Some people know Dave Attell as the host of Comedy Central’s hilarious nocturnal travel show Insomniac. Others know him as the acid-tongued, quintessential New York comic who looks like, as he claims, “Andre Agassi with a drinking problem.” Either way, he’s funnier than just about everyone else on the planet, and he performs today at "The Comedy Festival" in Las Vegas. If you leave for the airport as soon as you’re done reading this interview, you can probably still make the show.
Out of all the bizarre late-night jobs you saw filming Insomniac, which would you most want to do?
I liked the crime scene clean-up thing, even though that is kind of macabre job. But I think that’s really cool because those guys have to do it all themselves and it’s something I didn’t know about. You always see it on TV—on like CSI and all that stuff—but it’s the cleaning it up themselves. I think that one would be cool. I couldn’t do any of the other manlier jobs, like coal mining or fishing. I’m a bit of a wuss.
During Insomniac, how did people react when you’d pop up in their hometown?
I tried to be as nice as possible to as many people as we met, and I’m glad that we included every type of group. We tried to show a whole night in the town and we always left somebody out, and I’d feel so bad. It’s really hard to continue doing that, once the show catches on, when there are thousands of people around you and you can’t really have the intimate kind of thing we were really going for. In a way it was good and in a way it was bad, that it caught on like that.
Last year, you headlined the Insomniac Tour. Why have tours like that one—or the Kings of Comedy Tour or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour—become so popular?
I think the reason why comedy tours are so popular now is that there are all these venues across the country, and for some reason, people aren’t going to see bands the way they used to. Bands became over. For the typical kid, you’ve only got so much money to spend, and when tickets are 100 or 200 bucks to go see the band, plus merchandise, the T-shirts and everything, they’re like, “Fuck it, I’ll just watch it on YouTube.” I think comedy fills the void; it’s a cheap show to put on in venues. You don’t travel with a band or a big guitar tech or roadies. It’s basically just you and a mic, so it’s a cheap tour.
Do you think that’s what has helped make comedy more popular in general?
Comedy Central’s the one that really kind of gave big comedy a comeback.… Chappelle did his own thing over there. Especially the college kids, they really latch on to it. So I think Comedy Central was the one who really exploded comedy back up. You’re right, the Kings of Comedy was kind of the original tour; we’re all just kind of doing a version of that.
Before Insomniac, you were a writer on Saturday Night Live. Are Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and 30 Rock at all accurate? Is that what working at SNL was like for you?
I was really a low-key writer there—I spent most of my time trying not to get fired. But yeah, I guess so. It’s a cocky scene. Those shows are pretty accurate. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes [stuff] that people should see.
To be quite frank, I really thought they didn’t let the funniest stuff out. They really would just do a lot of characters over and over and over. I think even Lorne Michaels said it himself, that if you look at the first season or the first couple of seasons of the show, the things that they were talking about—like Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase doing the jungle bunny sketch and all that. That’s so politically incorrect now that they could never even do that. And it’s sad, because that was the one show; they were the cutting edge show. Now, I’d say The Daily Show is, or South Park is, where you get the hard things and they try to make light of them. In a sense, that’s a sad thing: when SNL is more of a franchise than it is a show.
You were also a correspondent on The Daily Show in the ’90s, right after Craig Kilborn left. How do you think the show’s changed since your time there?
Well, going from Craig Kilborn to Jon Stewart is like going from 0 to 160. I mean, Jon’s at the top of his game and he’s a great, great comic. I think Kilborn was more of a sports guy and even though he did a pretty good job, I think Jon’s taken it to the next level…. As a comic it’s good to see smart comedy out there, even though mine isn’t.
So do you feel like comedy’s getting dumber?
I feel like nobody gives comedy a chance anymore. One of my friends is in a sitcom, and you’re like, “How’s that show going?” And they’re like, “Well, we’re waiting to see.” And the next week it’s cancelled, and they’re like, “Give it a chance!” They spent all this money making a pilot and doing whatever, doing all these different things, and they’re just like, “Give it a chance!”
It’s such a cutthroat thing. I get a pilot for a thing and—this is just how it works in Hollywood—they shoot the pilot and the whole time everyone’s telling you how great it is and then the next week they’re like, “That was a disaster.”
Who are your biggest comedy influences?
Well, the comics that I liked that are dead are Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison and Richard Pryor. There are other guys that influenced me, like Redd Foxx—he’s a down and dirty guy; I liked his stuff. And Don Rickles—I think he is kind of the original crowd work dude, or he’s the original one that I saw. He definitely did that, and I’m a New York comic, so we work the crowd a lot…. Especially in New York, everybody’s really rough and ready. In LA, the crowds just kind of sit there. I don’t know what that’s about. They want to be performed to, so if you ask them something they get kind of shocked.
Doug Stanhope, I think, is the best example of what a comic should be, even though not many people know about him. He hosted The Man Show for a season. He’s an amazing comic. He goes to these really dark places and tries to talk about them…. He doesn’t shy away from pretty much anything, and I wish he had more of a following than he did.
Mitch Hedburg also is passed away. He was such a great joke writer. But I think Mitch was such an entity unto himself that what I got from him was that there’s jokes in the normal things. Kind of like how Seinfeld does it—observational humor—but Mitch’s observational humor, he got it from a different dimension.
You’ve performed for the troops with the USO. Do you do a different kind of material for those shows?
Yeah, you don’t do anything that ends with explosion or death. I went through my act and I was going through my oldest jokes because they’re my cleanest. I have a joke where my cousin had a baby and I was watching her breast feed for a couple of months. I thought, probably one of these guys’ wives is having a baby, so that’ll make them homesick, so I’m not going to do that joke. You’ve got to watch for the small double meanings and stuff with the troops. You don’t want to make them homesick and you don’t want to make them angry, because they’re armed.
It’s a fine line. No matter what show I did—whether they dug me or not afterwards—every guy came up and said, “Thanks a lot for coming here.” I guess they feel like you’re Mr. Fucking Show Business and you take off your whoring, drinking and drugging and come over there, and that’s a big deal for them.
The big thing is that we have to send more of those cheerleaders. They love it. Those girls are fucking amazing. They’re heroes. They do like 100 bases in 10 days. It’s all different times, all different weather. They have to look hot, they have to do their dancing…. I give them the most credit—they don’t even get paid. I don’t know why they do that. They were the ones the troops really loved.
What was the toughest part about doing the USO tour?
It’s hard to do the hospital visits, to go over and see them in the zones. It’s really very hard when you go in there and see a young guy who might know who you are, might not know who you are, and his face lights up—and he just lost his leg. Or some guy’s in a coma, and you walk in, and the family’s gathered around, and you’re told he’s probably going to die, and you try to say hello and take a picture. That’s the real hard part of it.
Tell me about your video, "Fuck It or Eat It."
“Eat It or Fuck It.”
“Eat It or Fuck It,” excuse me. What’s the story behind that?
You’re the first person to ever ask me about that, so that’s great.
I think it’s right up our readers’ alley.
Well, I want to start doing my own stuff, especially on the Internet, because my biggest problem is that I have all these ideas and I just don’t know how to execute them. So this is just something I did with friends in New York…. The Internet is definitely the place that you can try out ideas and take it to the level that they won’t let you take it on a network. Even Comedy Central has standards.
Get tour dates, read Dave’s writing, see pictures and pick up CDs and DVDs at DaveAttell.com. Also, look for the second part of our interview on CRACKED.com in the reasonably near future. (We had a lot to talk about.)