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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

Artie Lange & Vegas: a potent mix

July 16, 2006|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

AT the CineVegas Film Festival last month, where the stars present included Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Christina Ricci, Sylvester Stallone and Helen Mirren, nobody drew a crowd like rotund comedian and Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange. Fans followed Lange around the Palms and turned out in the hundreds to scream as he walked the red carpet drink in hand for a screening of his film "Beer League." (The movie will be released Sept. 15.)

Lange was still ecstatic about the experience weeks later: "The reaction was a million times better than what I expected. I never make anything for critics to like. I make it for guys who work construction." Indeed, Lange has no ambition for his film to place his name beside those of Fellini or Woody Allen. "It cost $5 million to make and $2 million to advertise. My hope is just to make the money back in theaters, and then all the DVD money is gravy." His only regret about the CineVegas trip -- he had yet to officially dissolve his relationship with his girlfriend and so he says he held off on the hookers.

There is something of the perfect fit between Artie Lange and Las Vegas, and woe to anyone who gets between him and his fans here. Jeff Beacher learned a lesson about Lange's fanatical appeal when he booked the comedian to headline his Madhouse revue at the Hard Rock. Mixing variety performers, sexy girls and comics, Beacher's Madhouse was already popular with the same hard-partying demographic that Lange draws. But the combination did not go as planned.

"It was a disaster," Beacher recalls of the night. "I've never seen anything like it. His fans just wanted to see Artie. They didn't want anything to do with my show. It was the only time ever that every single person who works for me got booed off the stage, from the beautiful dancing girls to the sword-swallowing transvestite."

When Lange returned to Vegas a few months later, Beacher had Lange appear solo, raised the price of tickets and added a show. Beacher says both shows sold out in hours.

Lange's explanation for his massive Vegas appeal: "Vegas is ground zero of fun and vices, and people know I'm into it."

Indeed, some might say Lange is too much into Vegas' fun and vices. If Vegas has been the setting for many of his triumphs, this town has also been the launching pad for some humiliating disasters. In the second category was a nearly career-destroying incident in 1996 that cost Lange his job on "MADtv": "I went on a cocaine binge that started in Vegas at the Tyson-Holyfield fight. I bet on Tyson and lost $15,000 on the fight and then lost $6,000 at the tables before heading back to L.A. I went to rehearsals coked up and got arrested." (Court records show the case never was tried.)

LANGE says he kicked drugs and began rebuilding his career through appearances on television and in movies, and things really took off when Stern hired him in 2001. "When I got on Stern I realized that this was the one job where you could be really honest and open, almost like Richard Pryor or something. You can be honest about your life and get laughs." Yet even without drugs, Lange's laughs often come from the chaos of his life devotion to hobbies like drinking and gambling. "It is a double-edged sword," Lange says of using his life for his material, which stresses the crude and the blue.

Nowhere are both edges of the sword more apparent than when Lange comes here. "I am a guy who has struggled with every kind of addiction. I love gambling, and it has gotten me into trouble before. I love drugs and booze. The drugs finally had to go, but the booze is still very much in play. And you know I love broads. I am definitely not someone who is embarrassed to get a hooker or two," he says.

And there are those who expect the spectacular ways Lange's professional and personal life tend to merge in Vegas to one day be the end of him. Especially over the past few years when Lange has arrived in Vegas for remote broadcasts with the Stern crew, his experiences the night before often became fodder for the show. "The last few times I came here with the Howard Stern show I nearly died," Lange admits.

Once people even thought he did expire. A prank call by a fan during a 2004 Vegas expedition resulted in media reports of Lange's demise. "The depressing thing is that everyone believed it. Here I am in my mid-30s, and everyone just goes, 'OK, he's dead.' "

But avoiding Vegas is not an option for Lange, citing the lucrative fees. Lange says he's made "up to $40 grand in one night doing stand-up."

The most recent drama to grip his world (and be a topic of endless interest to Stern's audience) has been the dissolution of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Dana. "You know, I have never been that much in love with a woman before in my life. It is the most adult like I have ever felt in a relationship. We dated for 4 1/2 years. But it has been dying a slow, painful death. I think it might be officially over. It is very hard."

So, newly single, Lange returns to Vegas this week for a television taping as part of a typical workweek: "It is going to be a whirlwind few days. I've got to do the Stern show July 17 and July 18 and then get on a plane and fly to L.A. to shoot 'Entourage' on the 19th and 20th and then fly to Vegas and do 'The Best Damn Sports Show' from the Mandalay Bay. Then I am going to hang in Vegas and take the red-eye back on July 22."

Taking a measure of the personal and professional blessing and curse Vegas has been to him, Lange says, "Financially, I am probably down about $30,000, and emotionally, I am about even right now."

That is, until he returns this week. Then all bets are off.

*

For more on what's happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.

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