Dave Attell: Comedy’s Angry Insomniac, Happy at Last?

During a recent performance at Caroline’s Comedy Club in Times Square, Dave Attell-the 37-year-old stand-up comic and host of Comedy Central’s late-night carousing show, Insomniac -told a joke about the time he was playing a nightclub and started riffing on shark attacks, and a woman in the audience cried out in pain.

“This woman-let’s call her Stumpy-she goes, ‘Hey, I was attacked by a shark!’” Mr. Attell said. “What are the odds-here I am, talking about shark attacks, and there is somebody in there who was attacked by a shark?”

The room laughed.

“So before we continue,” Mr. Attell said, “has anyone here ever been raped at a rodeo?”

The room paused, as if briefly shocked. Then: an eruption of laughter.

Mr. Attell, bald and barrel-chested, charged on.

“Having a job is so important now, isn’t it?” he said. “You got to look out when you look for a job because they falsely advertise. You ever see this ad in the paper: CALL UP NOW FOR YOUR DREAM JOB? YOUR DREAM JOB IS A PHONE CALL AWAY. I call up and I’m like, ‘Hello, is this the chocolate factory run by big-titted hookers?’”

Another eruption.

“Ladies, is it the size of a man’s penis that matters?” Mr. Attell asked.

A chorus of female voices responded. “Yes!”

“Well, the whores have spoken!” Mr. Attell said.

Dave Attell has been a comic for 16 years. He’s played thousands of clubs, told thousands of jokes, lobbed thousands of insults without fear. His act is a darkly abrasive stew of cursing and bawdy talk about subjects like men, women (or the lack thereof), masturbation and pornography. He is crude and smart at once; he specializes in what he calls the “educated dick joke.” At their best, Mr. Attell’s performances are raging, X-rated verbal operas-brilliantly unafraid and twisted, a combination that the television host Jimmy Kimmel compared to “a party clown jacking off into a birthday cake.” And his TV show allows Mr. Attell to drink and smoke on the air more than any performer since Dean Martin.

The public is just coming around to Mr. Attell because of Insomniac, but stand-ups have adored him for ages. His work ethic is legendarily obsessive; he writes and rewrites so much he’s regarded as something of a freak. Never satisfied, he constantly blows up his act. He’ll tell some old jokes, but nearly every one of Mr. Attell’s shows is different; each performance brings new interpretations, new lightning riffs, and always new attacks upon the audience. He brings a tape recorder to every show and listens when he gets home, trying to figure what he did wrong, what he could do better. Sometimes he’ll bomb intentionally, just to try and dig himself out.

“You just watch and you feel inadequate,” said the comic Todd Barry. “He just pulls shit out of the air. I’ve seen him do throwaways he’ll never do again, just off-the-cuff things that I would be like, ‘Man, that’s a keeper.’”

Said Mr. Kimmel: “You’d certainly have to rank him up there with-or above-the best comics working.”

Television success-and Insomniac, in which Mr. Attell travels around the country visiting nightcrawlers, many of them drunk, is one of Comedy Central’s most popular shows-has a weird way of making people feel new. But Mr. Attell is one of those talents who’s been on the verge for so long that he probably can’t remember when he wasn’t on the verge. He was a comic to watch in 1992, in 1993, in 1994, and probably every year after that. He’s performed on Letterman and Conan and written for The Jon Stewart Show and Saturday Night Live . People tried to build television shows around him before Insomniac , and it didn’t take. A stint on the Daily Show was uneven. He got fired from a part on Spin City . Tom Hertz, a comic who was a Spin City writer and later its executive producer, said of Mr. Attell: “He is not a great actor.”

Mr. Attell agrees wholeheartedly.

But it doesn’t matter. People who know Mr. Attell say that he is one of the last of a breed: a guy who is in it for the jokes. Comedy has become awfully slutty in its age; a full generation of men and women have entered the profession with the idea of using stand-up principally to graduate into television and film. The result is that many young comics spend their time onstage polishing the same sliver of mostly harmless jokes, prepping for a late-night talk-show appearance that could take them to Hollywood. Not Mr. Attell.

