Interview: Dave Attell, Stand-Up Comic

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Just prior to his HBO special Captain Miserable, I talk to Dave Attell about how stand-up is presented on TV, performing for all of America and how moms want their sons to be Jerry Seinfeld.

Why is the special titled Captain Miserable? You don’t seem like a sad guy from your performances.

That’s my clown mask. Nah, I had a lot of different names that I wanted to use. But I’m sick of all these names which are “Notorious” or “Never-ending”. Seems like it’s more of a condom name. Not to put ‘em down. But “Relentless” or “Notorious”…

It’s hyping up the persona of the performer

Yeah. I always like to go the other direction, which is make it a funny title. I’m probably never going to write a book, so it’s the only thing I’ll get to title.

To get to the point, I am a miserable prick. But I’m also a captain. (laughs)

Captain Miserable was filmed in a theater. How is that different than the intimacy of a comedy club?

I am a club comic. I’ve been doing it for twenty years. The special you always want to be special. I’ve done theaters and I’ve done a theater tour here or there. That’s the way we went with it.

But it’s a lot harder for theater it seems for me that it is in the clubs. In a club, you can always work the crowd, you can kind of work off the energy that’s coming right back at you. At a theater you have to wait for people, you have to give it some breath so everybody gets it. Especially if it’s being taped. You want every joke to hit. So it kind of goes against my nature timing of jokes.

You feel like you’re a faster comic and being a theater kind of slows that down.

A theater you feel more performance. I feel like I’m letting down the crowd more in a theater than I am a club. (laughs) Kind of like the difference between supper and lunch.

That’s the thing about stand-up on television. You so often see in a theater and rarely see it in a comedy club. Do you wish they would show it more in a comedy club?

I don’t care where they show it – in a theater… outdoors is always a death knell. But if it’s in a theater or a club, as long as it’s not censored and the people who are there are there to see comedy, I think it’s great. A lot of people are there to see network versions of stand-up, like Last Comic Standing or something like that. I’m not talking about being super filthy or dirty. It really is difficult to get your point across with network explorerds for products and different things that you’re not allowed to talk about. Often when you do your five or six minute spot on whatever show you’re not allowed to do what you do in the clubs. You got jerry-rig it. The cool thing about HBO is they have no restrictions. You get to see more material the way it’s meant to be.

I saw you in Vegas at last years Comedy Festival. There you talked about pineapple juice, you had that line about “Santa’s pussy” – which I loved. And that is in the special, but not that Santa part. Is it strange when people are anticipating a joke?

No. Now, you’re making me feel bad because now I just remembered that tag. (laughs) My jokes change a lot. And the problem with me doing something on tape is I can’t really look at myself. I’ll always listen for the next thing I have to do. I’m like, “I should have told that joke better and that joke differently.” So I try and tag it out as much as I can.

It’s interesting with the products. You were probably never able to say Jagermeister on Comedy Central.

No, it wasn’t allowed to. Well, Comedy Central I did that big drinking show where I would drink Jager. And I did drink Jagermeister for years and years and years. But nobody ever tied it to me sponsoring Jager or being the voice of the Jagermeister bottle or anything. The only thing that ever happened was they sent me a hundred little Jager bottles. Which is cool, but y’know…

Tiny Bottles

Yeah. Very tiny. I set them up in a Civil War Chess Set.

But yeah, you’re not allowed to talk about drinking and driving. You’re not allowed to talk about all kinds of things. So I got as much of those jokes out as I could.

But also, I got across… I’m 42. I’ll be 43. The drinking and sex stuff… even though I dip in and out of that life, I know I gotta step up to the next thing. I wonder what I’m going to talk about next. I want to be the guy who talks about mortgage rates. (laughs) I want to pick a topic that’s so different. “Hey, here comes that guy. He talks about the housing situation.”

You’re a funny man, so wherever you go in life, you’ll find some humor in it. Are you trying to, for the lack of the better term, clean up?

