Saturday, December 29, 2007

A League of His Own

Stern Sidekick Artie Lange Goes To Bat In Beer League

Artie Lange is tired. He's near the end of a multi-city tour promoting his new movie, Beer League, a comedy about a misfit New Jersey softball league, which opens here Friday. Over coffee — "regulah cawfee, with cream," in the deep Jersey patois familiar to listeners of the Howard Stern Show, where he's a been a cast member since 2001 — Lange muses on the strange path that led to a success he never expected and still can't quite believe.

Lange, 38, has bared the unflattering details of his personal history on the show, where confession is the stuff of high comedy: his teenage arrest for attempted bank robbery (meant as a joke to impress a cute teller); a jail term for cocaine possession; and what he calls "the worst day of my life," when he passed out and defecated in his bed after a cocaine binge in L.A. while dressed as a pig for a MadTV sketch. "If it's true that you learn from your mistakes, I should be Einstein by now."

His early life was marked by misfortune, followed by a descent into a lengthy debauch. "I got dealt a couple of bad cards, but a lot of the other stuff that happened was all my fault," he admits. When Lange was 18, his father, a contractor, fell off a roof and became a quadriplegic. "We didn't have any money and we went on welfare. I could've dealt with it a lot better. I got very self-destructive, made my mother's life worse, and did a lot of stupid things."

He was an indifferent student, but he did excel at baseball, and one year was named All County third baseman. "I played one year in a semi-pro league in Jersey, and I realized I wasn't gonna be Derek Jeter." He worked odd jobs, including as a longshoreman and a cab driver, and honed his standup act. In 1995 he landed a role on the sketch comedy show MadTV. A bit on the Norm MacDonald sitcom Norm and parts in movies like Dirty Work, The Bachelor and Mystery Men followed. Beer League, which Lange co-wrote and co-produced, is his first leading role.

Like much of Lange's comedy, the movie was inspired by personal experience. "I played softball in these 'beer leagues' around Jersey, this drunken craziness. I played on one league in Union, New Jersey and — what idiots on the town council okayed this, I don't know — every base was a quarter keg of beer, and you had a cup in your back pocket, and if you got on base, you filled up. Eventually, the town hadda stop it because by the second inning people were drunk, throwing fungo bats, kids were crying..."

That's the nutty, profane world Lange and his co-writer and the film's director, Frank Sabastiano, tried to capture in Beer League. Lange plays Artie DeVanzo, an unemployed loser whose softball team faces down a rival team and whose drunken partying nearly costs him his girlfriend (Cara Buono). "The women in our lives are married to these retards who take softball way too seriously," Lange explains. "And they look at us as the idiots we are."

Acting in movies is a thrill, he says, but it was the Stern show that made him a recognizable celebrity. "People treat you like their friend," he says. "There's nothing cooler than putting a mic in front of your face, and just talking off the top of your head. My proudest moment is when I'm able to be funny with Howard, this guy who was my hero, and we're in the zone. It's like playing one-on-one basketball with Jordan."

He wearily acknowledges that his best-known catchphrase, "WAAAH!" a wail of mock sympathy when someone calls the Stern show with a hard-luck story, may be a liability. "I created a monster. I can see if I died, crazy Stern fans showing up at my wake and going up to my crying mother: "WAAAH! My fat son died.'"

Exposing his personal failings on the air was a conscious decision, despite his agent's warnings that it might cost him endorsements. "I said, the hell with it, I'm just gonna be funny and honest, the way Richard Pryor was. I have a lot of fucked-up stories, and you might as well turn that into a positive and make people laugh.

"I think people love flawed people; they love a loser. And that's why they like me." He laughs darkly. "I'm very flawed."

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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