If any comedian should have fallen prey to hard partying and non-stop working, it’s Dave Attell. After appearing on practically every late-night talk show on television, performing live in the Middle East for the USO, and taking his stand-up act across the country an innumerable amount of times, he should be burnt out by now. Starting his comedy career in New York clubs in the late ’80s, Attell attained a cult following based on his uncompromising, honest take on comedy—which was finally recognized when Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels caught his stand-up act on The Late Show With David Letterman. He wrote for SNL for a season, parlaying that gig into several HBO specials and spots on Comedy Central shows such as Dr. Katz and The Daily Show, which eventually led to his own show, Insomniac With Dave Attell. Most recently, he hosted a short-lived rehash of The Gong Show on Comedy Central, and has come full circle, ready to hit the road again. Still going strong and gearing up for his next tour—which includes a three-night stint at D.C. Improv this weekend—Attell spoke with The A.V. Club about fame, getting cancelled, and being on the wagon with Artie Lange.
The A.V. Club: How has your profile changed since Insomniac? Is it hard to walk down the street without being hassled?
Dave Attell: Sometimes. I get recognized, but I’m not really a famous famous. I’m pretty low on the showbiz totem pole—I mean, I’m no Jon or Kate plus eight. I’m just a comic, not a baby factory.
AVC: On Insomniac, you spent many late nights with intoxicated people. Did you ever have any dangerous interactions with drunken idiots on the street that never got aired?
DA: Yes, but I was never really scared of the drunks. I was a drunk, so I usually could feel when things where getting hairy and we should move out. Overseas was totally different though. When we did the show in Brazil, you go down the wrong street and you really are in trouble. But the women are so hot and the men are women too. [Laughs.] It's wild.
AVC: What inspired you to perform for the troops in the USO?
DA: I’m too old to fight, but I wanted to do something. I’m lucky the USO lets guys like me do shows for the troops. I've got a pretty dirty act and they are totally cool with that.
AVC: Did anything scary happen over there?
DA: I’ve done a few tours with other comics and I have to say, the only time I really felt afraid was when I had to share a room with Artie Lange. I mean, you get lonely over there… hint. [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of Artie Lange, he has called you the best comedian of your generation. How much does that mean for you coming from a now-bestselling author and one of the most popular comics out there?
DA: Artie is too good to me. I’m not the comic of the generation, I’m not even the funniest guy in my family—that would be my dad. He passed away 10 years ago, but every time I think about him yelling at me with no pants on I start to chuckle. [Laughs.] As for Artie, he’s one of my favorite guys to watch… He’s is a master storyteller and a really funny guy on and off stage, which is rare in the comedy world. His live shows are legendary, he pushes it and never backs down. That’s what a great comic is supposed to do and Artie Lange does it every time he's on stage.
AVC: Does that mean you and Artie are close?
DA: Yes. We have a mutual love: Jameson whiskey. But we are both on the wagon.
AVC: Do you prefer to work in television or perform stand-up on tour?
DA: I like doing stand-up and I love putting out TV specials. I’m not an actor though, so I don’t really have much choice in the matter.
AVC: As far as recorded material, what about Skanks For The Memories? That album is six years old now.
DA: I taped that CD at the Comedy Works in Denver and the crowd was great. I have done three hour-long specials since then, but Skanks seems to be the one people love. I’m working on material for a new CD now and I hope to have it out by the beginning of next year.
AVC: That record is different than a lot of comedy albums because of how fast-paced and short the tracks are. You could probably work out to it.
DA: Wow, no one has ever told me they have worked out to my CD. [Laughs.] I think I keep the jokes short because I started doing comedy late night in NYC and by the time I got onstage the crowd was dead drunk, exhausted, and pissed off. I had to tell a lot of jokes and get laughs quickly. I had to get their attention and keep them from walking out or throwing bottles at me.
AVC: What happened with The Gong Show With Dave Attell? It seemed like it was over before it had time to really take off.
DA: It kind of sucked, and I blame myself. I knew it would be hard to remake a classic, but I thought maybe if we use really twisted acts, like a girl shooting darts out of her vagina and really funny comic judges, like Andy Dick or Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, we could tap into an audience that would never watch network-friendly shows like America’s Got Talent. I was wrong—people love that show. And I never had the time to figure out how to make the show better, as we shot six shows in a week. Either way, I did prove one thing: Chuck Barris is a TV God, and there never will be another like him.