By the name of his new HBO special, Captain Miserable, you’d think veteran stand-up comedian Dave Attell has a few bones to pick with life. But it’s just that he thinks the dark side of existence is funny. Turns out, he’s right.
Photos By Heidi Kikel
Just as there is such a thing as a man’s man, there are those who are a comedian’s comedian. That is, there’s a handful of comics who take to the stage each night who not only make their audience laugh but also make their professional cohorts nod in amazement.
Veteran comedian Dave Attell is, by many comics’ accounts, a comedian’s comedian. He’s one of the hardest working, well-respected and most prolific joke writers of our time. Comedian Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central special, sold-out theater tour and Sierra Mist commercial fame, was even quoted last year saying, “The fact that Dave Attell thought I was funny was very important.”
Come January, the road warrior comic will have 21 years of stand-up comedy experience under his belt. And as he was winning the respect of his peers during that time, he’s been giving a generation of true comedy fans a great many things to laugh about. He’s shown us the humor in the dark underbelly of life during the four seasons of his wildly successful Comedy Central show Insomniac, his 2004 album, Skanks for the Memories and the tour DVD that bared his show’s name two years later.
And in a few day’s time the New York City native, will have reached a mark most comics could only dream of: He will have premiered his first hour-long HBO Special, Captain Miserable (Saturday, Dec. 8 at 10 p.m. EST); three days later, the show will be available — with extras — everywhere on DVD.
Punchline Magazine recently caught up with Attell and chatted about prepping for the big HBO show, how to avoid joke thievery and the problems that arise from censoring comedians.
So can you tell us anything about the HBO special?
Well, there’s everything from magic to Steve Irwin on the new special.
Are you performing magic or just telling jokes about magic?
I don’t want to get into that.
You’re just a bucket full of secrets– very mysterious.
I really am.
Where does landing a one-hour HBO special rank on your list of career achievements?
When I first started comedy, the ultimate thing you could do is the HBO one-hour special. You’d watch George Carlin, Richard Kline, Richard Jeni, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence– they had these hour specials and they were raw and dangerous. That was what you wanted to do.
Now, people ask you, ‘What have you been up to lately?’ And you say, ‘I just shot an HBO special.’ And they say, ‘What else have you been doing?’ I guess you have to be a comic to appreciate it. People would rather hear me say that I just did a Dell computer ad. People are really more interested in TV and having a sitcom than someone doing a special.
So do people’s attitudes dilute the way you feel about the your HBO special?
No, I wish I had gotten it a year earlier. I’ve done a lot of stuff for Comedy Central but HBO is the place where you could really let it all hang out. You don’t have to edit or clear stuff with them. Comedy Central is really good too. But they have these things about endorsements and mentioning products too.
Did the HBO shoot intimidate you at all or was this just another gig for you?
I wish I had approached it like another gig. But yeah, you get frightened; you get nervous. You want it to go well. There’s always problems. It was cool to do it in a theater but I’m more of a club comic. So I think next time we do something like this, it’ll be in a smaller venue.
What about the taping made you nervous?
There were editing problems and continuity problems between the first and second show. And it comes down to the littlest things– like the water bottle. There’s a label on it. But the label isn’t on some of the shots because we filmed two different shows. So it looks weird when I take a sip. The bottle comes down and it has a label on it. Real comedy fans jump on that shit. They blog about it.
So it’s not so much your performance you were stressing about; it was the technical things?
Yeah, but it seems with me the jokes always get better as soon as it’s on tape. As soon as you put a joke on tape, you say. ‘Oh, I should’ve said it this way.’ That always seems to happen whether you’re doing a Leno or a long form thing. It’s just you always come up with better ways after you tape it.
How different is Captain Miserable than your first CD or your last DVD?
It’s not very different. It’s still drinking and sex jokes. I do some travel stuff. I talk about doing the USO tour a little bit. It’s jokey. I think that’s what people like about the Skanks for the Memories CD — there’s a lot of jokes on it. And people love those jokes. The way they edited that, there was no time in between each joke; there was very little breathing room.
