After years of cementing his reputation as an unapologetically crass and thick-skinned comic of late-night cable TV – first with Comedy Central’s Insomniac and later with Showtime’s Dave’s Old Porn – Dave Attell was a natural selection to host Comedy Central’s first uncensored stand-up series, Comedy Underground with Dave Attell, premiering this Saturday at 1 am ET.
This new show – which features all the “fucks,” “cunts,” and incest jokes your filthy little heart desires from comics like Amy Schumer, Nikki Glaser and Ralphie May – will also be directly following the premiere of Dave Attell: Road Work, the new one-hour special from the 49-year-old treasure of stand-up.
After a few decades of dirtying up the minds of comedy audiences – coming up alongside Jon Stewart and Louis C.K. in the New York scene, with a brief stint writing for Saturday Night Live during the ’93-’94 season – Dave Attell has developed an eagle’s-eye view of humor’s social politics. During a recent interview with Laughspin, he explained that while television networks may be loosening their ties and giving vulgar comedians a no-strings platform, today’s audiences – particularly younger audiences – are often the ones taking up the role of obscenity police, turning comedy clubs into PC courtrooms and groaning at anything deemed socially objectionable.
After being an off-color comic on late-night TV for so long, it must feel pretty good to be hosting an uncensored show.
Oh yeah, you can get away with a lot more now. The networks know that they’re up against so many different platforms. There are places like HBO showing a lot of hour specials that don’t censor anything, and Comedy Central has to compete with that. I think the comics on Comedy Underground are helping to define what the boundaries are with what you can and can’t say on TV. But at the same time we have to edit each set in a way that keeps the show from being nothing but masturbation jokes; it can’t be the same dirty material over and over because that just gets boring.
So what lead to Comedy Central deciding to run an uncensored show, and what exactly are the parameters of that?
I think that was a network choice. After midnight, that’s when they stop bleeping stuff and air the material the way it was told. They could probably do it earlier, but they’d probably get in trouble since that’s the heavy duty, primetime advertising. They’ve already done that with a lot of specials like Artie Lange and Tracy Morgan, and it’s the same thing with my special. They’re going to air that after midnight, and then Comedy Underground comes afterward, because I think Comedy Underground is way dirtier than my special.
I know you’re not a one-dimensional comic, but it’s probably fair to say you’re known for delivering vulgar imagery with your jokes, and the rebelliousness of that is in part what makes it funny. But now that there’s a mainstream platform for vulgarity, does the tone need to change to keep that punch alive?
Today the line is really drawn by the audience. The audience has so much input now in comedy, with all the social media that’s out there. They’re the ones who groan, they’re the ones who get upset. The networks and all that are pretty much letting the comic do what they want to do, but the audience decides what’s PC, what’s appropriate. That’s the world we live in now — it’s a very PC world.
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But you’re still pretty old-school when it comes to a lot of those issues. When I caught your set in Denver last summer you called marijuana a “faggot coward drug.” Even if you’re not using it in the context of sexual orientation, that word is still the 21st century f-bomb for a lot of audiences.
I think if you listen to the act, a lot of those jokes are about life choices and lifestyles. You know, I’m pro-gay marriage and have given money to GLAAD and all that stuff. But I have to make it funny, I need to have a little bit of a left-turn to make it interesting and fun. I always thought that joke was kind of a throwaway, but with you guys in Colorado leading the charge on pot, it’s taken on a kind of political relevance. But yeah, with that word and that joke, it has nothing to do with sexuality. It’s an old term, and I’m an old man.
A common observation from comics like Bill Cosby or Bob Newhart is that its easier to get a laugh with off-color material, and the real challenge comes with performing clean material. What’s your thoughts on that?
Well, Cosby is a legend, and I’m sure whatever he has to say is more important than what I have to say. But yeah, it’s always more difficult to deliver a clean joke in a dirty club. The majority of people want to hear a clean joke, whether they admit it or not. I started out doing clean material so I could have a shot at getting on the networks. But there’s room for both. The majority of people that come to comedy clubs now are pretty clean people, they’re politically correct, and they live in offices where they have to watch everything they say, and they’re on the Web where they comment and judge. The comedy club is supposed to be a place where they can let their hair down: The comedian on stage isn’t delivering a speech, he’s not running for election.
But at the same time, I hear a lot of groaning from audiences in clubs. And it’s not a situation of performing at some church picnic and wondering “why didn’t they get that porn joke?” It happens with late-night crowds. With a young audience, and I’ll do a masturbation joke and they groan. And I’m like: “Why are you guys groaning?” The joke wasn’t even that dirty. Were you taught that in school or something?
I noticed with both Comedy Underground and the portion of your special filmed at the Stress Factory, you’re performing before a brick-wall background, which to me feels nostalgic for a by-gone era of comedy. Was that a conscious thought of yours, or am I just reading too much into nothing?
It wasn’t a conscious decision, but yeah, when I started in comedy it was always the brick wall. I know that now, especially when you go to LA, there’s all these weird shows in weird places, like in a laundromat or in the parking garage behind a Best Buy. And that’s all cool, because I’m all for stage-time, especially for new guys. But the club scene has kind of been forgotten in a way. All the big comics you see today started out in the clubs, they played in the clubs for years before they became the theater guy, or the TV guy. But even then they’d always say “I can’t wait to get back to the club.” These new type of shows at alternative rooms, it’s all different. The only guy I know who really does bar shows that’s my kind of comic is Doug Stanhope. And he gets people to follow him into the bar world. In my day, being on the road in clubs was where you developed your material. I have no idea how comics do it today. Podcasts, I guess.
With all that in mind, what kind of comics are you looking for when putting together an episode of Comedy Underground?
People with quick-material, people with dark or dirty material that wasn’t being used by the networks. And then I also wanted some of the older names, people that I had been on the road with for years, like Jimmy Shubert, people that have earned their stripes, and now I want to see on TV. It’s hard to balance new guys with people that are already established, but I think we got it.
What we’re not looking for is comics who are on John Oliver’s or Adam Devine’s show, which are also uncensored to some degree, but are more of the alternative comedy scene. They’re all funny and everything, but I know that the kind of crowd I want to draw is different. My personal crowd is older, they get that it’s gonna be dirty and that it’s just a joke– there’s nothing more to it than that.