a big hit because it entertains dumb and smart
people at the same time for the different reasons. And there's a couple shows
like that. "The Simpsons" is another one. Smart people and stupid people
love "The Simpsons" for totally different reasons. That's why it's a big hit.
Everybody's either smart or stupid. So a lot of people watch it.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LANGE: Our show, smart people and stupid people love it for different
reasons. And early on in my career, I sort of just made a commitment to
myself, I refuse to cater to stupid people. What we do on the air is just try
to be funny and hope that the smart people listen more than the dumb people.

GROSS: How do you feel about the part of the show where people become
regulars because of a physical deformity, like a mental problem.

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: You're comfortable with that part?

Mr. LANGE: You know, again, there's times where it's heartbreaking to see
some of the people come in and get on the air and speak about their lives.
And this is a very difficult subject, because the one argument is, you're
giving some sort of wonderful gift to these people that they're becoming sort
of mini-celebrities, like Beetlejuice is an example...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LANGE: ...of a guy. He's a retarded black midget who, you know, drinks
all the time and he's got bad teeth and he--I mean, the guy's a rock star. He
makes over six figures a year doing appearances because the show made him
famous. And I really think he's having a good time with it. You know, I
really--he seems happy, he seems to like the attention and all the partying
and everything, whereas without that, his life would be, you know, lonely and
pathetic and everything.

Now that's me sort of justifying what we do, you know, that's the positive
argument. He could go home and have really, really dark, dark times thinking
about, `Oh, they're laughing at me and I'm being exploited,' and, you know, he
gets paid a lot of money and there's people that handle him. They seem to be
good, honest people, and I hope that they take care of him. But look, we
don't see him 24 hours a day. He seems to be fine with it. But if I knew
that one of these people that comes on our show all the time's really hurting
about it and felt exploited and was sad, to be honest with you, that would
really make me upset. And I would question having them on again, if that were
the case. I genuinely think that the people that come on our show enjoy it,
enjoy the attention, and I think it enriches their lives that would've been,
you know, really, really, maybe boring, mundane, and, you know, for lack of a
better word, horrible without all this love. They get a lot of love.

You know, Beetlejuice, again, is a guy who was born with this deformity, but
when he walks onstage, he gets all that affection. They love him. It's like
Elvis. And I genuinely think he digs it. If I thought he didn't, it would
bug me. It really would. And I'd have to, like, I'd have to be honest about
that. I go, `look, this kid's miserable doing this. We shouldn't, you know,
have him on anymore.'

GROSS: My guest is Artie Lange. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Artie Lange. He's a cast member of the "Howard Stern
Show" and he co-wrote and stars in the new movie "Beer League." If you're just
joining us, my guest is Artie Lange. He's a regular on the "Howard Stern
Show." He's a comic and actor and he's co-written and stars in a new movie
called "Beer League."

When you were--I forget what year it was, but your father was a contractor and
he had an accident...

Mr. LANGE: He installed television antennas, yeah.

GROSS: He had an accident, he fell off the roof.

Mr. LANGE: Yes.

GROSS: And be--you know, had quadriplegia after that.

Mr. LANGE: Right.

GROSS: How did that change your life?

Mr. LANGE: Oh, God. Well, he--I mean, he was my best friend. It was the
quintessential father/son sort of American relationship. We played baseball
together and he, you know, he was everything to me and I sort of looked at him
like Superman. I mean, almost literally. I would go to him to work, and I
would go to work with him, and he would be on the roof and I thought he could
fly when I was, like, seven years old. Literally. And he fell a week after
my 18th birthday, and it was like `Here's adulthood.' Like throwing cold water
in your face.

And it changed my life in the sense that, I was a horrible student, I was
never going to go to college. I just used that as an extra reason not to go.
But I was definitely a lost soul. I knew I wanted to be a comedian, but that
seemed like a huge mountain. How was I going to make that happen? And when
he fell and we went broke, my mother, you know, he--he fell off a ladder that
he had stolen and he wasn't even using it properly, and he fell off a house
that had no homeowner's insurance, so there's always somebody to sue usually,
so at least you get a settlement. There was nobody to sue.

So we, you know, had no money saved anyway, and there were doctor bills and my
mother had to go on welfare. I remember driving my mother to the welfare
office at 18, and she was a very proud Italian woman and she hated going
through that. And my father was sitting there, he couldn't move, and I used
it as an excuse to just go into an insane downward spiral. I mean, every
self-destructive thing you can imagine. Drinking, drugs, gambling, you know,
overeating, bar fights--getting into fights with guys I knew could kick my
ass, bouncers--just because I just wanted to just get in my own dark world and
just, you know, sort of wallow in it and just escape. And that was my excuse,
that was my `wanh,' you know. It was, `My old man's a quadriplegic, so I
deserve to get drunk.' And that's when all my addictions really kicked in.