This one maybe has more breathing room in the material. But I agree with fans when they say CDs are the way to go. Sometimes they like to listen to them in the car as background. With a DVD, you really have to devote your whole body and consciousness to it.
Will Captain Miserable come out on CD as well?
I don’t know about that. As of now, no. After it airs. it’ll just be a DVD that’ll come out Dec. 11. There’s some stuff on the extras from when I went to Iraq and me hanging out with other comics. And there will be a few more bits that didn’t make the actual special. You’ll have a Flavor Flav joke in there.
You’ve always said that you’re more of a club comic than anything else. But are you going to be hitting theaters after the special airs?
I’ve been touring constantly for the last 10 years. I feel like the more I’m on the road the more I can fall into my old self. So I’ll go out on a little theater tour but it’s nothing like a 50-city thing or anything like that. And I won’t be doing the bigger venues; I want to do the under-a-thousand seat places.
I think that’s way better and way more intimate than these gigantic, crazy 2,500- seat, 5,000-seat places. For me, it’s kinda ridiculous. I’m not going to sell it out. I’m not that huge or popular. And I want to give people the best show I can. And that could happen in a smaller venue.
I’m sick of these people that know you from TV and then get disappointed in person. I’m just sick of that. I’d rather get that out in the beginning. It doesn’t seem like I’m converting them into liking stand-up comedy.
Yeah. You definitely lose something when you see comedy in such a big place.
Some guys can really perform there. At that point it’s much more of a performance than it is an act. You can’t really deviate from what works because you can’t disappoint 3,000 people. You gotta hold their attention through every little punch line. You gotta make sure they get it. You don’t want to leave anyone behind.
Usually with me, I get drunk people and they’re heckling me from the darkness of the balcony, so it gets really difficult to focus on what’s going on. I’m really fine with the smaller places. The Blue Collar Tour does it right. I don’t need to do that.
Did you do anything differently to prepare for the HBO show?
I wore a jacket on stage. I tried to be more adult by wearing a jacket instead of like a bowling shirt. I started thinking, ‘How am I going to be when I’m like 50?’ You look at Rickles– he wears a tuxedo. He was smart. He made that decision early on.
Whenever I ask other comedians to tell me which working comics they respect the most, it seems your name is always on the list. In fact, last year, Jim Gaffigan was quoted saying, ‘It’s flattering when somebody likes your stuff– but the fact that Dave Attell thought I was funny was very important.’
When people say that about me, I think that’s pretty cool. It’s probably because I’m a huge tipper or I buy a round. I usually pay for a lot of booze. I guess what they like about me is that I’m always trying to write new jokes. Eighty percent of comedy is writing new material. Once you learn how to perform on stage, it’s all about coming up with jokes.
People are always like, ‘What’s your persona?’ I’m like, ‘Let the jokes guide you there.’ The jokes that you come up with, the ones that feel right, are really the ones you have to work on. The guys that I like the most are the ones thinking up jokes. I appreciate a joke writer.
Steven Wright was a big influence on me with joke writing. Also, George Carlin of course and Richard Pryor for his story telling jokes. And by watching Richard Jeni’s act at Carolines when I worked for him, he was the one who showed me how to get the most out of every bit. He was really a master at that. It’s sad that he ended that way but I think that he’s very important to comedy. He really did take it to a cool place. I learned a lot from watching him.
There’s a lot of people I think who should be more famous than they are– like Doug Stanhope, who’s a buddy of mine. I think he’s the most Bill Hicks-like of everyone out there, in the way that he does his act in bars. He’s not really in the coffee shop in LA preaching to the converted. I really do look up to him and I always go to him for advice whenever I do something whorish for money. If he’s not drunk, he’ll usually tell me straight. Sean Rouse, too, who I tour with a lot, is great. Thanks to XM and sites like yours, people are getting to know some of these off-the-radar comics.
It’s settled down a bit recently, but this year brought about a lot of talk of comedians stealing jokes. Is that something you spend time thinking about?
