Well, make way for the ugly. A recent on-air clash between popular cast member Artie Lange and show employee "High Pitch" Mike devolved into a vicious, epithet-strewn fight that left both studio members and listeners confused about Lange's true feelings toward gays.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Lange is a hugely successful comic/actor with a fanatical blue-collar fan base, thanks mostly to his gig on Stern's show. He's a recovering drug addict, and -- some would say -- also a recovering homophobe.
How he's doing with the drugs is unclear, but it seemed he was making progress in his attitudes toward gay people by exhibiting some acceptance of gays in on-air discussions. When he learned that openly gay wrestler Chris Kanyon was going through hard times, he went above the call of duty by offering him some real-world, off-air help.
He also maintains an unlikely but genuine friendship with openly gay actor and recurring Stern star George Takei. As his mentor, Takei even convinced Lange to do a public service announcement for gay-equality group the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), pledging $100 for each on-air use of the word "fag."
In a twist of irony, this word is at the center of the conflict between Lange and Stern show worker "High Pitch" Mike, so named due to his unfortunately falsetto voice. Mike has somehow become Lange's kryptonite: No other cast member gets under Artie's skin the way Mike does, and their fights have a distinct high-school mentality -- with Lange as the big, popular jock and Mike as his nerd-ish object of ridicule. The catch is that Mike refuses to be bullied -- and Lange, despite a wealth of wit and material, ends up relying on the "f-bomb" to shut Mike up (it should be noted that Mike insists he's straight).
But let's be honest: There is a way to use the word "fag" without being hateful -- we all know plenty of gay people who use the word. And it can be used to comic effect -- I, for one, crack up when the Stern show plays the sound bite of Tony Soprano saying "he's a FAAAG!" any time a male cast member shows sensitivity. Like anything else in life, it's the context and the spirit in which the word is used, and that's what's at issue here.
On to the fight itself: Like most of their squabbles (last time they fought, Mike made fun of Artie's dead father; Artie called Mike a spic fag), it started with Artie and other cast members giving Mike a hard time about something "gay" Mike did: He went to see "27 Dresses" on Super Bowl Sunday.
Mike came into the studio to defend himself, and as the attack escalated, Mike started responding with his regular arsenal against Artie; namely, Lange's battles with drugs and the observation that his movie "Beer League" was a flop. Hey -- nobody's saying Mike doesn't know how to hit below the belt.
Having heard it all before, Lange dismissed the attack with a simple declaration that Mike is a "fag" -- as though that trumped anything else. To this, Mike screeched, "You want to end this faggot shit? Get your sister in here and I'll fuck her right on this couch, you asshole."
Even at this point, there was still an air of, not exactly innocence, but pettiness; it was just two loser guys having a loser fight. Stern himself let it play out, knowing that these "real" moments often lead to the revelatory radio he's famous for.
But not even Stern could've predicted where this was going. When Stern finally asked Lange why he insisted on calling Mike gay, Artie retorted that he was calling him gay because he was a fag. And in a moment of true enlightenment, Artie said, "Look, he started it, so the little faggot's gonna get it back."
The discomfort in the studio was already palpable -- then this exchange happened:
Mike: Anything you say on here [the air] becomes fact." Artie: "No it doesn't! I wish it did, because [then] people would believe that you're a fucking flaming homo. And you are a flaming homo, and I hope you get AIDS. I hope your lover takes off the rubber tonight and fucks you in the ass with his AIDS-ridden cock. And that you come in here tomorrow with fucking sores on your face and 40 fucking pounds!"
It was like a switch had been flipped in Artie's head, and there was no going back. I suspect even he knew it at that point, and he wasn't going to back down. When a clearly disturbed Stern began asking him why he was so out of control, Lange simply responded, "Mike started it," and "What, I'm supposed to sit here like a jerk-off?"
Stern treaded lightly, but kept after Lange; he diplomatically said that both Lange and Mike were guilty of saying bad things. And after co-host Robin Quivers reminded Lange about his work with the HRC, Stern added, "Yeah, every minute with the faggot ... you're cutting a public service announcement."
Stern continued, saying, "I got very uncomfortable during that argument, and I feel very bad. I feel very bad for both of you."
This didn't seem to have the placating effect Stern intended, because Lange responded, "I think you're a fag, Mike, and I'll say it to your lawyer!" (Mike had since left the room).
"You're allowed to think someone is gay; that's not a legal question," said Stern. "Look, I'm getting very uncomfortable with this fag stuff, I mean, this is silly. If a gay person tuned in and heard that, people would not appreciate it. The rhetoric was getting heavy."
Invoking the old double standard, Lange denied he was anti-gay, and chalked his tirade up to his not playing well with others -- shamefully throwing himself on the "boys will be boys" defense.
Like many fans, I was so disappointed and truly surprised to hear the anger and hate in Lange's diatribe. I bet that if a poll had been taken prior to this outburst, the majority of Stern's gay and lesbian listeners would've agreed that Lange wasn't really homophobic, but more of a "work in progress," who in fact reflects many straight Stern listeners' attitudes toward gay people. Now, I'm not so sure.
Out comedian ANT appears on the show frequently and has a great on-air camaraderie with Lange, so I asked him for his take on the outburst. "I think it's a shame that Artie let anger possess him," he told me. "For many, it's a double-sided dagger. I'm wrestling with the same question: Is he really a phobe, or was that just an isolated spur-of-the-moment eruption of anger? Either way, hate speech has no place in our world. That isn't the Artie I know. Are you sure he wasn't on drugs?"
Only Artie can answer that question, and he hasn't seemed to have explained the source of this outburst. Still, the incident leaves us, the listeners, questioning Lange's motivations -- and wondering whether the gestures he's recently made (the PSA, his work with AIDS charity Lifebeat) are at all sincere, or whether they're done out of some twisted guilt brought on by the fact that he works with people more tolerant than he.
Like ANT, I find myself wanting to believe that Artie just let the anger get the best of him. I also believe that he does not in fact wish AIDS on anyone. But Lange and Stern should really try to explore on air where this vitriol comes from. Why does Artie keep coming back to this one word as the ultimate insult when he gets so angry?
Stern has a golden opportunity to really confront Lange on this, to ask him -- once and for all -- what it will take to get Lange to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. He owes it to all his listeners, gay and straight.
Editor's update: A few days after the fight, Stern addressed it on-air, saying that it sparked a lot of listener e-mail. Stern said some listeners were so offended by Lange's comments they cancelled their subscription to Sirius, while others wrote in saying they thought Lange's response to Mike's provocation was justified. Artie himself said that he received a sad, offended e-mail from George Takei, who also asked him to go ahead with his promised "f-word" public service announcement. I was happy they brought it up, but I have to say I was disappointed they didn't explore the source of Artie's outburst more thoroughly.
By Jenny Stewart
Originally Published 2008, PlanetOut.com, Gay.com