So before he fell, I really didn't have those issues. I might've been on the
road to them. After he fell, they all kicked in and I just went--it was the
four years that he lived after the accident, was--it's all a blur to me. I
can barely remember it.

GROSS: Did you take any responsibility for taking care of him?

Mr. LANGE: Well, yeah. What happened was, because we couldn't afford
24-hour nurses, Medicaid allowed for a nurse eight hours a day, and my mother
got a secretarial job. So he had to be turned every could of hours, otherwise
he'd get bad bedsores. So if I was home, hungover or something, I would turn
him and talk to him.

And we had these crazy just like one-on-one conversations when my mother was
at her job as a secretary, my sister was bartending to put herself through
college and it was just me and him in the house and he's like looking at me
like `How did I do this? What happened?' And it was just really dark,
depressing conversations. And more than once he asked me to kill him, and
that had to be, like, such a hard, you know, task, as son. He would even say
stuff like, you know, he had all these crazy pills, painkillers, which I stole
every once in a while to get high. And he would say, `Look, just leave them
on the table, I'll somehow get them in my mouth, you know, you don't have to
shoot me in the head or anything.' And that's literally what the conversations
were like for four years.

And I just stayed self-medicated and I would try to turn him when my mother
couldn't. And then I would go out at night and get drunk or whatever, and my
mother would literally have to set her alarm for every two hours to get up and
turn him, and then get up and go to work all day. So I took over some of his
accounts, installing antennas, climbing roofs, just because we needed the
money so desperately. My mother hated that. But I was capable of doing it, I
had learned how to do it through him. So I started installing antennas in the
first couple of years after he fell, just to get some immediate money. But of
course my mother was freaked out. Now I'm climbing a roof, you know.

GROSS: Right, right, right.

Mr. LANGE: So that's how I tried to help, by doing some work. But I was
basically, in those four years, no help at all. That's probably why I'm so
guilty now and I try to--I lavish my mother with everything I possibly can,
you know.

GROSS: Your father died four years after the accident.

Mr. LANGE: Yeah.

GROSS: And it was after that that you started trying out comedy?

Mr. LANGE: Yeah, the first time I ever tried it, I was 19 years old.

GROSS: So that's when he was still alive, then?

Mr. LANGE: Yes, July 12th, 1987. I'll never forget that day, because it was
the first--I had been saying to myself `I got to try this' and I officially,
got up one day, I read in the paper that the old Improv on 9th Avenue and 44th
Street was having a lottery. Like, 200 people show up, they put 10 pieces of
paper--they put a bunch of pieces of paper in a hat. If you get a piece of
paper that has a number on it, that's your number that night. So, first try,
sure enough, on my first time going--people would go constantly and never get
a number and have to come back. My first try, I get the number 10. I was
10th in a line-up of 12 guys. I had to go back that night. And I had just
told my mother and father that I was going to try to do it. I took my
father's handicap van into New York, I parked it on 9th Avenue. I was afraid
it was going to get towed. I went into Milford Plaza and tried out five
minutes of stuff that I had prepared in my head and I went up and bombed
miserably.

But I was proud of myself that I actually did it, you know. So I went home
and told them about it, but I had bombed so bad it intimidated me and I didn't
try it again for another four years, until after he died. So I tried it once
while he was still alive and it was a bad experience. Then I went back into
the booze, wallowing, I was like, `God, this dream of mine didn't work out.
Now what am I going to do?' I did it once and I thought I just would always
suck, when everybody sucks the first time.

And it took him dying for me to really go, `I'm going to try this again. I'll
give it one more shot.' So, almost in honor of his memory, `I'm going to give
it another shot.' And it felt better that time. And at a lack of anything
else to do, I just kept going back.

GROSS: Do you think your mother's surprised at how you turned out? I mean,
how successful you are.

Mr. LANGE: I think my mother, in a lot of ways, is surprised I'm alive, much
less successful. She always had confidence in me. She was never this
old-fashioned sort of Italian mother, who would say, `No, that's too much of a
risk; get some sort of steady work.' Because I worked as--my friend got me a
job as a longshoreman right after my father had passed away, unloading ships
at the port in Newark. And that's a great job if you didn't go to college.
You can make, you know, 80 grand a year with overtime. And I quit. I saved
up a few grand and I quit to try comedy. Now, a lot of mothers would've
went--especially old-school Italian mothers--be like, `Don't quit this job!
It's such a great job!' She was never like that. She was like, `This is your
dream. I believe in you. Go try it.' So I think she always knew I had it in
me, but the level of success I've had, maybe she didn't, you know, sort of
predict that, because I've been very luck, you know.

GROSS: Well, Artie, it's been great to talk with you. Thanks so much.

Mr. LANGE: Thanks. I hope this was all right. I feel like--in this
atmosphere, you really do, you even pour your heart out more than on Stern,
because there's just two people. It's like a one-on-one. It really does feel
like a shrink session. But this was...