Comedy is all about the joke. So if you’re doing a joke and it turns out it’s someone else’s joke, then why do it? For me, I’m constantly checking my jokes. I’ll call up like five different people, like [Greg] Giraldo and Greg Fitzsimmons and say, ‘Hey, have you heard anything like this? No? Ok good. I’m sorry I bothered you.’ And that’s the way to do it.
It’s usually the jokes that work the best or the easiest where you’re like, ‘Someone else has got to be doing this.’ So you check around. But someone is always doing something like it. It’s rare that you come up with a whole new concept for a joke.
So you do a little research.
Yeah, I go to my office, which is me on my couch.
Other comics call you a workhorse. Do you feel you have a strong work ethic?
I like to perform. I like to go up a couple times a week. The more you give comedy, the more you get out of it. The real workaholics are people like Jerry Seinfeld. I used to read that before he did Letterman or something, he would start jogging and training for it like it was a fight. That always stuck in my mind. That wasn’t me. I wouldn’t do anything like that. I try not to drink the night before a big show.
I go up on stage and try things. I’ll write down an idea and bring it up on stage, tape myself and listen to it. And then like over a week, sometimes a month or sometimes longer, maybe months, you start to figure out what it is you thought initially was funny and then you shape it. The hardest part for me is that after you tape yourself you have to listen to yourself– and a lot of times you’re bombing. It’s kinda like a near death experience every time. Unless you really have a huge ego, listening to yourself rambling on, is dumb and hard.
But that’s my work ethic. I try to always have something new to say. When I go on the road, that’s where I make my money and put my shows together. When I’m in [New York] City, I’m really here to work on new material. I go up there and have fun or I take something that’s old and I’m tired of and change it around and experiment and talk to the crowd.
What do you think about the state of stand-up comedy?
I started out in the late ’80s during the [Andrew] ‘Dice’ [Clay] boom; Dice was the biggest comic in America. And now people have a lot of things to say about him. But he still does comedy. When I started it seemed like a tsunami of guitar acts, impressionists and a lot of sweater comics– a lot of Cosby-esque comics. And I’d say comedy is way better and more interesting now than it ever has been.
The only problem is that we’re kinda falling back into this PC, mall comedy that I don’t like. A lot of clubs are not supporting comics, especially on the road, when they tell them, ‘We don’t want you to be dirty, we don’t want you to talk about this or that.’ The editing of the club comic is wrong. People look at the Kramer incident as a horrendous thing. And it was a horrible thing. But the fact there’s still a place where people can really go and see raw material is cool and more people should be into that. But I guess a lot of people are into having it more sanitized and wrapped in a pretty package for them.
That’s how I think people should be selling stand-up comedy instead of ‘You’ve seen this guy on this or that’s the guy that was in Scary Movie 4 or whatever.’ It should be raw and as hardcore as possible. And if the audience doesn’t like that, they could sit at home and watch America’s Funniest Home Videos.
That’ll actually happen on the road where clubs will tell you not to say certain things?
Not me, but they’ll tell the openers and the middles. Outside of New York and LA, there’s a million little clubs and I think people forget that these clubs are where local comics get their start in their own town. They have to come up through that club system just like we do here in New York. I could tell you there was a comic who talked about abortion and someone got offended and they fired him. If people can’t take it, then they shouldn’t come down to the club.
The clubs took the side of the audience before they took the side of the comic. Outside of the comic performing an abortion on stage, I’d say you should be allowed to do whatever you want. And that’s what stand-up comedy should be. The audience needs to catch up to the comedy now. For a while it was the comics that needed to catch up to the audience.
Comedy clubs are really important for the development of comics. Theater tours are good for comics making money, but that doesn’t really help stand-up comedy. What helps stand-up comedy are these clubs surviving and thriving and letting comics say whatever they want. People now, don’t want to see just any comedy. They want to see someone that they know. When I started out, people just wanted to see comedy. People would come down and give it more of a chance. And we need more of that now.