“Clean Up and Grow Up” would be the next special. It’s funny there’s a million ways to say pussy. It’s almost like the aloha of comedy. There’s a million ways to drinking jokes and all that kind of stuff. But all the other kind of jokes…

I’d like to think this special was a crossroads thing for me. It is kind of a dream for me, because from when I started that was kind of the ultimate thing you can do. George Carlin did it. I wouldn’t put my stuff near anywhere near their ability or expertise. But it’s just cool to be in that crowd. I do feel like it freed me to do personal appearances and to whore myself out for the next few years. (laughs) No, it was really like a milestone. Doing your first network appearance - for me, I believe it was like Conan or Letterman – and then doing all the different things, like Comedy Central. But the HBO hour is, I still think, a milestone. To me, I think I’ve done something. This was before the Internet, where HBO was the place where you got to see comedy as it was meant to be seen. And they’re still kind of holding the flag up.

It’s going to be interesting to see where HBO’s go without Chris Albrecht (former CEO), who was a kind of standard-bearer for stand-up there.

Well, now they’re going a full puppet banjo… (laughs) The fact they’re still doing them is great. And people like it. It breaks up the boxing and the films with Jeremy Irons in them.

Speaking of how stand-up is presented, how do you feel about people recording your act on cell phone cameras and such?

As long as I’m not saying the N-word I guess I’m OK. I don’t like it because I feel this person’s not laughing, they’re recording. I have a lot of things with the crowd. I have a lot of problems. When they get it, I don’t like it because it’s too easy. When they don’t get, I’m like “these people are too stiff.” I think I’ve been doing too much stand-up lately.

Like last night at the (Comedy) Cellar… I don’t know if you know this, but our town is being flooded with Europeans and their Euros. It’s funny how we’re becoming the local for sex tourism.

So instead of going to Thailand, they’re coming here.

Yeah, they’re coming to New York. Unfortunately, New York hasn’t been fun for ten years so I think they’re all disappointed. But they come to the Comedy Cellar and they’re looking at me. And I can tell they’re European, they’re very stiff and I know it’s only a matter of time before I… I kind of have a three strike and then I attack rule. I’ll try a joke, I’ll try a new joke and then I’ll try another new joke and then, if this a Tuesday night, I’m here for new material. I’m not here to see if my pussy joke works. I know that works. I’m here to explore something. So if they don’t get it…

And to give them credit, these shows go on and on and on. They’re there for like six hours. I’m coming in, at like, 12:30. I don’t expect much, but I at least expect some energy.

It’s very strange because I’ve been a shows where Europeans are there and they don’t speak English.

They don’t.

Which makes a comedy show a weird choice.

They come to comedy, because when they go back to their lands of boredom and tell them, “Oh I’ve seen it. It’s not that great.”

I just read Steve Martin’s book and he talks a bit about why he got out of stand-up. He said it became less about comedy and more about hosting a party in his honor. Did you ever feel that way with your drinking and partying reputation?

During the height of the Insomniac thing, I did a few tours and a lot of them were people just screaming “Insomniac” and “let’s drink!” I got that to a certain drinking. Dave Chappelle got that “Rick James” thing to the ultimate degree. Artie Lange is the newest guy on that. He gets the Stern crowd. The Stern crowd’s fanatical. He drinks and he likes to drink.

That is true. Steven Martin is a guy I really respect. I like a lot of his movies and I like his style. His comedy, y’know, is what it is. He was one of the biggest touring acts there ever were. I think it was cool that he walked away from it. Because he was the biggest act in the country.

Another cool thing with him… I didn’t read the book. He doesn’t do drugs or anything. He’s a real straight arrow. He’s not only a super well-read guy, but he’s philosophical and metaphysical. He’s a multi-layered dude. But I think that’s cool that he wrote the book.

I would highly recommend it. It’s a good book.

I heard it’s kind of a big fuck you to his dada.

It is a big fuck you to his dada to some degree.

Which all comedy is.

Do you feel like your comedy is a fuck you to your dada?

No. I think my dad… it’s really funny. I never really wanted to be in show business. And I don’t really consider myself in it. I have a lot of self-destructive tendencies. But I do my dad’s persona on stage a lot. That is basically: a guy from the street who’s way over his head who kind of bulls his way through it. I kind of how I got the courage to get on stage and do it. My dad thought he was really funny. That was always the joke: “He’s funny, just ask him.” (laughs)

He was like a business guy. He was a big influence on me. He passed away before he saw me… he saw me do some TV stuff. But I think he saw me floundering a lot more. But he would have enjoyed that fact that I had a TV show and that I’m doing a special and that I’m supporting my mother. All that kind of stuff.