GROSS: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Mr. LANGE: So this--no, it's good.

GROSS: So you going to go into therapy now?

Mr. LANGE: Maybe. Maybe I'll just keep coming here every day. We can do
this. Thank you very much, Terry. This was...

GROSS: Thank you very much.

Mr. LANGE: ...a lot of fun. Thank you.

GROSS: Artie Lange is a cast member of the "Howard Stern Show." He co-wrote
and stars in the new movie "Beer League."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Alice McDermott's new novel. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan on the new book "After This" by Alice
McDermott
TERRY GROSS, host:

Writer Alice McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998 for her novel
"Charming Billy." McDermott has just brought a new novel called "After This,"
and book critic Maureen Corrigan says that it's a stunner.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Critics have genuflected before Alice McDermott by likening her to James
Joyce. Both writers take up Irish-Catholics as their subjects, even if
McDermott's are a generation or two removed from the old sod. And both
writers are poets who share a particular genius for evoking mood and worldview
in a few quick strokes.

Apt as that comparison is, however, there are ones closer to home that make
just as much sense--to American masters of people and place, like William
Faulkner and Philip Roth. McDermott's latest novel, called "After This,"
particularly brings to mind an Irish-Catholic version of Roth's epic of the
1960s, "American Pastoral"--the self-deprecating humor, the guilt, the earnest
struggle to stake out their peaceful slice of suburbia on the edges of a
roiling New York City. Roth's New Jersey Jews and McDermott's Long Island
Irish-Catholics have a lot in common.

But enough with comparisons to the big boys of literature, for in "After
This," an astonishing novel, McDermott takes off the ladylike white gloves and
demonstrates that she's no longer acting like a nice, Irish-Catholic girl
who's going to be flattered by inclusion with the towering likes of Joyce,
Faulkner, or Roth. Instead, she's giving these guys a real run for their
money. The difference between "After This" and McDermott's earlier books is
not a matter of literary quality--McDermott has always been a breathtaking,
lyrical writer--but of ambition.

In this novel, McDermott tackles recent American history and indirectly gives
pronouncements on sweeping social changes that rip through even small lives.
The small lives under scrutiny here are those of the Keane family, John and
Mary and their four children, who live in a tightly-knit Catholic neighborhood
on Long Island. Without melodrama, McDermott depicts the ruptures in the
Keane's coherent lives caused first by the memories of the Depression and
World War II, and then in dizzying succession, Vatican Council II, the Vietnam
War, the second women's movement, and the legalization of abortion, urban
decay, and even globalization.

McDermott doesn't plod through these events. Rather, she invokes them in
chapters that could almost stand as individual short stories because of their
intensity and quick, dramatic turns. With wry humor, McDermott plants a
metaphor for the ultimate transformation these historical events and social
changes will wreak on the Keane family. Midway through the book, she
describes a fund-raising effort to build a new church for St. Gabriel's
Parish. Replacing the dark, incense-filled church will be a futuristic
structure, informed by the democratic impulses of Vatican II, a church in the
round like a spaceship. For better and for worse, that's what the '60s do to
the Keane family and their friends: loosen the ties to their faith-bound
lives, send them hurtling, weightless, into space.

What keeps us readers tethered to the story is McDermott's great gift for
evoking ordinary working people, whose reticent demeanors cloak
thoughtful--and sometimes tortured--inner lives. Mary Keane, a single woman
of 30 when the novel begins a few years after World War II, has a girlfriend
in her office typing pool named Pauline. Pauline is fated to be the spinster
honorary aunt to the family Mary goes on to have. And in a phrase, McDermott
captures a whole personality type, when she remarks about Pauline that "she
was self-effacing, but that she also wanted the attention such generous
self-effacement surely earned her."

Similarly, McDermott summons up a lost world of manners when she depicts how
Mary, gasping in the throes of premature childbirth on her living room couch,
turns her head to greet an unexpected visitor stepping through the front door.
"It was simply what you did," writes McDermott. "You made conversation in
elevators, complimented small children in strollers, looked up from your
magazine to greet the stranger who took the seat beside you on a bus. You
said with simple friendliness, `That's a lovely hat,' or, `Isn't it cold?'
because it was another way of saying, `Here we are, all of us, more or less in
the same boat.' It was the habit of friendliness, a lifetime of it."

I wish I could quote this whole novel, to have the pleasure of immediately
rereading it again, especially to catch the foreshadowing remarks and images I
surely missed the first time around. "After This" begins with a doozy of such
a foreshadowing scene: the 30-year-old Mary Keane in church on her lunch
hour, despairing of finding a husband, praying to God to at least grant her
contentment. That seems at first like a humble prayer a good Catholic would
utter, but by the end of this splendid novel about the world turned upside
down, it seems like way too much to ever have asked for.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "After This" by Alice McDermott.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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