Funny Never Sleeps

Comedian Dave Attell riffs on his influences, playing clubs, and the future of Insomniac.

Comedy Central, the basic-cable standard-bearer of funny, rode the late '80s/early '90s stand-up wave into existence. After weathering years of vapid sitcoms and empty nightclubs, the network went on to become a leading arbiter of intelligent leading-edge comedy. Along with parent company HBO, Comedy Central has enabled post-millennial big-cult success for a cadre of idiosyncratic comic personalities more interested in their art (and, in many cases, cultural and political awareness) than landing their own network sitcom. And, thanks to Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, and a particularly contentious election race - not to mention Chappelle's Show - the channel has recently enjoyed its highest mainstream profile since South Park first reared its ugly, pan-offensive head.

Among the careers deservedly boosted by Comedy Central's commitment to cult cool is that of New York comedian Dave Attell. Attell's creative and often outlandish take on traditional stand-up has long had him associated with the cream of the "alternative comedy" crop (see sidebar). But it was four seasons of drinking, smoking and one-lining his way through after-hours urban nightlife around the world as the host of the hit show Insomniac with Dave Attell that made him a household name - in households populated by college kids, stoners, diehard comedy fans and those afflicted with the program's namesake condition. Attell's quick wit and deceptively Dangerfield-esque everyman presence formed a perfect foil to the crazy, clueless or just plain hammered denizens of the dark he and his cameraman encountered while roaming various downtowns from dusk until dawn, and made for a compulsively watchable blend of reality TV and mockumentary.

On the eve of a Comedy Central-sponsored tour bringing his stand-up to theaters nationwide (including the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center), Attell talks about his influences, Insomniac's uncertain future, and why he'll never abandon the comedy clubs where he honed his craft.

WP: When did you start doing stand-up?

DA: I've been doing it for about 18 years.

So you were working back when the late-'80s boom started to dry up?

I was actually working the door at [legendary New York City club] The Improv back then. It was pretty funny to watch it go from these big, full rooms every night to nobody standing in line.

Had you been a comedy buff before you started, when you were younger? Did you listen to stuff like [Richard] Pryor and [George] Carlin?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Those two guys especially.

You've got a really singular style, one that kind of uses the classic idea of setups and punch lines, but fucks with it at the same time…

Thank you.

Was it something you started doing immediately, or did you develop it over time working the clubs?

I guess it was just kind of a reaction to going on late at night. In New York, at the open mics, you kind of have to get to it quick. People had already sat through 50 comics, they'd heard all the set-ups and punchlines. They knew the formula.

It's also more interesting for me than doing standard stuff. I like to get the joke just the way I like it, then mess around with it, because I'm self-destructive [laughs].

Your stuff isn't as pointedly political as some other, um, for lack of a better term, we'll call them 'alternative comics.' But it seems like you share a fan base with people like David Cross, and you toured with Lewis Black back in 2003. Do you associate yourselves with those comics, with that school?

I like those dudes, I really love David Cross, but no, I'm not an alternative comic. I grew up watching people like Richard Jeni, straight-ahead national-headliner people. People who did jokes and bits. They weren't particularly political, they could just talk about anything and turn it into comedy … I love people like Bill Maher, who's an edgy, important person. [Real Time with Bill Maher] is a good, funny, wicked show. I have tons of respect for those people, but I'm not really political.

I'm more of a politically incorrect comic, because I still talk about race and drinking and the stuff that people don't talk about anymore. I try and talk about all of those things, which are getting harder and harder to talk about in conversation.

I really don't have an agenda. I'm not being 'Mr. Aw-shucks' about it. My politics are my own personal things; I think the people that do it really good should keep doing it, like Lewis, people who have a good take on the times, what's going on with the government. But for me, I'm more in the room. These people came out from a job somewhere, they're working, they go to school. I try to start from there, bring up the things that people that are half-drunk like to talk about.

Do you participate in any of the Upright Citizens' Brigade, Stella sort of sketch-and-variety live New York stuff?

No, not really. They're sketch comedy, theater people. I run into 'em all over the country, because there's a lot of stuff in New York, L.A., Chicago. But I mostly work the comedy clubs, whether it's in New York, L.A., Chicago, or Newport, Kentucky [laughs]. There are a lot of clubs in small towns. I like to go everywhere.

