Dave Attell is watching a clip of himself from Comedy Central’s Last Laugh ’07 on my cell phone (thank you, Verizon LG Voyager!). He’s joking about how the Kardashians are hot and hairy.
"That’s good. I can watch that and write that down in case I do Conan again," Attell tells me in a Starbucks in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Wait. Conan? Is the strike over? Not yet. "But I have to be ready," he said. He booked a date well in advance, and he said if the strike ends in time, he’d need to know what jokes he could get away with on network TV and fast. "Plus, I only have 12 jokes," he said. We know better.
Attell has a new HBO special debuting on Saturday called Captain Miserable. It’s his first major TV appearance since wrapping up Insomniac for Comedy Central with a concert stop in Las Vegas. He taped the show this summer in a D.C. theater (the same one Jim Norton taped his recent HBO special in — did HBO get a package deal there or something?), and already, Attell wonders if the jokes hold up. Sort of. "It was a different world six months ago," he said. "Then we were losing in Iraq. Now we’re winning. Lindsay Lohan was in rehab. Now she’s running for president."
But seriously. The first time Attell told me about his HBO special, he wondered about the editing process. What was that all about? "It was a hard edit, because the producer lived in L.A., I lived in New York…Plus, I hate watching myself and you have to watch yourself over and over and over and over. So you’re already sick of it," he said.
He wonders what I thought of it.
Find out that, what Attell thinks of his jokes, selling himself, kids today and more, after the jump.
Well, the special did have one odd edit in the opening montage, in which Attell performs magic tricks on audience members — I saw a pile of cards on the floor in the aisle that got cut (Attell said it was merely your basic card trick) — and otherwise…you want to know the bits, here they are: Can’t be alcoholic on wine. Jager ads. Performing for the troops. NASA vs. NASCAR. Crocodile Hunter’s murder. Fears of the retarded. Blind man climbing Mt. Everest ? Pot vs. booze. Fat people who don’t act fat. New soups. Juices. Flowers vs. a kick in the cooch. Women shaving. Pedophiles. Wrestling a dog. Lindsay Lohan. "The unholy rosaries." And he closes on what he considers "the world’s longest s–t joke."
But when he wanted input, I told him he doesn’t seem as much in his element on a big theater stage. I’m used to seeing him in clubs. The vibe feels different.
"I’m glad you put it in that way," he tells me. "I’m a club comic. Clubs are where I feel most comfortable…Once you get over 1,000 seats, jokes aren’t enough. You have to pull out a puppet, or a guitar." Or jump around and get physical? "Right…I think in D.C., it was a lot of MySpace, ‘C’mon down and see the TV show!’ crowd…I don’t think they got me. I heard a lot of groans."
Did you feel a need to re-establish yourself post-Insomniac? "I had to get back out on the road and do another special, do one for myself," he said. "It all takes so much time in TV. You really need to focus long-term." Doing one on HBO, of course, allowed Attell to really be himself. No worry about censors. Which partially explains his closing bit, although he snuck in a reference to news that Dave Chappelle apparently had broken his own record for longest set, at six hours plus at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood (by the way, why does all of the allegedly big news in comedy come out of that club? might it have something to do with the lack of witnesses and the lone attribution of Jamie Masada? just wondering). "There’s a lot of people out there trying to do longest set. Eight hour sets. I’m going to start the world’s longest s–t joke competition," Attell said.
But back to my earlier question, about establishing himself after Insomniac…what about that? "I wanted my persona back from a lot of comics who were borrowing it," he said. Joking (?). He did want audiences to know he was a comic first and foremost. Not merely a TV host. "When you see someone live vs. seeing them on TV, it’s usually disappointing, because they (the audience) don’t know what to expect…I want people to see I’m a dirty comic. Edgy — no, everyone says edgy — I’m not Gallagher."
For a guy promoting an HBO special, though, Attell sounds like a guy who feels he could be doing better. "The thing is, now I’m exhausted and I have to go back out on the road," he said. "I didn’t pick my greatest hits."
Attell really does sound as though he feels he could’ve capitalized more on his Comedy Central TV credit. "Long story short, I should’ve kept doing the show, quit doing stand-up, get on a few celebrity poker shows and move to L.A. If I were to re-manage myself…" he said. And he’s only slightly joking. It is different for him on the road, though, compared to other stand-ups with fan bases who know them outside of stand-up and have to learn the difference. Take Bob Saget. Or not. "But he was a TV icon," Attell said. "No one forced him to do America’s Funniest Home Videos. Yet." OK. Maybe a bad choice. How about Artie Lange? "He has a fanatical fan base. He and Norton both do. Because radio still does more for comedy than anything else," Attell said.
He has some other projects in the works, including Dave’s Place, an odd duck of a live-action/animation hybrid he just debuted Wednesday on Funny or Die.
And that makes him think more about Los Angeles. "In L.A., it seems like you get an idea, call a friend, they call a friend, and it gets on Adult Swim. There it seems like everyone’s a self-producer…here, I do stand-up comedy…New York is definitely the place to become a good stand-up, but once you go to L.A., it’s a whole different story," he said. But Attell remains a New Yorker. And for the past 17 years, when he’s not on the road, you’ve been likely to see him working out new material at the Comedy Cellar. "I always try to do new jokes. Really push myself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing the same 12 jokes you know over and over…but you have to keep pushing yourself," he said. "It’s really monotonous saying the same thing — after saying the same thing on the road."
I say the Internet has made kids feel as though they don’t need to work the club system or put in the time or pay their dues, if only they can come up with some magical video that everyone will watch and that alone will get them a development deal? Attell has a different view. Especially since the Internet allows him to hear from his fans. Attell mentions the story of Judd Apatow writing and tracking down Steve Martin. "I would never do that or have that kind of chutzpah. Kids have no problem saying, ‘I think I’m funny,’ looking for input. I tell them to go to the clubs and tape yourself. They don’t want to hear that."
He thinks Last Comic Standing made a better example of what’s going on with comedy today, going back to the first winner, Dat Phan. "It’s sad all around, because no one would have come to the club without seeing Last Comic Standing, but he got talked into being a headliner when he could’ve middled," Attell said. "Visibility, notoreity beat anything else." He said the comedy circuit has plenty of people working it who have nothing to do with comedy, but have name recognition from reality TV or something else and that gives club owners enough reason to book them.
But that brings us back to the Internet, right? About how some people know how to work the system better, whether it’s meeting fans after a show, selling more merch or galvanizing their fans online? Attell imagines his online pitch: "You know, if you go to my site, Pretty Pretty Please With Sugar On Top…Couldn’t you take a night off from the methamphetamine?" But some comics have profited from this. "I’m horrible at that," Attell said. "I don’t think my crowd is a buying crowd…The best thing is when someone comes up afterward with a CD, because they are a fan. You can tell they’re a fan and willing to buy it and not just go to iTunes."
Are you tempted to make the move to Los Angeles? "Yeah, I’m going to go out there, and more than just the usual 10 days. Like a month or two," Attell told me. "I’m really at a I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself point right now."
Although he does have ideas. Like this TV pitch. "On Your Mark, Get Set, Brunch! It’s an afternoon show, built on celebutantes and metrosexuals," he joked. "And yes, it’s already sold to Oxygen." A sample soundbite: "Did you see Who-Dee-Who walking out with Gadang-Gadang?"