The Magazine

No Laughing Matter

The less you know the funnier he is.

Mar 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24 • By ZACK MUNSON
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Too Fat to Fish
by Artie Lange
Spiegel & Grau,
320 pp., $24.95

 

Our societal obsession with celebrity life is now reaching epidemic proportions, and Artie Lange's well-titled Too Fat to Fish plays to that obsession, raising the age-old question: What is wrong with show people, comedians in particular? This book specifically leaves one asking: Who cares?

Too Fat keeps fairly well to the formulaic script of the comedian autobiography: heartfelt childhood memories of quirky family members; tales of women and partying on the road to fame and fortune; a self-flagellating attempt to atone for sins that led to a fall from grace. But the combination of terrible writing and an obnoxious subject makes this an unpleasant and unenlightening read.

Lange starts out innocently enough, describing his childhood in New Jersey. As a baby, Lange was used as a prop by a mob lawyer at his father's trial for harboring the mob's counterfeit money. As a toddler he was used by his father as bait to meet Frankie Valli. In celebration after the Yankees won the World Series, the elder Lange tossed 10-year-old Artie over the wall behind home plate and into the pandemonium on the field at Yankee Stadium.

Reading that anecdotal inventory, you might think that Too Fat to Fish is interesting and amusing. It isn't. The stories are told in an awkward, talky fashion. They're peppered with unnecessary profanity and odd non sequiturs. Lange rambles through each chapter, clumsily laying out his life's story. He uses the quasi-conversational tone of a stand-up comedian, filling page after page with sentence fragments, odd syntax, unnecessary detail, stray thoughts, and some just plain weird writing.

For instance, reflecting on his desire to be a comedian, he declares, "Historically, a successful life in comedy is a dream that's as pondered and unpursued as a career as an astronaut." He drops f-bombs galore. He makes a number of pedestrian observations about life and its lessons. His meditation on childhood, for example, goes quickly from banal to profane, and back again, in four sentences:

I think most people's happiest times occur when they're children. Whether you're rich or poor, we're all kids for a while; it's an experience we all share. From six to 15, nothing means s--t no matter how you grow up; we are basically carefree. That is why the most despicable crime in the world is for an adult to abuse a child mentally or physically.

In the World Series story, we are treated to this stellar commentary:

Rich people know how to relax. That's all they do growing up, relax. I wish my mother knew how to relax because now I have the money to let her take it easy. I wish she liked tennis or golf. Maybe skiing or world travel. Unfortunately she doesn't. My mother likes cleaning tables with Pledge. If I'm ever blessed with a child, I'm going to encourage that child to take it slow. I'd like to see someone in my family f--ing relax! Even if it's 30 years from now.

Too Fat to Fish reads as if Lange, high on Johnnie Red and whimsy, dictated it one night and sent it directly to press unedited. This leaves a reader to wonder what role Anthony Bozza, Lange's credited ghostwriter, played in the process. Then there is the matter of Lange himself. After a few years of doing stand-up in New York, he was plucked from obscurity and cast on Fox's MADtv. He did one season before being sent to rehab. When he tried to come back for a second season, he fell off the wagon and was fired almost immediately.

Like so many comedians, Lange has lived hard, and he relates a number of stories chronicling his excesses. He destroys an expensive prosthetic mask on the set of MADtv to get cocaine up his nose. To ensure that no one near him finds out about his addiction, he drives three hours to Delaware a few times a week to buy heroin. A prostitute he meets in a bar saves him from a violent, angry drug dealer. One night, having run out of cocaine, he attempts suicide but is saved by a friend from the MADtv cast.

And on and on it goes. Lange reflects on the numerous managers who no longer work with him (some of whom he assaulted with produce in a grocery store at the tail end of one bender). He wonders why he hasn't spoken to MADtv castmate Orlando Jones in 12 years, and then describes how he terrorized the entire cast for a year and a half. He makes the obligatory trips to rehab, and prattles on about addiction and depression in Oprah-like language like this:

My depression felt like a wet blanket over me, keeping me from getting out of bed. .  .  . Looking back a year later, I could see that I was definitely clinically depressed--I'd just self-medicated with mountains of coke.

And yet, somehow, Lange soldiers on, landing gig after gig: a role in a Norm MacDonald movie, Dirty Work; a development deal from 20th Century Fox, a permanent home on Howard Stern's radio show.

The truth is, Lange is funny. Just watch him in Dirty Work, or on MADtv, or as a guest on any talk show. And he has amassed a following on Howard Stern. But he is also a that guy--"Oh, that guy"--so do we need to know about his first experience with a hooker? Or the time he defecated in his motel bed? Is all this really necessary?

Lange professes great admiration for another troubled comic, admitting, "I can only dream of being as funny as Chris f--ing Farley." Farley had a small role in Dirty Work, and Lange calls Farley's death a "wake-up call," saying: "I couldn't believe it. I'd just done a movie with him, and he was so vibrant and alive. And drugs took all that away from him. I got the message all right."

Since Lange developed a heroin addiction soon after Farley's death, it is unclear exactly what message he, in fact, received. And as interesting as it might sometimes be to ponder why so many entertainers live (and sometimes die) in this squalid and demented way, a book like this raises another question entirely: Is there any reason we should be privy to their excesses and failures, their most intimate and disturbing peccadilloes, simply because they make us laugh?

Zack Munson is a writer in Washington.