Dave Attell is living proof that doing one thing well enough and long enough will earn attention: He's enjoyed a long career as the consummate stand-up comic, a low-key expert at the art of the setup and the punchline. Though physically unassuming–he describes his looks as "Andre Agassi gone to seed"–Attell slowly attracted a fan base throughout the '90s, a following that grew rapidly with the popularity of his Comedy Central TV series Insomniac. A kind of blue-collar Wild On... with more ice-fishing and boozy chatter than toned bodies and dance-floor writhing, Insomniac allows Attell to take his hard-drinking, heavy-smoking stand-up persona to the streets to see what goes on in the middle of the night in, say, Boise. Attell never seems to lose his enthusiasm for all variety of late-night excess, which helps make Insomniac a strangely joyful show. Having simultaneously released a DVD volume of Insomniac and a debut comedy album, Skanks For The Memories, Attell spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the nuts and bolts of the stand-up world and the patriotic message at Insomniac's heart.
The Onion: How did you get started in comedy?
Dave Attell: I went to NYU, and in my last year there, I was getting ready to graduate and didn't really know what I wanted to do. And I started doing some open-mics. I got regular jobs after school, but I kept doing it at night in these open-mic clubs in New York City. And I felt like eventually, I would just do that or join the military, something like that. I just kept doing it and doing it. Eventually–I guess six or seven years in–I got better, and I finally was funny. I'm not like a performer type.
O: Did your day jobs affect your comedy at all?
DA: No, I never really had the day jobs that are good for comedy. I was a waiter for a while. I had a lot of office jobs. I think I would have done better if I was working as a plumber or something like that. I would have had more to talk about. The way they affected me was, when you go out and drink a lot... When you do comedy and you want to still hang out, and then you have to be in the office at 9, there's a lot of doing the Mexican shower. My day jobs... I knew I was bad at those, so I didn't really have the confidence to think that I could do comedy. But I knew I hated the day jobs.
O: You've described your comedy as "circa 1989" stand-up. What's happened between now and then that makes you a throwback?
DA: I'm a joke comic. I tell jokes. I like writing a joke, and I like when a joke works, and I like other comics who tell jokes. I'm into these storytelling guys... Richard Pryor and Sam Kinison, these guys with a real clear voice. I think that's what it is. I have an imagination because my life is so boring that my imagination lets me get off the reality of what's going on. There's a lot of guys who are street, and who talk about what's going on. Or the political guys. I'm not really married to any of those styles of comedy. I think of it more as saying funny things, though it's turned into a theme of being bitter and sad, and all that kind of stuff. I guess 1989... I just think that it should be a wild time in a comedy club. When I'm up there doing a walk-on spot, I want to come up with new material, and not be so planned and prepared, and see where the audience takes it. I like when it doesn't seem all together, and it's a little weird, and the audience needs to be won over. Some of these audiences, though, want to see a hugely prepared piece. Or some sort of talent, like impressions, or ventriloquism, or funny song parodies, and stuff like that. So sometimes you feel like you're letting them down, because you're just up there telling jokes and seeing if they work, or talking to the crowd, or whatever. But that's the kind of comedy I like. It's not so politically correct, and it's not so planned or prepared. That's the stuff that's most fun to do.
O: What's the biggest way your comedy has changed since you started?
DA: What happens with comedy, which I think is true of a lot of comics, unless they're really from an acting background, is that the performance... You'll write jokes, and the jokes will be okay, and then your performance level will be down, and then you'll learn how to perform better to be in front of the crowd, and then your jokes won't be as funny. You'll think, "I need better jokes. I have to learn how to write a joke better." You're constantly doing that, I think, forever. Sometimes you're more of a performer, sometimes you're more of a writer. What's gotten better for me, just from going on late and doing crazy gigs and open-mics... I've learned to adapt to the situation at hand. Look at the room, read the room, see who's there, see what's going on, and adapt my material accordingly. I'm not going up there to kill every time. I don't know anyone who does that–I guess maybe Robin Williams or somebody. I bomb a lot of times, and even now with people knowing who I am, I'll still bomb up there. I'm just not going to do the same material the same way all the time. There's just no fun in that.
O: Do you find that now, because you're better known, people are more forgiving of jokes that don't work?
DA: Sometimes it's hard to tell if a joke is working or not for the first couple of minutes. But after they "whoa" and cheer, it's still back to where it was, which is still my act. The thing that sucks for me is that people see Insomniac, and every show starts out with me doing a little stand-up. So if I'm on the road, like in Charleston, West Virginia, or Charlotte, North Carolina, they'll think that I'm out to do that show again. So a lot of them will just come down and think that they're gonna get on TV, so they'll buy me shots when I'm on stage. They want to get me hammered. But I'm really a stand-up comic–that's what I do. They don't need to buy me any drinks. I'm up there telling jokes, and I want them to come down, but I want them to come see the show, not to think that I'm going out to do Insomniac. They'll be yelling, "Where are the cameras?" And I'll be, "I'm just doing my stand-up. I said that on the radio." And they'll say, "We thought you were kidding," and get all upset.