“He is very pure,” said Mr. Hertz. “Most comics now try to get together 12 minutes and get a sitcom-it’s a means to an end. It’s not a means to an end for Dave.” Said the comic Jeffrey Ross: “Dave really is the real thing.”

That Mr. Attell doesn’t look very Hollywood, doesn’t suck up to Hollywood, and is something of a personal mystery only burnishes that real-thing image. He drinks and smokes too much, and looks it. He eats pizza slices after bar time and spends tons of time on the road; when he’s home in Manhattan, he lives alone in a small apartment. He is not on the verge of marriage or family and happily proclaims himself to be a “loser.” It sounds like a self-effacing remark, but it’s not totally. Mr. Attell is friendly with colleagues, but few admit to really knowing him. “He’s in his head,” said Mr. Ross.

Mr. Attell himself said: “I think I will always be kind of a bitter, loner-type drunken guy. I don’t think that whatever happens, that will change.”

The tortured comic, of course, is an old cliché, and the negative swirl Mr. Attell spins around himself is admittedly useful as a professional device. He seeks to be the loser who wins you over. He loves to stack the deck against himself; in performance, he lives to find an uncompromising audience already in its cups. He’s like a tennis player who blows the first two sets just to make it harder on himself.

“I remember M.C.-ing a show at the Boston Comedy Club, and it was one of those audiences that was just hateful from the get-go,” Mr. Barry said. “And Dave popped in and was like, ‘Ooh, I want to come back when it gets really bad .’”

Mr. Attell has established that he can harness the hecklers about as well as anyone in comedy. (He smartly dissed an unruly out-of-towner at Caroline’s by telling him: “Take your wallet out of your shoe.”) What Mr. Attell is less sure about is fame. He has spent the past decade and a half of his life admired by pals, but in relative public anonymity. Now he goes to clubs and college kids yell “Wooo!” and want to buy him shots. He sold out that three-day September stand at Caroline’s. The audience, it’s certain, came mostly because of Insomniac , and they adored him. To Mr. Attell, it felt great but also creeped him out a little. He felt a new pressure to deliver. People were coming to see Dave Attell-could he not mess around with them like he used to?

“I kind of thrive on the negativity of the anonymous crowd,” he said. “A guy I know used to say, ‘My problem will be that I’ll feel I have to kill every time, so I’ll stick to my material, so I won’t keep thinking of new stuff and taking more chances.’ Even at Caroline’s, when it’s sold out, you’re like, ‘I better not try this one, because I know it’s not a definite thing.’ Then I’d half-try it and nobody would win.”

A few nights after the Caroline’s show, Mr. Attell did his penance at the Comedy Cellar, a subterranean cave on MacDougal Street, where he figures he’s spent a cumulative five years of his life. He went on about half past midnight. The audience was a strange mix of college students, tourists, fledgling couples and, impressively, separate tables of Iranian men and Hasidic Jews. It wasn’t clear if the audience had watched much of Insomniac . But they were drunk, and growing hostile.

Mr. Attell appeared thrilled. Soon, he started telling a joke about how he’s too old for the clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch. Dressed in a black bowling shirt, Mr. Attell motioned towards a young blond kid in the club.

“See, man, I could never wear a shirt like that,” he said. “It wouldn’t work for me. For you, you look cool. You may be a missionary type. A date rapist …. “

The kid shot Mr. Attell a sour look.

“You weren’t hurt by that, were you?” Mr. Attell said. “You’re not going to blow up your high school, are you? I know young people and criticism.”

“No one laughed,” the kid shot back.

“What? No one laughed?” Mr. Attell replied. “Really? Well, what is your name, man?”

“Keith,” the kid said.

“Keith? Keith, I am so glad you’re here, because it’s guys like you that make women like that”-Mr. Attell nodded toward a pretty woman in the front row-”fuck guys like me.”

The place went nuts.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Mr. Attell said to Keith. “I hear a little laughter.”

Here many comics would have let it alone, a victory had. But Mr. Attell would soon twist the screws tighter.

“How many people here graduated high school?” Mr. Attell then asked. “Has that ever helped you in any situation? It hasn’t. Have you ever gotten a blowjob because you’re a high-school student?”