That’s kind of refreshing. I think people because of the kind of stuff you do might think you didn’t have a good family life. That’s the rap on comedians to some degree. But it sounds like your family life was pretty strong.

I don’t blame my family. There’s problems in every family. That’s the least of my problems. They don’t think they have as much influence on me. Maybe subconsciously they do. But I’m the black sheep. I drink and smoke and the rest of them don’t. And they’re all normal. And now I’m the only one who’s not married.

The thing about the influence of family: every mother wants their son to be Seinfeld. Seinfeld or Eddie Murphy. The rest of them are too dirty or they don’t get it. They really only get three people. Seinfeld, Ray Romano and Eddie Murphy.

Eddie Murphy’s a little dirty there.

Yeah, but even that – it’s so good-natured. He’s so likable.

I know you’re close to Doug Stanhope. But he kind of hates New York – a place you love. Do you ever have any conversations about that?

I think he’s secretly afraid of New York.

Somebody like him who’s no-hold-barred is afraid of New York? Really?

Yeah, I don’t get it. I brought him on stage at the Comedy Cellar one time. And he was like, “Don’t bring me on.” Which is usually what every comic says and then you come on. And then I thought we’d do like a little patter, where I’d set him up for his jokes. It was a late night. But he was up there and he was like, “I really hate New York and I fucking hate you for bringing me up here.” And I’m like, “Wow, that’s great. It’s really hard to dig my way out of that.” (laughs) He totally doesn’t like New York. And I don’t know what that is. I guess that’s because he’s from Boston originally. I think that’s the Boston influence. And I don’t if he doesn’t like the comedy scene here or he just doesn’t like the idea of the town.

How do you balance out new jokes and material with the desire to give people a good show. Do you try them out only at the Cellar and other places around the city?

Man, I gotta tell you, I feel performance-wise I let people down a lot. I’ll be up there… I’ll either try a whole bunch of new stuff and people will be left out and I’ll attack them for not getting it. Or I’ll do stuff which I know the crowd is not going to get because I want to hear what it sounds like in front of a crowd. When it’s like the first show at seven in some farm town and there’s old people, and I want to see what the new take I have on abortion goes. My generation of comics I don’t know if we have that “put on a show” for a people like the classic performers, the Danny Kayes and the Milton Berles. I don’t think I have that.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate them coming out and spending their money and taking their time. And I know that I’m part of this weird web where I hope the waitresses get tipped and the club keeps going. I feel responsible. A lot of guys will walk the room. I don’t do that. But sometimes I know I can see the disappointment in their eyes. Just because they know me from TV. It’s a double-edged sword, the more they know from TV, the more they come to see you. But the more you don’t deliver of what they see on TV, the more disappointed they are. So it’s kind of hard to balance who you are.

Like, the Bob Saget thing. He says he’s this edgy comic. But he’s stifled that to such a degree that now there’s this big awakening that people see he’s so different. For years he really took the paycheck. And I don’t feel sorry for him one bit. That’s all choices.

I know that George Carlin says that the audience isn’t there for themselves, they’re there for him. You don’t necessarily have that sense of – I don’t want to say arrogance or ego – but that level of self-confidence to say this about me.

I have a weird take on myself and what I’m trying to do. I’m a late night comics so it’s really about control, new material, survival skills than it is about the LA alternative scene. Where it’s “Let’s all come down. We’re all in the know. There’s a lot of people here in show business.” I find those people have a relaxed performance. They really perform. They don’t have the crowd work skills New York east coast people have with interruptions and people walking out or just distracting.

It frees them to do more esoteric stuff, which I like to do too. But I kinda do what Doug (Stanhope) does. Doug does some stuff that you could say is beyond jokes. It’s philosophy. It’s very opinion based. And the fact that he does it in, like, Ohio, that’s the balls of it. That to me will always be the balls of Bill Hicks. People will talk about his material. His material done in Alabama that really (makes him) the man. It’s not done at Largo.

It’s one thing to preach to the converted. In another thing, to go out into these places and actually do it.