O: So now you're hated.
DA: That's something else I've learned about recognition. Doesn't matter what you say or do, people can always find a way to call you a dick. If you talk to them, they're like, "Hey, that's cool." But the minute you go back to your own life, they'll go, "What an asshole. How dare they not listen to my idea about a puppet show in my mom's basement?"
O: Has it gotten harder for you now that you're more recognizable?
DA: Well, it's harder to do Insomniac. Stand-up-wise, I go out, they come down, and I do my thing. I've been selling out a lot of rooms, which is really cool. That's never happened to me before.
O: What strategy do you have with Insomniac now that you can't really do the sneak attack anymore?
DA: I'm thinking of hiring a double crew, like Saddam Hussein, and putting them at the opposite end of the town to throw them off. I've told my crew that we need smoke grenades and stuff like that, because sometimes crowds get so thick around us that we're not getting anything good out of it. They're all "hoo"-ing and "wow"-ing and "whoo"-ing at you, and doing their wanting-to-get-on-camera stuff. We're going to Europe. That's what we're going to do. There, we'll just be hated for being Americans.
O: How did you choose locations for the show before?
DA: I think the first season, we did it because of the towns I went to as a stand-up comic. I thought, "We've got to get these little towns in, because nobody's really covering them, party-wise. It's mostly L.A., New York, and South Beach." And we've done South Beach and New York, but it was cool to go to Boise, Kansas City, Tempe, and these smaller towns to show their party scenes, or at least what we could get of it. Then, after that season, I was like, "We have to find events." Sometimes you'll go to a place and there's nothing going on, nothing big and exciting to help start the show. It's better if you can tie it to these events that are going on throughout the year. In the winter, we try to pick warm-weather towns, because we've done enough cold towns. Unfortunately, this season it's been cold everywhere. We were in Austin, and it was 20 degrees. We never get a break with the weather.
O: Is there any place you'd like to go but haven't had the chance?
DA: We wanted to go to D.C. for a long time, and we never got the access because of the security. We just finally got some access there, and then we went to Code Orange. The European thing will be good, to see how it works overseas. I'm pretty happy with every town we've been to. I think every town is cool, and we've had so many good people in these towns that have helped us out and know the show and have bent over backwards to let us see stuff.
O: When you're putting the show together after taping, what's your litmus test for what makes it on the show and what doesn't?
DA: You won't see any kiddie porn or pedophilia in this show. The way we do the show is that it takes a couple of days to shoot it and a couple of days to scout it, and that's mostly because of logistics and access to places. If you have a steel mill and they say "Come in tomorrow," then we'll stay and do it. We like to get monuments and landscapes and kind of late-night walking around, and that takes a lot of time, to move a crew and do that kind of thing, so it's not all one night. In terms of things that are not in the show, I draw the line at really drunk people. People who are obnoxiously drunk, I don't put them in there, because it's not funny. And I know how it is to be super-drunk and regret what I've done the night before, and I don't necessarily want it to be part of a TV show. Everybody who's on the thing has signed a release saying they want to be on it. We occasionally catch some police action, some fights. We might talk to some people who don't want to be on the show, so then we don't want to put them on. We move, right away. You don't see any stars on the show, really. We talked to Don Ho in Hawaii, but he's kind of like a legend, not really a star. We're not looking for the hippest scene, we're not looking for the coolest people. It's really as down-home as I can make it. I tried, the last two seasons, not to drive out of town anymore. I thought that was a bad thing, me drinking all night and driving away. That was a bad message. We try to show some kind of drinking-and-driving experience, whether it's talking to a cop, or taking a breathalyzer test, or just putting up any sign we see that says "Don't Drink And Drive." We try to show a lot of American flags in the towns, and try to get the whole thing and show that it's all one country. That's all kind of cornball stuff, but I like doing that stuff in these towns. You get a good feeling when you're on the street and talking to a drunk college kid, or a stripper, or a cop, or some military dudes on a weekend pass, and everybody's into your show, and you feel like we're all on the same team. The stuff you don't see is usually just boring bullshit stuff where there's nothing going on. We'll go to a place and there's nobody in there, make a shot of walking in and walking out, and move on to the next event or location.
O: If you edited the show differently, it could be an incredibly depressing program.
DA: Yeah, I think you're right. If it was a real, real show, it should end with me masturbating and crying. Because that's really a night of drinking.
O: When we interviewed Steven Wright recently, he talked about how he'd reached the point in his career where he could play theaters instead of clubs, and he was happy with that. Could you perform your comedy in theaters? So much of your persona is tied up with being in these small places where people drink and smoke and do unhealthy things.
DA: I don't know if I'm a theater act or not. I'd like to become a theater comic. Because there are tricks to doing that, and I have had some experience... The biggest crowd I played was 50,000 people, and that blew me away. I was like, "I can't believe that rock stars do this every night." It's amazing. You lose your breath. I'm just filling up the clubs now, but I'd like to do a theater tour and do more colleges. Stand-up is my thing, so the more of it the better. I think I become a better comic the more venues I do.
