Throwback Thursday: Artie Lange on Joe Buck Live

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TV executives love launching sports talk shows in June, which happens to mark the beginning of a month-long slog through the sports calendar. That might seem counterintuitive, but I suspect it’s by design.

Since such shows are inherently inane, manufacturing conversation is more feature than bug. It’s the same guiding principle that prompted the abominable “Who’s Now” in 2007. Kicking off at a slow point in the sports calendar and having to conjure takes out of speculation merely sets the tone.

Now, that doesn’t mean launching sports talk shows in June is a proven winning strategy; on the contrary. FS1 hasn’t taken Speak To Yourself behind the woodshed since its June 2016 debut, but routinely failing to make the cable TV daily top 150 — the basement for which is usually around 40,000 viewers — doesn’t constitute success.

HBO gave Bill Simmons’ famously ill-fated Any Given Wednesday a much shorter leash. It launched fewer than two weeks after Speak To Yourself and, despite averaging almost seven times the viewership, quietly bowed out in November that same year.

The death of Any Given Wednesday mirrors that of another June-debuted sports talk show, and the subject of this Throwback Thursday: Joe Buck Live.

Joe Buck Live debuted on the same network (and that plays a pivotal role in their respective problems), with the same basic framework of a central personality interviewing figures in both sports and pop culture. Each failed for a similar reason: Their hosts were successes in other avenues with no prior experience in the medium, with Simmons the wildly popular blogger and frequently credited forefather of the digital sportswriting age; and Buck, who positioned himself as the preeminent play-by-play man of the era.

They were both out of their depth hosting a talk show. I’m not writing out of turn, either, as both admitted as much following the cancellation of their shows.

And that lack of experience became readily evident from the jump in both instances.

Had their shows debuted on basic cable, rather than the premium service HBO, their debuts might have been garden-variety bland as opposed to train wrecks. Of course, in an industry that covets any attention, vulgar opening-night diatribes from each show’s celebrity guests might have been viewed as a positive. However, in both Ben Affleck’s anti-Roger Goodell outburst on AGW — motivated for the absolute lamest of reasons to go in on the ripe-for-criticism Goodell — and Artie Lange commandeering Joe Buck Live, the train wreck proved more uncomfortable than entertaining.

I’m in no way offended by swearing. Those who know me in my personal life know that unless women or children are present, I can be a bit like Ralphie’s dad. When I make radio appearances, I mentally prepare myself not to let a curse casually slip (note to any show producers reading this: I’ve never cussed on-air!). And the reason? Time and place. It’s the same reason there’s minimal swearing here on The Open Man.

An abundance of swears lessen their intended impact. A deluge — like Ben Affleck’s 19 F-bombs on AGW — becomes more obnoxious than impacting. This is how my 13-year-old peers and I cussed at summer basketball camp back in 1996.

Something about going on HBO, which allows content usually barred from basic cable, perhaps tempts performers to ratchet up the edginess. For me personally, edgy on a sports talk show constitutes calling out NFL hypocrisy in charging the Department of Defense to honor veterans, an NCAA flush with cash and a state legislature neglecting HBCU members, and not saying “fuck” a lot.

I guess we’re fortunate neither Affleck nor Artie Lange took full advantage of HBO’s censorship standards and whipped out their johnsons — though in Lange’s case, it would have been a fitting visual gag to accompany his first of many jabs directed at Joe Buck. View at your own discretion.

There really isn’t new ground to cover on the appearance itself. Because this occurred nine years ago this week, in the aforementioned dead-zone of the sports calendar, Artie Lange sabotaging Joe Buck Live dominated the blogosphere and talk shows in a sort of jock-talk Inception.

Lange and Buck had an amicable relationship afterward, with Buck writing the foreword to Lange’s 2013 autobiography. I didn’t read Crash & Burn; as a former Howard Stern listener, I knew Artie Lange’s background and the stories likely to appear in his second autobiography well. And because I was familiar with the former Howard Stern sidekick, it makes his even being invited onto Joe Buck Live all the more confounding.

Working an early-morning job the summer before I left home for college and seeing Private Parts on HBO the same year were my first exposure to the Stern universe. I got into Stern much later than his peak, though at 18 years old, I was squarely in the target demographic.

This also coincided with Lange replacing Jackie Martling as the show’s on-air comedic voice (Fred Norris was always its behind-the-scenes comedic soul). It seems clear to me replacing the quasi-hippie Baby Boomer Martling with the hard-drinking, loudmouth Gen X Yankee fan Lange was Stern’s attempt at appealing to a new demographic of sports-loving, edgelord listeners. The move also fit the cultural landscape of the early 2000s.

I was one of those Stern fans who defended my enjoyment of the show against accurate assessments of its more tasteless elements noting Stern’s interviewing acumen, and citing the heart shown in Private Parts. It’s satire and you’re too shallow to get it, man.

I should note this was also a time in my life when I was REALLY into South Park and Family Guy.

My Stern fandom waned shortly after the disastrous Joe Buck Live appearance — perhaps subconsciously in part because of it. But for as much as I cringe revisiting some of the old content, I do still recognize instances of genuine satire that hold up. One of my favorite actually employs Lange’s crudeness and the inherent misogyny of his comedic personality as a device against such attitudes.

Former Penn State basketball player Marissa Graby stepped up to challenge Lange’s dismissal of women’s hoops and beat the comedian one-on-one.

Those who have read me at length or follow me on Twitter know I was a pretty good high school basketball player, worked out as a practice player for my alma mater’s women’s team, and I get incensed whenever some new jackass with no game spouts off about what he’d do on a low-major D-I team, or facing WNBA competition. That the Howard Stern Show proved my point, of all possible outlets, always sorta tickles me.

With that established background as the show’s Sports Dude, Artie Lange as a flagship-episode guest on Joe Buck Live made sense. The comedian’s deteriorating state on Stern rendered his booking an inevitable disaster. His well-publicized struggle with opioids sidelined him from a Comedy Central roast of friend Bob Saget a little more than a year prior to the Joe Buck appearance.

On a January 2009 Stern Show, Lange railed against a Rolling Stone profile by Vanessa Grigoriadis that explored the comedian’s personal demons. Grigoriadis is a journalist of whose profile work I was a huge fan, and along with current Los Angeles Times and former New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan, I take inspiration when evaluating pop culture.

Lange repeatedly used a word that has Samantha Bee in the headlines recently to describe Grigoriadis. Probably a factor HBO producers maybe should have weighed when filling out the inaugural Joe Buck Live lineup.

Those same personal demons Grigoriadis chronicled forced Artie Lange off the Stern show just six months after his appearance on Joe Buck Live; that expletive-laden dialogue (which was really more of a monologue, since Buck, Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis hardly spoke) was Lange going supernova on his career. He attempted to juice the mainstream buzz that ensued — and the smattering of media appearances that followed Joe Buck Live are, in retrospect, more fascinating to me than the show itself.

His calls (plural) to Chris Russo the following day are…well, listen and decide.

The incident itself occupies a place in sports broadcasting lore as an avatar for the absolute worst that can go wrong on a talk show. But I’ll defend it on the same grounds I defended “Who’s Now” in my retrospective: