Given the amount of personal information he’s spilled on the radio over the years, avid listeners of “The Howard Stern Show” probably know more about the private life of cast member/comedian Artie Lange than most of their close friends and relatives.
A natural-born storyteller, Lange has entertained audiences with tales of his growing up in blue-collar New Jersey, stint as a longshoreman, the tragic story of his father, and -- most frequently -- his bouts with depression, substance abuse (booze, pills, coke, heroin), and, uh, a penchant for hookers.
In Too Fat to Fish, the title taken from his mother’s admonition, Artie Lange recounts his life and initial efforts to break into stand-up comedy, which led to a stint as an original cast member of Mad TV, appearances in movies, and finally a permanent chair in the Stern show studio in 2001. That the text swings wildly across a range of emotions is keeping in perfect synch with the many moods of its author.
The most moving chapters are the ones in which Lange remembers the story of his father. The charming, strapping, sports-minded Jersey boy was the ultimate hero to young Artie. But a fall from a roof while working a construction job left him a paraplegic for the last several years of his life. He eventually died when Lange was a teen, and the huge hole left continues to rip at the son decades later.
The incident is frequently brought up as the starting point for Lange’s years-long dissolution into drugs, drink and gambling, and indeed at times Too Fat to Fish veers from a comic memoir to harrowing tale of addiction. And in fact, even since the book’s completion, Lange entered rehab yet again for heroin. He says he’s clean now, perhaps finally realizing he should avoid the fate of two similarly corpulent comic heroes, John Belushi and Chris Farley.
Still, time and time again in the book Lange recounts how he almost dies or blows a huge career deal because of his own behavior and demons. Yet he never learns, and its even become part of his self-deprecating I’m-gonna-slam-myself-before-you-can persona. A photo of his mother in the book has the cutline “The proud mother of a future fat heroin addict.”
That’s seen in the book’s most famous tale, in which a jonesing Lange goes off to score cocaine on the set of Mad TV while in complete costume as a lifeguard pig for a combined parody of the movie Babe and the TV show Baywatch. That Lange was snorting the stuff through a full-on prosthetic pig nose at stoplights in L.A. makes it only more surreal.
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Surprisingly, even though Stern listeners (the prime target audience for the book) are already familiar with many of these tales, Lange infuses enough additional details to make them interesting again. Prosewise, he does have a particular style for setting a scene. So when he goes to meet an angry bookie in the back booth at a remote McDonald’s about a friend’s gambling debt, you can almost smell the greasy fries cooking.
Too Fat to Fish mostly skips over any stories or anecdotes that directly deal with his time since being on the Stern show and the move to the uncensored realm of Sirius satellite radio. It’s material he is probably saving up for the already-greenlighted sequel.
Calling himself “the fan who won the lottery,” Lange’s working-class, decidedly un-PC outlook, and commitment to Bacchanalian enjoyment is what makes him the most identifiable cast member to the average listener. And while Too Fat to Fish may have limited appeal to those not already familiar with the life and comedy of Artie Lange, it is—like its author—raw, funny, and best experienced with a glass of Jack Daniels close by.
-- Bob Ruggiero