O: Do you think it's harder to connect with an audience when you play larger venues?
DA: I don't know about that, but usually when it's a larger venue, it's some kind of weird situation. You know, like colleges, I think I'm just at the age where I kind of know what they're into. I know that they're drinking, partying, and all that stuff. But these college kids, they have so much pressure on them. It's so expensive to go to school, and there are so many weird things going on in the world that they all seem like they're not having a good time. They're so neurotic: There's so many things going on in their minds that you have no idea what they want to hear about.
O: Why do you think college students connect to you? Is it the drinking, or is there more to it?
DA: I think now it's because of the drinking. I'm kind of drinking the way they want to drink. They think I spend my whole life drinking. The college kids are the ones who talk about the drinking, and the older people who are into the show like the jobs that we go to, and those kinds of things. Because we really don't do anything shocking that you've never seen on TV. We're not Jackass or any of that stuff. It's just all mundane things, but it's how it's presented. I guess they like it because they see me as... I'm like how their life would be if they don't straighten up. I'm like a portent to a bad future. "Here's this guy, what a loser–look at him, 38, drinking, smoking, wandering around late at night. That's not going to be me. I'm going to law school."
O: What would be the hardest for you to give up: the drinking, the smoking, or the unhealthy food?
DA: I think it would be the smoking. I'm up to about two packs a day. The drinking, of course, is good for the heart, but smoking is killing me. It's hard, you know, because it's a long, exhausting week, being up all night until 9 or 10 in the morning, every night. It wears you out, with all the moving around, and people, and all that. But it's a great show. No matter how much you plan, you never really know what you're going to get until you see it. When we fly into the town, we have no idea. We go in with a lot of good research and great producers, and every time, we're like, "We don't know how this is going to go." So that's kind of exciting.
O: Do you still listen to tapes of yourself performing?
DA: Yeah. I tape myself for new material to see if I can make the joke better. When I'm thinking of new jokes, I immediately call five or ten people, either people I've worked with or my comedy friends, to make sure I'm not doing somebody else's joke. It's really hard these days, because everybody's got jokes, and it's really important for me to not do that. I listen to myself, I tape myself, and I'm never really happy with a joke. I always feel like there's something else I can put into it or put on it, or change it around. That's the cool thing about doing stand-up: You can go up there every night and do it differently. But in films and TV, you've got to decide on things, you've got to make choices. Stand-up is great for the indecisive person.
O: What's the worst thing that can happen to you onstage?
DA: I guess the worst thing that can happen is getting shot, like a Lincoln kind of thing. I've bombed. People have tried to fight me. There have been riots in the room. I guess the worst thing would be some kind of natural disaster or attack, like a fire or something. I don't really expect it to go 100 percent great every time I get on stage. I kind of get off on the sweet smell of bombing. I like to bomb a little bit, because I guess I thrive off of negativity. I like it when it's a little rough. But I don't like all these people buying me shots the whole time, because then I can't talk by the end of the night. I used to drink on stage, too. I'll have a beer up there, but it can't be shots the whole way through. They should be the ones drinking.
O: Do you think comedy would benefit from more public feuds, like hip-hop has?
O: Are there a lot of private feuds we don't hear about?
DA: Well, it's a competitive business, but I don't think it's like hip-hop at all. The way stand-up is now, it's anybody's game. It's hard to get the stage time. It's a lot easier than it probably was 20 years ago, with more clubs and more access to television, but it's hard to fill a room. Unless you're on TV, or people know who you are, they won't come down and see a comic, and that's a mistake. They should go down and support their local comic, to help them get better. The way they get better is by going on stage a lot, and hopefully finding what makes them funny. When people come down to a comedy show–unless it's some huge show like Kings Of Comedy, or some gigantic act like Jamie Foxx or Seinfeld–they're going to see some guy who's fighting a palimony suit and a drug problem, and he's up there hoping he'll get on Conan. You're going to see a guy who's just comfortable on stage, or a lady who's just got like 20 minutes of solid material. And if they can't get off on that, then fuck 'em, because it's still the cheapest night out there is. People will go see bands for hours, bands that sound exactly the same, one after the other, and there will be, like, their girlfriends, and their friends, and all their supporters down there. Comics don't have that. It's just them alone, and they need people to come down. It's not like somebody's theater group, where you have your theater friends come down. You've got to have an audience.
O: Would you describe it as an inherently lonely profession?
DA: I like the loneliness of it, because there's not so many people you have to deal with. It is lonely. The road is a lonely time. You're out there in a hotel in some small town, and you don't know anybody. I kind of like that, though. I like that you can go out on the road and get away from all your problems. The loneliness of it is that whenever you're about to do something, it's always on you. It's like, to get ready for Conan, I've got to get out there and work the same four minutes over and over and over, and listen to my own horrible voice on the tape recorder. I don't have a producer or a sound engineer who can do that. I have to do all that. Either you like that, or you don't like it.