A burly man to Mr. Attell’s right said, “Yeah.”

“You have?” Mr. Attell said. “Really? What a freaky crowd. How did you do that?”

“It wasn’t solely because of that fact,” the man said. “But I think it had something to do with that.”

“That was the clincher,” Mr. Attell said. “It was between you and two other guys, and they were both fucking G.E.D. guys. And you were like, ‘Hey, I showed up to the dance . I was there .’”

Mr. Attell spun toward the blond kid again. “Keith, was that funny? Was there any humor in that? Since you are a robot whose one design is to search out funny …. “

Keith shook his head no.

“Well, bleach your asshole,” Mr. Attell said. “I think there was some humor in that.”

The next day, Mr. Attell sat in a chair in the back of the Westside Tavern on West 23rd Street. It was late afternoon, with only a scattering of people in the place. “Honkytonk Woman” was playing on the jukebox. Mr. Attell, who was drinking a club soda with lime, lit an American Spirit cigarette.

“I want to be a hard, headlining road comic,” he said. Mr. Attell is polite and soft-spoken in conversation, but an intensity lingers. “I want to be like, ‘I am not a hack. I am not a guy that they came to because they saw me on TV, but I’m like hard and fast.’ Like Metallica years ago. Like how they struck fear into the town: ‘Metallica’s coming-better watch out.’ That’s what I want to be.”

Mr. Attell grew up in Nassau County. His parents worked mostly in retail; he credits his late father with giving him his relentless drive to work. He has two brothers and a sister, and says he mostly kept to himself as a child. A fantasizer, he was lousy in school. College wasn’t his deal; neither was a 9-to-5 job. A comic’s itinerant sundown-to-sunup life suited him.

“This lifestyle is pretty good, cool, because it gives you a lot of opportunity to be alone,” Mr. Attell said, though he admitted he now hates the traveling.

Friends of Mr. Attell say that Insomniac is perfect for him because it allows him to be himself instead of some sitcom cut-up, and it allows him to stay out all night. In the three seasons of the show, Mr. Attell has visited nightspots everywhere from Alaska to Tijuana to New York to Tempe. The show feels like a freewheeling trip through the après -midnight underbelly; Mr. Attell and his director, Nick McKinney, try to avoid the glossy cheese of party shows like Wild on E! Asked for a favorite place he visited during an Insomniac episode, Mr. Attell mentions a beer factory in Toronto.

What’s weird about Insomniac, however, is that it’s made Mr. Attell, Mr. Alone, into the life of the party. Part of him is grateful for the attention; people come out to the shows, and who doesn’t want that? (He also bought his mom a house.) But there’s also the question of how it may change his audience. Mr. Attell was asked if he felt he couldn’t go after a heckler’s jugular as hard as in the past, since people now showed up to the club … liking him.

“Well, that’s their fucking problem,” he said. “Because on the show, I go out of my way to treat everybody as good as I can. I’m on my people where it’s like, ‘Let’s not make anybody look too drunk, too stupid, too whatever’-it’s like, it’s an all-night party and everyone’s invited. But in my standup, if things go wrong, I have to take control. And I’m a mean prick sometimes, you know. If they came in thinking it’s going to be like a feel-good time, to ‘Wooo!’ and scream my name out, that is not what I am about. It’s usually more cutting, and I like it that way. I’m not going to change that.”

Though Jeffrey Ross said he’s never seen Mr. Attell “smiling this much,” he is not yet a contented man. Mr. Attell said he remains happiest when he’s at home, listening to other people’s tapes, like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Don Rickles. “I just really enjoy that,” he said. “As cool as you think you are and as good as you think your joke is, you know that somewhere, someone was doing a version of that joke.”

Mr. Attell is loath to compare himself with the greats; he’s not ready to place himself in the comedic canon. “I know what really great comedy is,” he said. “And I am not there. I don’t know if I will ever get there, because you get older and your dreams change.”

Maybe he’ll never be totally satisfied or happy. But at least people now know who he is.

“There’s got to be a certain sigh of relief, that the world finally knows Dave is the funniest motherfucker out there,” said Mr. Ross. “He’s been dragging that around for a long time.”