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Troubled clown

Artie Lange, a Howard Stern fixture and new author, is loved by many. This suicidally sad drug addict is not one of them.

Comedian and actor Artie Lange poses for photographers during red-carpet arrivals at the inaugural Howard Stern 2006 Film Festival. Lange's new book reveals another side to the funnyman. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)
Comedian and actor Artie Lange poses for photographers during red-carpet arrivals at the inaugural Howard Stern 2006 Film Festival. Lange's new book reveals another side to the funnyman. (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)Read more

'He's so cute," shouts Marisa Rosenstock, a 25-year-old student from Center City. "I love him so much."

"I wouldn't miss a second of him," says Courtney Ray, a 24-year-old merchandiser from Norristown.

They, along with more than 600 others - Rocky Balboa impersonators included - are swooning over the best-selling author. But it's not Malcolm Gladwell or John Grogan they've come to see.

Despite warnings from security not to touch the star, the throng strains to touch, hug, kiss.

This glamorous crowd-pleaser is . . . the antithesis of glamour himself, comedian Artie Lange.

Lange, 42, is the Jersey native whose self-deprecating, no-brow stand-up humor has brought him success in television (MADtv), film (Beer League, Dirty Work), and radio (The Howard Stern Show). But devout fans of Lange's - and, now, readers of his new book, Too Fat to Fish - know another side of him: a self-destructive soul riddled by sadness, prone to violence and addicted to cocaine and, most recently, heroin. Written with Rolling Stone scribe Anthony Bozza, Too Fat shows off a theology of addiction that would rival William S. Burroughs.

"Honesty is the trait I admire most. And addicts are rarely honest," Lange says after the reading last fall at Barnes & Noble at 18th and Walnut Streets. "So the more an addict can show how they go through life and relate to people - that's what you hope can help somebody, that truthfulness."

Lange became a beloved Stern fixture for both his gut-busting humor and his heroin-induced nod-offs. He doesn't always play the game. He quit the show in April after an on-air punch-up with his assistant, Teddy Microphone, and then he returned, unrepentant.

A wit in the crowd yells "R.D. Laing," the name of the far-famed pop psychologist, and the unshaven Lange - resplendent in mirror sunglasses and green military jacket - sasses back, "I'm not that guy." Or maybe it was "I'm not that good," which would fit with much of what Lange says and writes about himself.

"It's funny. I've loved the mythology surrounding authors and addiction. . . . Maybe that's just a good way of justifying what I do, though. I dig hearing about how [William] Faulkner drank until he passed out, only to wake and drink again. He could drink and think about the creative process. My great depression comes in that I'm only the addict part. Not the genius part."

Tell Lange he's modest - or say, as many have, that his self-authored stand-up skits or his improvisational bits on Stern's show are bold and original - and he brushes you off. Lange sees himself as irredeemable, a loser who couldn't possibly have imagined himself at any such heights.

To read Too Fat, Lange's mom, Judy, still thinks so. So did his dad, Arthur Lange Sr.

His happy family life with supportive, working-class Italian American parents in Union, N.J., is the genuine heart of Too Fat. "It was definitely an ideal childhood that I had," says Lange. He played near-pro baseball, worked with his dad's contracting business, and considered his folks his best pals. "Being a kid was sheer bliss, as a matter of fact. I had the type of great parents that few people in showbiz were used to. It was fantastic, which is why I was so devastated when he fell."

The centerpiece of Lange's life and his book is the 1985 accident in which his father fell off a roof, broke his back and became quadriplegic; he died of an infection 4½ years later. Artie never really recovered, either.

"That accident was Armageddon for me and my family," he says. "That's when the bad stuff started happening." The "bad stuff" included a fast, hard introduction to heavy drugs and an arrest for a prank gone wrong - a bank robbery that started as a flirtation with the teller. But good stuff soon followed. Inspired by stand-up comic Richard Lewis (another comedian with substance-abuse demons), Lange started his comedy career.

By 1995 Lange had landed a role on Fox's MADtv sketch comedy show and shot to fame, which brought both uproarious happiness and desperate misery, enough to do something he's never publicly revealed until this book: He attempted suicide. "It wasn't a half-assed attempt - it was real," he says, with a look straight in the eye. Lange failed to die only because fellow MADtv cast members found him and rushed him to the hospital.

"When I wrote it in the book, I thought it'd be therapeutic," says Lange. "But that's a day-to-day thing. Some days I really regret writing it down, you know?"

If Lange has doubts about his comedy or his self-worth, his awareness of his loyal fans and millions of Stern aficionados helps keep him sane, he says. And he loves every minute.

"This adoration, I think, is something Howard's created," Lange says. "It's not like being on a show where you play a character. I've done that, and people know you from those shows and they like seeing you.

"But people are happier to see the folks who surround Stern. They want to buy me dinner. And getting the chance to talk as myself on the air? I cherish those relationships with the fans."

Lange is serious as he says that, as if touched by the show of affection shown toward him on this night. "I love that . . . seriously."

If only Artie Lange would learn to love himself.