Dave Attell is a dive-bar Jacques Cousteau. For each episode of Insomniac, his half-hour travelogue about late-night culture, the globe-trotting 38-year-old comic ships off to an exotic (Amsterdam) or not-so-exotic (Salt Lake City) locale, plunges himself into a dark underworld (some seedy watering hole), and mixes with the local wildlife (draining up to twenty drinks a night and inhaling just as many smokes, with a rotating collection of his fellow degenerates). In the course of his adventures, Attell has observed genital piercings and cow inseminations, watched an obese Atlanta stripper crush beer cans with her breasts, swallowed a minnow, and been flashed by a man with a swastika tattooed on his penis.
The unlikely result is that Insomniac has become one of Comedy Central’s highest-rated shows (trailing only South Park and Crank Yankers), and Attell is a rising comic star. He does 100-plus stand-up sets a year, and he’s sat on the sacred sofas of Conan, Jay, and Dave. In February, he released a new comedy CD, Skanks for the Memories, and a DVD compilation, The Best of Insomniac. Jon Stewart, who came up with Attell on the Village comedy scene, calls him “the funniest man in New York. His strong point is his ability to mix alcohols without getting nauseous.”
Raised on Long Island, in Rockville Centre, Attell graduated from NYU in 1987 with a degree in communications, then began performing at open-mike nights, inspired by his comic heroes, Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison. “I wasn’t good at anything else,” he says. He calls his style “edgy and dirty”—and he’s right. In the course of this interview alone, he makes cracks about masturbation, cancer, and the Holocaust.
Heavyset, wrinkled, and bald, Attell says he looks like “a gigantic rabbinical student trafficking in ecstasy.” The self-described alcoholic and loner lives by himself in a one-bedroom Chelsea apartment. His pets and hobbies? “I consider drinking to be a pet and a hobby.”
The fourth season of Insomniac begins May 29 at 10 p.m. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Attell sat at an outdoor diner near the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he was frequently greeted with Oh-my-God! shouts from loudly dressed students on their way to a block party. “It must be FIT’s spring fling,” he mused. “ ‘A salute to buttons’ or something.”
New York: How did you get the idea for Insomniac?
Dave Attell: The genesis was Wild On, that E! show. You sit at home watching it, you might masturbate to it, but you know none of those people would ever talk to you. I’ve never watched a model get in a shark cage off Australia. So I wanted to do that kind of show, but with ugly people, like myself.
Most TV shows make drinking look fun. But when you do a shot, you wince.
It doesn’t taste good, but it does the job. It’s medicine for the little hurt inside of you. You’re 40 years old and living on your mom’s couch? Put some alcohol on it.
You took the show overseas this season. Is stand-up different in Europe?
You know how a couple of years ago, all jokes ended with Monica Lewinsky? All their jokes end with George Bush. People were very political. My humor didn’t translate. My humor is pretty much midgets, masturbation, and monkeys—the three M’s.
Since smoking’s illegal now in New York bars, will you leave town?
I love this town, but it gets a little less fun every year. They just make it such a hassle if you’re a night person. I want to get out before they build a food court at ground zero.
You dedicated your CD to your late dad, Harold, “a funny guy.”
My dad was very sarcastic and verbally abusive, and we were sarcastic right back at him. That’s what trained me for stand-up. He was not a have-a-catch-on-the-lawn dad; he was a lay-on-the-couch-smoking-a-cigar dad. “Kids, I bought you BB guns. Now go outside and use them.”
Women in bars flash their breasts for your cameras. Isn’t that a loss of dignity?
I try not to be an old lecherous guy, like Al Goldstein: “Show me those juggies!” But I’d rather get flashed by a drunk girl in New Orleans than hear a girl sing on American Idol. I think that’s a loss of dignity.
You don’t like reality shows?
There’s no reality show that is off-limits. Sometimes I’ll get to a pitch meeting, and I’ll say, “Okay, a 24-hour cancer hospice!” And they’re like, “Hmmm. Is there a hot tub?”
Has success made it harder for you to hang out in bars?
It took me a long time to accept that people recognize me and want to buy me shots. I shouldn’t be going to bars as much as I do, anyway. I’m trying to get healthier: quit smoking, get the drinking down, lose some weight.
You? Lose weight? What would people think?
They would probably think, This guy has a crank problem. I would lose a lot of weight for the right project, like a Holocaust movie. You gotta really thin down for that.
Will the show go overseas again next season?
This is the last season. I want to end it before it gets like Frasier, where it’s on TV all the time: “Oh, there’s that old bald guy who thinks it’s cool to drink all the time.”