Artie Lange vs. Political Correctness
In his own words, Artie Lange feels like he’s “finally back in the mainstream again.” He’s sober, focused, and currently riding a wave of positive fan feedback after many of his classic bits were recently revisited during Howard Stern’s ten-year Sirius anniversary retrospective. He’s got a growing podcast, a third book on the way, and a role in an upcoming Judd Apatow-directed HBO pilot. Tonight also marks the Showtime premiere of The Nasty Show hosted by Artie Lange, a standup special recorded at last year’s Just for Laughs. I had in-depth conversation with Lange about his time on the Stern show, political correctness and his current mental and physical health.
In the world of podcasting so many people release their content for free. You decided to go the subscription route. Why did you decide to go with the subscription model and is it working out?
I wanted to do it for money. I’ve always had a job where I make good money as a base and then do standup as well. The last job I had was in mainstream radio and I hated having to hit eight minute posts and be censored. I did research and talked to people who said that nobody is really doing subscriptions, but that I was one of the people who might be able to get away with making money the subscription way because I have a hardcore following. The Stern fans are hardcore and they might want to pay. I wanted to be completely uncensored without advertisers giving me notes. A bunch of people on the internet were like, “Nobody will pay for a podcast.” But I talked to some people about pricing and they said $7-$10 a month. I made it $7. Right now, after about a year, 7,000 people have signed up and it’s growing. I got 7,000 people to pay for it with no advertising. Do the math. That’s $49 grand a month. I have about $100 grand in overhead, so I’m making about $400 grand a year from it. The world of advertising will say that 7,000 listeners is an insane failure. But for me, it’s an insane success. I do that, standup, and some acting work and it’s a great life. Very casual. I’ve never been this relaxed in my life. I’ve never had a bigger blast and I’ve never been personally this funny on the radio. The fans love it. Because I have a following from Stern… I put in my work. I did the Stern show for almost 10 years. That’s where I earned my money. I earned a following of people who said, “Hey, we’ll pay to hear Artie.” I take that very seriously.
Your fan base is incredibly rabid. I noticed that a lot of people tweet at you with their favorite Artie moments from the Stern show. It’s the same way people watch Seinfeld reruns. They go back and listen with a sense of nostalgia. It made some kind of connection with them.
It’s insane. They replay my stuff a lot because it’s by request. I’m very flattered. I didn’t even know Howard was doing it. There has been ten years of Sirius. I was only on the first four. They send me clips of the bits, some I even forgot I did. I get emotional. People say, “This got me through a hard time,” or “The last time my father laughed was at you telling a story about this.” It’s very touching. This past weekend especially was very emotional for me how much it meant to them. I tweeted out… I tried to think of something a little more poignant than just, “Thank you.” I remembered this story from when I was 24 years old. I missed the last train back to Jersey because I did standup late. I was broke and I had to sleep on Penn Station floor. There were homeless people around me. The next train wasn’t until five in the morning. So from 1:30 to 5 a.m. I slept on Penn Station’s floor. As I was going to sleep on a coffee cup I remember saying to myself, “I hope this is worth it someday.” If I went back to that 24-year-old kid and showed him everything, I think we would agree it was worth it. I enjoy the connection. All a comedian wants to do is connect with their audience and I’ve been able to do that. I’m very lucky.
You mentioned that one of the reasons you like doing your podcast uncensored and ad-free is that you can get away with whatever you want and that you’re funnier because of it. Last month you posted an article from the Washington Post on your Facebook page called “Is Howard Stern Going Soft or Just Getting Sharper?” You didn’t provide any commentary with that post. What do you think about the show now compared to when you were on it?
I think the show it’s totally different. It’s obvious. Howard thinks that too. But I don’t look at it as a negative. Again, I appreciate the fans who miss the humor I represented on the show. I benefitted from it and am trying to benefit from it in the sense that people need an alternative. I’m doing a podcast that represents the old show. That’s the humor I’m going to give them. I’m not capable of anything else. Howard is doing more mainstream interviews and I think that’s what he wants. Howard conquered radio with the crazy comedy that we used to do. I think he realized what everybody had been telling him: he’s an amazing interviewer. I think he made a conscious decision — and I think America’s Got Talent was a part of this — to make himself very mainstream, very celebrity-friendly. Not the guy who Brad Pitt would be afraid to come on and talk to because he would ask who he’s banging, but the guy who they would feel safe talking to and who would do an interview no one else does. I think me leaving might have kickstarted that. I wouldn’t fit into the show now. He interviewed Gwyneth Paltrow in the last couple of years. No one in Gwyneth Paltrow’s life is going to let me within a foot of her. Everything is a perfect storm. He really tried hard to make politically correct changes, like changing Gary the Retard to Gary the Conqueror. To me, he went a little over the top with the PC stuff. But he did it in a very conscious way and more mainstream guests have poured in. I think in the next five years he’s probably going to leave behind the greatest library of celebrity interviews ever. I think it shows another side of his talent that is amazing. Fans are going to miss the other part, obviously. But Howard’s an evolving artist and that’s what he did. I don’t criticize him for it.