And I will always feel that way because I’m a road comic. If I was in LA, I’d be like, “What are you talking about. People are the same everywhere.” And they’re not. LA has it’s own scenes. New York has a scene too. But you gotta go on the road to really see what the… I think, Leno said that. Don’t be a regional comic. Find a joke that works everywhere in the country. And it’s true.

I think I read once that you said that if you did a joke in New York that you know it works everywhere, where as if you did a joke in LA you don’t know. Do you think New York has more in common with the rest of the country than a place like LA?

I think New York isn’t as cool as it used to be. And definitely the crowds I see in New York are more middle-of-the-road than they were a couple of years ago, but that’s true everywhere.

By middle-of-the-road, I mean people have learned to groan at words. Pussy… whatever the words are, they grown at it. You gotta get pass that. I think I recently gotten pass that. I used to confront them on it. But it just makes you look like an asshole. They’re already tense, you’re just tensing them up more.

I think it’s interesting because you’re another side of what New York is. People have this image of New York as very precious and effete, but it’s also a strong blue-collar town. And you kind of fit that image of that more street-fighting side of the town.

That’s a very Norman Mailer-esque way to look at me as a dick joke comic. (laughs) I see myself… I can do a dick joke and I can also do a crazy, I guess you would say Steven Wright-type, joke. Doesn’t give you all the pieces, you gotta figure it out for yourself. And combining the two is what I like to do.

The best part about New York, there’s a lot of clubs. There’s a lot of places to go on when you’re starting comedy. There’s a lot of open mics, which are really important for getting a new comic stage time. And unlike LA there’s show all the time and late. They may not be the best shows but it’s stage time. And LA, it seems the stage time aspect is so drawn out and so convoluted. On the weekend they have these self-promoter shows, this is the weekend and they’re having a “funniest Rabbi contest.” It bothers me. LA Comedy is more celebrity driven. People will come out if it’s a name. Whereas in New York they’ll just come out. It’s cool when they come out and they go “that was really funny. I’m glad we tried that.” That’s cool. This isn’t going to be like the punk rock scene where people come back every night. If they come once a month, then we’re doing great.

I hear a lot of comic love that people are coming out to see them. But it seems you love the idea of people discovering you.

I can’t even tell you who my crowd is sometimes. Sometimes it’s younger people. Sometimes it’s older people. Sometimes it’s a lot of frat kids. There was a time when I had this… I think they were the disenfranchised type. I think Doug and I had the same crowd for a while. His crowd is probably more true to that.

I don’t expect anybody… I’m doing what I’m doing and whoever wants to see it, I love it. But I don’t get off on filling an amphitheater. Because I know the watering down of what you do is not worth the money you’re going to make. I’m not a purist by any means. But I’m just a little sick, or miserable if you will (laughs), of trying to get in more people to see something I’m know going to have to convert. I’m not that talented where I can change. I’m doing what I’m doing.

There’s a lot of ego in comedy. It is an ego thing. It really is. To say I filled this theater is an amazing thing. But it must be better for other people, because when I do it, it’s a stressful, “holy shit, I hope I have enough material that all these different types of people are going to like.”

As I go forward I realize it’s not really a numbers game, it’s more of a quality game. I hope one day I hope to find five members of ultimate quality to sit on my couch and listen to me while I’m talking.

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Posted by Reg on 12/11  at  01:27 PM

Great interview.  Attell has a very interesting perspective on performing and the differences between teh two coasts.  But, for f@ck$ sake, proofread your article!

Todd Jackson
Posted by Todd Jackson on 12/11  at  02:03 PM

Thanks for the praise. I was unfortunately transcribing this to the last second, so it’s a bit rough. I just went through and did a quick check, but admittedly, I’m not the best proofreader in the world. If anybody sees a mistake, please feel free to email me and let me know about it.

Posted by Raj on 12/12  at  11:30 PM

Great interview and great questions.  You really did an amazing job.  Dave Attell really is a comic genius and I like his prospective on performing.  He’s portrays his multifacet, nervous, manic depressive, don’t give a fuck personality really well.

Posted by Jesse as is. on 12/13  at  12:44 PM

D.A. is the dude!

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