On HBO’s Crashing, star and creator Pete Holmes plays a fictionalized version of himself: A straight-laced rookie comedian who ends up both heartbroken and homeless when his wife leaves him for another man. Pete finds himself relying on the kindness of a succession of real-life stand-ups, particularly Artie Lange. Like a potty-mouthed Yoda, the one-time Howard Stern Show fixture and original MADtv cast member becomes an unlikely mentor to the former aspiring youth pastor. It’s a perfect role for larger-than-life Lange, who’s as well acquainted with the highs of comedy stardom as he is with the lows—he’s survived drug addiction, alcoholism, and two suicide attempts.
We caught up with the legendary comic about the wisdom of executive producer Judd Apatow, the unparalleled humiliation of barking for stage time, and the types of people you least expect to have sex with wild boars. (You never can be sure.)
What’s the hardest thing about playing yourself?
It’s me. Unfortunately. [Laughs.] Playing myself is like a therapy session, going back over all that. The second episode is very, very much based on something that happened to me. Pete’s character is based on an assistant I had that I told he could open for me if he keeps me away from drugs. The girl who was really involved, trying to give me drugs, is the girl Gina Gershon plays. And she was unbelievably great. I think if that girl from Albany ever sees the episode, she’s going to really like the casting. She’s actually nice, but god, what a crazy night.
That’s great. So, specifically because they know your story, they thought, “Oh, let’s use this real thing that happened to Artie?”
Yeah. You know, it was interesting, the audition was for a totally different character. It was for a fictitious character. And it just had two lines, it was going to be in the pilot. And out of respect for HBO and Pete Holmes, that was great, but the thing that pushed it over the line was that it was Judd. So I said out of respect for Judd, I’ll go over there and audition. The first audition was just Pete, and it went very well, and the next audition was with Judd and Pete. I had looked at the script, and Judd encourages improvising, so I just kind of got an outline in my head of what they wanted to do. Then the greatest thing in the world happened that gave me a leg up on the competition.
In the beginning, Judd said, “Forget the script. I’ll throw out some stories from your book [Too Fat to Fish, Lange’s 2008 memoir].” So I’m improvising about me. It was just the easiest experience, and then Pete is such a good improvisational actor, and comic. And me and him are so different. Me and him look at each other like we’re zoo animals. [Laughs.]
And it worked. By the end of the first week, going back and forth, the character had become Artie Lange. I was a regular on the show and the name of the first episode was “Artie Lange.” That’s called winning the comedy lottery.
I really love the scene in the pizza place where you give it to Pete straight about pursuing a career in comedy. Can you tell me about what shooting that was like?
I’ve got to tell you, this is where Judd just sort of had great instincts with what I could do. He knew I could do things I didn’t even think I could do.
Just as we sat down and we had the script in front of us—you know, you want to respect these guys, they wrote the script. We had four cameras going, and out of the blue, Judd said, “Art, listen, just forget the script. Just look at Pete. Here’s a young comic, just starting out—just tell him what he’s going to face, maybe, if he’s going to be a comedian. Tell him about the life offstage, onstage, tell him about your demons and everything.” Whoa. And the people on the crew who kind of knew my life started giggling. [Laughs.] I’m the Babe Ruth of demons.
And there’s something about Pete. Like, his face. It’s almost like Opie. You want to help him. And you want to say, “Look, pal, if you stay here, this could happen to you. Maybe you should go home and work at a gift shop or something.” I’ve done that for some comics, I’ve done similar things. Maybe not as negative, but I’ve let it loose on people.
I know what you mean about his face.
Yeah. Like, I want to help you, but Jesus. You look like you’re eight years old.
Pete’s character is not what we usually expect from a comedian—somebody from a very religious background, a spiritual guy. Have you met many comics like that?
Well, comics, if they’re religious, it’s usually the Satanic bible. [Laughs.] Look, there’s some that look like that, like they might be that clean-cut guy. Oh, they don’t drink. Oh, they don’t do drugs. Oh, they don’t, like, womanize. And all of a sudden [they’ll say,] “Sometimes I like to fly to Brazil and I have sex with wild boars.” There’s always some crazy thing about them, like, whoa, what are you doing? “Before I have sex I dress up like a chicken.” You learn something crazy.
When I think of shows about comedians, I think of Seinfeld or Louie, where they’re already successful. I love that Crashing is like, “This is such a shitty life for so long.” I was curious, especially as someone who came up in New York and in New Jersey, what do you think they got right about the life of an early comic?
Well, you know, you say “the road” and sometimes you can even make that sound romantic and glamorous, but it’s not that way. You’re bringing the audience sometimes. You’re told to bring people. This club owner on the Upper West Side, I told him that my really close uncle had died, just making conversation. And he goes, trying to be supportive, “Maybe I’ll stop by the funeral.” And I said, “Well, you’ve got to bring three people.”
That was so embarrassing. You realize they’re just using you as a pawn. And I don’t think there’s ever really been a show that’s shown that aspect of it. And then of course, a lot of times they make you go out and they call it “barking.” They literally call it something as obnoxious as “barking.” Come see comedy. Come see comedy. Now in my life, when I see somebody at that stage and they bark at me and they recognize me, they get so embarrassed. And I actually say to the guy, “Dude, dude, dude. Don’t be embarrassed, man. You’re doing what you got to do. I got lucky.”
The biggest thing is, you start to see in the show, the low percentage of people that make it to be even a shitty road comic. There’s so many people who try to do [stand-up] now. The Comedy Cellar’s become this iconic place to go. When me and Dave Attell are out there smoking a cigarette, kids in their early twenties come from all over the world, it seems, to be in front of the Comedy Cellar. And I think that this show shows that to get to even that level—forget sitcoms and Seinfeld and a billion dollars, to get to even that level, where you’re a regular at a club, is hard to do.
Speaking of those kids in their early twenties, on the show, comedians will really shit on each other, but then let Pete into their homes. You’re a mentor to him. In real life, what’s that balance like, between ragging on young comics and trying to support them?
Unfortunately, the more common thing is just ragging on comics. But that was my generation. It’s become a lot nicer now. Everything is less mean these days. Everything’s more—and I’m giving women props here—everyone’s more like women. Nicer. [Laughs.] It’s really changed. The table at the Comedy Cellar, where all the comedians gather before they do a set of stand-up, is on a different floor than the actual show. It’s a big “on next” circle of comedy. And we all used to just really viciously rag on each other. Everything went and everybody had a sense of humor. I said, “If the world were like the table at the Comedy Cellar, we’d have no trouble.” No subject was taboo, from race to sex to whatever. You just goofed on each other. And sometimes, I got to the point where, if I bombed on stage but killed at the table, I was happy.
I think it’s more rare that you’ll actually take a guy in for longer than a night on your couch, but a lot of guys drive in from Jersey, Long Island and stuff. For me, it was like karma almost. If somebody in the same boat as you needs to crash, and you got a way to help, you put that karma out there. Because you like to feel like you’re not alone. You like to feel like you have some blood brothers in this business. You usually get treated like shit, lowest rung on the totem pole, that’s for sure.
There’s been several guys over the years that put me up and I put them up. You remember that, you know? And also, it makes you know stuff about them. If you ever go to a roast and roast them, it helps. [Laughs.]