You’ve run into issues with political correctness. You attempt to be funny and do humor the way you think it should be done, but sometimes people call you out on things. You’ve been man enough to admit when you’re wrong, but you stand by a lot of controversial stuff too. Where do you think comedy is right now in terms of political correctness?
Comedy is at a crossroads. There are people from my generation, like Dave Attell, who came up 20 years ago. We toured together and still do the material we want to do. But young kids in their 20’s and early 30’s — millennials, some call them — they’re uptight and they don’t know how to laugh. They don’t know what a sense of humor is. It’s very scary. Seinfeld made the point that they use words without knowing the context of the word. If you mention a race they think it’s hate speech. They moan. I do this thing now — you get bored after 25 years of comedy — where I try to offend them. I get mad at them and try to teach them, like, “Guys, we’re at a comedy club. It’s almost midnight. Let’s act like adults. You should want me to be dangerous onstage.” When they moan I’m like, “I’m trying to teach you something. If you can’t have a sense of humor you’re going to be uptight 24/7 and that ain’t good.” It’s not good for creativity. It’s great that words like “fag” and the n-word aren’t used in life that much any more. Those are terrible, tragic words. A lot of people heard those words right before they died.
Life gets better because of political correctness, but comedy takes a hit. You should be able to talk about anything if used in the right context and if you make it funny. Society needs a sense of humor to live and go forward. But sometimes in a joke you need to say the full, offensive word to make the impact of the joke work. There’s a routine I do and I refuse to change it. There’s a part of the joke where I have to say “nigger,” otherwise it’s not going to work. If you listen to the context of it, I’m making fun of the fact that it’s such a harsh word and I’m showing you it. I say, “Midgets all-out complain in this society. Which means you guys are really sweet. When I was young nobody let them say anything. But you guys let them complain. But you have to choose what you complain about. I saw a midget on TV saying, ‘Calling a little person a midget is the same thing as calling a black man the n-word.’ I thought that was interesting, so I went out one day and tried both things to see if they were the same. I found a random little person and I said, ‘Hey, midget!’ I found a random black man and I said, ‘Hey, nigger!’ It turns out there’s a huge difference. One will get you smacked in the shins and the other will get you locked in the trunk of an Impala. The lesson here people is never ever call a black man the n-word … unless they’re a midget.” That’s the whole joke. I love that joke because it gets big laughs in a few different areas. At the end they think I’m giving in to them by ending with the positive message to never call a black man the n-word, but then I pause and say, “Unless they’re a midget” and the room loses it. To make the joke work I have to say “midget.” And after I find the random guys, after I say “midget,” I have to say “nigger.” I have to say it because I’m arguing the point that when you hear the two side-by-side you hear how way more offensive the n-word is. It’s startlingly offensive and it makes my joke better. It gives me hope because in the right context people will laugh at something like that.
This is a good segue into The Nasty Show. It premieres Friday on Showtime and was recorded at Just for Laughs in Montreal. The teasers say it’s the most shocking comedy show ever produced. Is that true? Will it maybe get people talking about some of the stuff we’re discussing?
I headlined all two weeks up there and they’re always shocking and great. It’s me, Gilbert [Gottfried] and other guys who are a little older who came up and can do mostly anything. We go there. I think at the end I actually do that bit I just told you. I joke about bestiality, homophobia, racism, homeless people. I let loose. It’s funny in an adult way. It’s funny in that people can live vicariously through us. “Be edgy. Be dangerous. We can’t.” That’s what comedy should be and I think the show represents that.
How are you doing with your sobriety? How are you holding up physically and mentally?
I feel like I’m finally back in the mainstream again. I was there doing a lot of great stuff. My demons almost killed me. It took a few years to get back. I feel like everything’s good. The sobriety is a struggle every day, but I’m doing very well. Mentally I’m thinking very clearly. I’ve never been so productive. While I was in L.A. shooting a show I had a physical and got a clean bill of health. I guess somebody up there likes me.