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‘Love, Baby Gorilla’ - Artie Lange remembers Don Rickles

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‘Love, Baby Gorilla’ - Artie Lange remembers Don Rickles (AP file photos)

Stand-up comic, actor and author Artie Lange is well known for telling it like it is. From his near-decade long stint on “The Howard Stern Show” to his books “Too Fat to Fish” and “Crash and Burn” to his “Artie Quitter” podcast and his raw and real stand-up comedy shows, Lange holds nothing back. 

What was intended as a one-episode appearance on the first season on HBO’s “Crashing” extended to a full season for Lange. The finale aired this past Sunday and the show has been renewed for a second season.

In the hours following last week’s death of legendary comedian Don Rickles, Lange dealt with the loss of a friend and comic mentor by taking to Twitter and referencing what he says was the greatest story he ever told on David Letterman’s show. He signed his tweet “Love, Baby Gorilla.”

Lange checked in the following day to talk about Rickles’ impact on comedy and why he believes there will never be another like him.

For this interview, I invited my friend and coworker (and huge fan of Lange and Howard Stern), Jon Shields, to join me in firing off some questions to the funny man.

TME: You got to know Rickles when you were both in the movie “Dirty Work” (1988). What was he like to work with?

Lange: What he did in “Dirty Work” was insult me for being fat. He called me a baby gorilla for a half an hour and you know what? I was fine with it (Artie laughs). I didn’t even know you were supposed to offended!

When Don died, my agent said ‘You’ve got to tweet something.’ So my tweet said ‘Comedy has been sick for a long time, and it finally died today.’ I really feel that way. He’s the last of that breed of Sinatra-era comedians who was offensive but funny and didn’t apologize for it. That’s slowly going away. I try to live that.

The story of Rickles calling me a baby gorilla made it to the Stern show when I got there. Howard loved it. I remember when I did Letterman for the first time, that story about Don Rickles was the perfect story for Letterman. In a way, Rickles gave me my first Letterman episode and it killed! I knew it would because Letterman loved Don Rickles. It got big laughs and this was the kind of guy that Rickles was.

I was very proud of that show and Rickles called me the next day. He hunted down my number. My agent called me and said ‘It’s not a prank. It’s definitely Don and you should call him.’ So I did and he said ‘Hey kid, you were great. It’s tough to make Letterman laugh. You made him laugh. You got it kid. Good job.’ To me that was astonishing. I could barely breathe. I told that story to Howard and Rickles came on that show too. It was just the greatest thing. We had that kind of relationship. He was very nice and did my podcast. He was a sweet guy and he’s gone and it’s sad.

Jon Shields: Artie, Don Rickles was obviously a tremendous comedian and actor but one thing that Howard Stern said - and Jimmy Kimmel said it too – is that he was also the perfect talk show guest.

Lange: Absolutely. That’s a good point. A talk show appearance for an actress, a model, sports player – whatever – that’s something they do to promote their career. For a comedian, an appearance on a talk show is a major part of their career. Sometimes it’s the biggest part of their career. Think about it. If Rickles hadn’t been great on Carson when I was a kid in the 70’s, I wouldn’t have known who he was. You watched him on “C.P.O. Sharkey” because you saw him on Carson. That was his whole career – being funny on talk shows. And he mastered it. He was the Babe Ruth of talk show guests.

TME: Generations of comedians have been influenced by Don Rickles. Is there anyone even close to him?

Lange: Well, I’m offensive but I’m not as funny so probably not me (laughs). I would say nobody. There’s nobody. You know my friend Jeff Ross – the insult comic. He doesn’t like that moniker but that’s what he’s known for. He’s a brilliant comedian on a lot of levels but he’s known for the roasts. I think all of us who’ve made a name for ourselves from that generation – and we’re all about 50 years old now. We’re the last generation who saw Rickles in the 70’s on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. I think we all bring something to the table but nobody was like Don Rickles. He got away with stuff that no one could because it was funny. This little sort of bald guy who you wouldn’t think was charismatic, really was. He could tell Sinatra that Mussolini died. That doesn’t even make any sense, yet Sinatra laughed.

TME: When we saw Don Rickles, he was always on. What was he like during his private moments away from the camera?

Lange: On “Dirty Work,” we did an 18-hour day and he was getting $100,000 every day (laughs). Every time I blew a take, it was costing us money. He was doing take after take and he was a little older and needed to rest and you’d see him sometimes just sitting in a chair alone and he couldn’t do that either. Everyone bothered him. I didn’t want to be one of those jerks but I had to be. I said “Don, could you please record this tape for my mother? She wants to hear you talk about me.” So he said “Judy, it must have been fun giving birth to Artie.” He spread his legs like he was in stirrups (breaks up in hysterics) and made the sounds of giving birth. But after that, he looked into the camera and said “Judy, I’ve watched your son act and he’s very good. Good luck watching him work construction” (laughing).

TME: On the HBO show “Crashing,” you were scheduled to do one episode but it turned into much more. How has that show been for you?

Lange: I casually knew Judd Apatow because he was getting back into stand-up a couple of years ago and I’d see him at the Comedy Cellar. He was very nice. You wouldn’t know he was the master king of comedy. He’s really like the Jerry Bruckheimer of comedy. I had heard he was a fan of mine because he loves Howard Stern so much and he had my books. That’s how I got an audition for “Crashing.” They needed a guy to play this older, curmudgeonly comic who shows (star and show creator) Pete Holmes the ropes when he tries comedy. I got to audition because of the book and I told stories from the book. Judd was nice enough to have me do stories that I knew about because they were mine and that gave me a big advantage. I got the part and they changed the name of the guy to Artie Lange. I was supposed to be in one episode but it turned into five including the finale. My role in that one was a big part and there’s a lot of really funny stuff in that one. I’m proud of it. The pilot’s name is “Artie Lange” which is surreal (laughing).

TME: The show was renewed for a second season and we hope you’re going to be part of it.

Lange: I don’t know. My personal life, like it does all the time, got involved and the insurance company calls and says “Yeah, we love Artie but we can’t do it. They need another fat guy.” (Lange is referencing his recent arrest on two charges for possession of a controlled dangerous substance. The charges have since been downgraded.)

You know what? Twitter actually helped me. I was never a big social media guy but when Twitter said “Look, we hear Artie may not be on the show” and enough people responded by saying “That’s going to disappoint us” - I think they’re going to take the shot and give me the second season. So we’ll see.

Jon Shields: What was it like when you had Don Rickles as a guest on your “Artie Quitter” podcast?

Lange: Oh, that was great. He remembered me from the movie and the Letterman show. He wasn’t bs-ing me. It’s like the old story where you ask Joe DiMaggio about ten years ago “What would you do against today’s pitchers?” and he said “I’d probably only hit about .270.” They say “Really?” And he goes “Well, I’m 80 years old.” Rickles was just as funny as me and the reason why he wasn’t as funny as him is because he was 89. He was only as funny as me (laughing). He was great. He was honest. But he was more sweet than anything. It’s like I think he knew it was the last hurrah because he said “It was fun working with you.” The only time he ever played himself in a movie was in “Dirty Work,” where he does that character. He remembered it and he loved Norm (MacDonald, Artie’s friend and co-star in the film) and he was very nice. Don was just a sweet guy. 

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