What was it like to go from clubs to doing stand-up in bigger venues, theaters? Was it the same crowd?

I don't know. I really do love the clubs. I started out doing 'em, and when you finally sell out a club, it's a big achievement because it's hard to do, get hundreds of people into a room for three nights. The first time I sold out a club was a big achievement for me, and it had a lot to do with Insomniac, people recognizing my name from the show. My theater thing was traveling on that tour with Lewis and [recently deceased comedian Mitch] Hedberg, and that was great. For me alone, this time, these are smaller theaters. It's more of a club atmosphere in a theater setting, only hopefully with not as much drunk whooing.

Isn't there always whooing?

Yeah. It's something that's out there all the time. I think it has something to do with, um … MTV [laughs]. People have to be a part of everything. Or maybe they're just drunk.

A lot of comics, once they get big, like to bitch about having had to go on the road and do clubs, and the crowds they played to. TV has always been the way to get out of the clubs, but your TV show pretty much kept you in there, made you stay on the circuit.

At the time, I was just traveling, and I thought it would be great to have the show to do while I did it. It actually really helped with the club work, really turbocharged my act. It made me constantly come up with new stuff, made me think on my feet. And all the touring I've done had prepared me to do the show, especially the drinking part.

But I've done some other TV stuff since then, I just did a pilot for Fox, and I did some guest-spot stuff.

So Insomniac is on hold for now?

Yeah. But the tour is a good thing, because I got a new DVD out, a live thing in a club. A lot of people put out this fake, I-really-only-do-theaters sort of thing, but I wanted to do a down-and-dirty club.

Was the TV show originally your idea, something you brought to Comedy Central?

Uh-huh. It was one of those things where I pitched them a couple of things, and they liked them, but they said, 'Why don't we do something from your life?' 'Well, should I talk about the time I was molested at sailing camp? No?'

As more and more people recognized you from the show, and from stuff like your recent appearance on Arrested Development, it must have gotten harder to get sincere reactions from strangers.

It became like a fake audition for people. They'd show up, tell me that they're really good at juggling, and do it. There's always gonna be people like that, but 90 percent of the people we ran into were so cool. But then sometimes, it's just - like when you go to a bar and you expect 12 people to be there, and somebody's made a call, and there are 1,200. It's just like, 'This isn't what we expected.'

But the longer you do something, the harder it is to stick to the original vision of it. I didn't want it to get tame; I don't want people to go, 'Oh, he's still doing that?' We don't do it for the money, or just to have a show on. We want to do as good a job as we can.

So there might still be more episodes coming?

They want me to do some more, and I want to, but I don't know, I keep getting locked into longer tours, and there's stuff like the DVD. But I'd love to keep doing the specials, where it's more event-oriented. A lot of it has to do with getting access to things like, say, the Indy 500, places where lots of people are just hanging out, being themselves, going crazy and partying. [Insomniac] lends itself very well to situations like that.

What are you looking forward to doing next? Can you see yourself as the main character in a sitcom, playing a part for years?

[The Fox pilot] isn't my sitcom, it's not like I'm the dad. I've got a small part, and they let me come up with my own stuff, which is cool.

It's not a dream of mine, but it's interesting to do something so different from Insomniac - it's inside, and when I'm in the middle of a line some drunk doesn't come up and want to talk to me about my shirt. It's interesting to try new things, but I'm not an actor. If it goes, I guess I'll have to do some of that. But I'll always be doing club work, I know that.

Are clichés true? Are you crying on the inside, miserable all the time, in desperate need of a hug?

I cry on the outside. Actually, I don't cry at all. But I do sweat urine, like a shark. A lot of that [image] has to do with you being alone in a hotel room somewhere. There's two books in that room, the Bible and the Yellow Pages, and every night you have to make the choice about who you're going to invite into that room, the Lord or the whore.

It is a rough lifestyle, in terms of constantly moving. Not exciting, erotic travel, but renting a car, driving six hours, getting on a small prop plane, going to a college even farther away, and then trying to get back to do it all again. That' s really what being a comic is - it's doing laundry in different places.

Dave Attell performs at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Ferguson Hall on Sunday, April 24 at 8 p.m. Sean Rouse opens. Tickets are $30.50 in advance, and $35.50 on the day of show.

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