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Queens-born comic Dave Attell is best known for his long-running Comedy Central show, Insomniac, but he’s also earned legions of fans thanks to the misanthropic, in-your-face humor he showcases near-constantly at stand-up gigs all over the country. His new HBO special, Captain Miserable, premieres Saturday night at eight. Attell spoke with Vulture about unappreciative crowds, the writers’ strike, and the virtues of political incorrectness.
This is your first hour special on HBO. What took so long?
Good question! What was the holdup?! No, I think it’s that they use really good people — George Carlin, etc. — and I don’t think I was in that league until the last couple of years. They saw me at the Vegas Comedy Festival, and they were into my new stuff. It was really hard coming up with new material though, as you can tell from the special.
Aw, the special’s pretty funny. You take shots at Middle Easterners, pro-choice activists, women … was there anything you worried would be too over-the-top?
That’s a good question. My problem is that people kind of know me from television, so they know me as the walking-around-and-getting-drunk guy, but they don’t know that I’ve been doing stand-up for twenty years and I’m not politically correct. I keep getting these people at my shows who only know me from television. I can always tell when they’re, like, emotionally flinching when I start doing my jokes.
It seems like the whole crowd was college students. Do you like that, or does it get kind of threatening as you get older?
For a long time the people at my shows were sort of the Pantera-tattoo trucker guys, really cool dudes, but I don’t know what happened to them. That’s the crowd that I like, the ones that don’t get so offended just to be offended. I don’t mind a crowd’s not laughing; it’s the groans that slow down the show. It’s like “Ohhhh abortion ohhhhh…” Like they think I’m going to give an abortion onstage.
What’s the worst you’ve ever bombed?
One time at the Comedy Cellar, I wasn’t really bombing, but I wasn’t doing well, and a drunk guy started throwing bottles at me. I was doing my act, and you can see the guy starts whipping one bottle and then two bottles, and the best part was that no one in the crowd defended me. They were just watching, and bottles are like smashing into the brick wall next to me. There was no security then, but if you go to the Comedy Cellar now, there’s always a security guy by the stage, and that’s because of me. I changed how they do business.
I totally would have run away.
Once you get offstage you’re just like everyone else, and everyone else can get into a fight.
You’ve done shows with Dane Cook in the past. What do you think of him?
He’s my most favorite mega-amphitheatre touring comic right now! No, he’s really taken it to a different place. When you go see Dane Cook, it’s more of an event now because he does these 50,000-seaters and stuff. I like clubs way better than theaters. I mean, there’s a thing in comedy — you know, “I sold out MSG,” like that’s code for “I’m the shit” — but personally I think the more people get you, the less funny you become. Don’t come if you’re going to be offended. Don’t come if you want to hear about shopping at Wal-Mart or “Oh, my mother-in-law’s so stupid.” I don’t want to disappoint anybody, but I don’t want to hold myself back. It’s just a different style.
How do you think the writers’ strike is going to pan out?
Well, first off, I am 100 percent in support of the Writers Guild on the backend stuff as we call it — the Internet downloads, DVD sales — they’re really just as important as your paycheck. These guys deserve every penny they get, and it’s definitely a good idea to get these issues taken care of now, rather than later. But there’s two strikes going on, basically: There’s the one in L.A. where celebrities are delivering vegan pizzas and pulling up in their Priuses, and then there’s the poor people on the line here in New York. It’s freezing, and they’re cold, and it’s like maybe they’re going to run into someone who was on a soap opera once. It’s like, “Hey, who is that dude?” “Oh, I think he was on Guiding Light in the seventies.” It’s not glamorous. We were striking on the Chelsea Piers, and one guy was coming out of his Pilates class or whatever, and he was like, “Maybe if you wrote funny, dramatic stuff that pertains to our times, people would pay for it!” He had this long list of what he wanted to see. And it’s like, “That already exists, man! It’s called Heroes! Check it out!”