Talking to Dave Attell About His New Comedy Central Standup Show and Special
If you’re a fan of standup, you owe it to yourself to watch Dave Attell do a set at the Comedy Cellar, the famed New York club where he can be found most weekends. To see him in his element, that is telling dirty jokes in a dark basement full of drunk people, is one of the greatest things in all of comedy. If you’re unable to make the trip, Attell has a new special out this weekend on Comedy Central, Road Work, that captures the raw energy he brings to the comedy club experience.
But wait there’s more. Comedy Central has also brought back Attell to host a weekly late night showcase, Comedy Underground with Dave Attell, featuring some of Attell’s favorite comics telling uncensored filthy jokes at New York’s Village Underground.
I recently had the chance to talk to Attell about his new projects, the problems with overproduced comedy specials, and how dirty comics are a dying breed.
Watching your special, it had the feel that it was something you wanted to try and do on your own initially, and then Comedy Central came on board later? It felt very DIY.
I made it on my own, and then sold it to them. Yeah.
Sure, I was talking more about the new model of comics putting specials out on their own website and doing direct distribution.
I was never really planning on doing that because I don’t really have that kind of heat that like Louie [C.K.] has. I was going to try and give it to somebody, but I wanted to do it myself because that’s the quickest way to do it. I really had pieces coming out that I didn’t want to wait on. I just wanted to start shooting, and I’d figure out where it was going later.
It had to be difficult to edit. You had 5+ hours of material that you had to whittle down to 45 minutes plus audience cameras. Can you talk about that process?
Yeah, well we had 10 hours.
Wow. And when you edit that, are you basically just looking for the biggest laughs, or are there other things you’re looking for to make it look right?
I think you’re kind of looking for which joke is the best. There are definitely places where the jokes get better, but I do the jokes differently every time. I might’ve left out a tag or something else, but I try and make sure that I get the joke complete, but there’s a lot of – we worked with a really guerilla shooting style, in many locations – there were a lot of camera problems. A lot of the audience stuff didn’t work in terms of, the camera was off, or the battery died. Some of those people were not professional camera people. They were all not professional camera people. [Laughs] There might be a great shot of my foot, things like that. I would say of all the people we gave the camera to, the majority of the time, they were just ordinary people. We didn’t set it up. We said, “Who would help us out?” and a hand would raise. “Okay good, you’re in the right spot.” The guy who made the special, Scott, the camera guy was also the director. It was a learning process for him too, but he did a great job. It was him and a really small crew. They just quickly set up audio and lights and we would start shooting, you know? It was the best way for me to go with the kind of material I did, I think.
It was very cool the way you shot it. How did you pick those particular venues?
Well, I definitely wanted different looks than the club setup. Some of them I haven’t played in a while, some of them I play all the time, like the Acme Club in Minneapolis is like notoriously great, it’s just so good, but I hadn’t been there in years. So I wanted to be in the Midwest, someplace a little different, and that was cool. One Eyed Jacks [New Orleans] is not really a comedy club, it’s more of a rock club, so I just wanted something in a different place. That’s why I went there. I would say between that and Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee, Massachusetts, which I play almost every year, that one was the most different.
Why was it important for you to shoot in clubs? I’m sure Comedy Central could have packed a theater for you, which you’ve done before. Why clubs this time around?
I’m not a theater comic. I’ve done like two big massive things in a theater, it just never feels right. I don’t think that it’s a theater show. Clubs are where I work all the time, so I wanted to try doing it all in clubs. It’s just more relevant to what I do…I don’t like all the theater shots (in specials), which are the terrible super wide shots of the crowd going wild, and just behind the comic towards them. Some of those shots to me seem like it doesn’t have to do with comedy, it’s about them.
Sure. That makes a lot of sense. I liked that your special is different than others in that a lot of specials will have a theme behind it, and yours just seemed to be about the jokes. Just rapid fire. It felt a little bit off the cuff – I imagine you’re working on some newer stuff, but was there any older material you were throwing in there?
I think a lot of the jokes I had been doing for the last couple of years – stuff I had been working on in the act. They were the bits I’ve been working on – the little people stuff, and that kind of stuff. But to me, it’s always about coming up with a new bit. There are new things that I’d never done before that I did in the special. It’s more about these long runs that I had been doing, but they weren’t really ready yet. There’s also producing the special. And having a cameraman with me the whole time on such a small stage, it creeped out the crowd at first, but then once they warmed up to it, they kind of got what was going on. It’s a small room to do it in, it creeps me out [Laughs.] I don’t blame the crowd for that. I just knew that was the way we wanted to do it. We wanted that to be the main camera. If you look at a comedy special, you’ll see like the wide shot, the high angles on either side, and then there’s like all these crazy dolly pushes and weird angles. And I was like, a lot of those shots just aren’t relevant to comedy. As an audience member watching, I don’t need to see like, a shot from the bleachers, of what it looks like to see a guy tell a joke about pushing his mother or something. I always felt that the closer the better with comedy. It’s really hard but it’s an hour so… but back to the material. My biggest thing with comedy with these hours is some guys seem to churn them every year, just talking about what has happened them over the year. But I never was that guy I really like the hard jokes. I hate talking about me, I like jokes on various topics, so I’m just trying to put it together into one special. There was really no theme to it.
It’s fun to watch because there’ll be a joke that maybe the audience doesn’t get right away, but you’ve already moved onto the next one. You don’t give them any time to sit there and ponder. It’s rapid fire.
I might have went through the show too quickly but at the end of the day I’m glad it keeps moving and I feel like every segment has it’s good and bad. Every segment has its technical problems, there’s also like me not doing everything right, and there were also situations like the joke was better maybe in another town but we needed it for time for Comedy Central. That’s what made it really difficult. Doing a special with commercial breaks in it, each segment has to be a certain amount of time. We spent a lot of time trying to cut down. We cut down and cut down and cut down. And then we were like, we need another 38 seconds, so then we’d have to find another joke and pull it out of somewhere else. So that was like painstakingly long to finish. So the commercial breaks really don’t particularly help comedy. It really makes it hard.
Going back to what you said about having a cameraman up there with you, did that throw you at all? There are a couple scenes in the special where you stop and he’s moving across the stage and you’re switching spots. Could that hurt your momentum at all?
Well I wanted to show the audience that I’m cool with it. And I guess people know me from stuff like the Insomniac show where I talk to the camera guy so I figured that would be a good shift for the stage. I like seeing a guy on stage and then talking to him. To some degree. I feel like we didn’t overdo it. You know, I think it’s funny when it does get in the way of the joke. I felt like that was good because the whole point of this special is supposed to be real low budget, kind of a train wreck. And you know, it’s like I’m not the greatest comic and this is not the greatest special so I think it’s really funny to really see low-key like that and not like a big event.
It’s very punk rock.
I don’t know, you probably have seen all the specials so far. I think this might be the only one in clubs.
Yeah, this is the first one that I’ve seen in all clubs, other than Todd Barry’s thing where he did the crowd-work in rooms.
I’m dying to see that.
It’s pretty cool.
I think it’s cool that Louie [C.K.] put that out. Todd is such a great comic. At the end of the day these specials, like this one for me, they take a long time to do. It cost me a lot of money to do and even though I sold it to Comedy Central it didn’t make up for the amount of money and time that I put into it. I really spent a lot of time editing with my editor. I mean, I would say that it was probably four or five months of editing. Even now, I look at it and I’m like, “Oh. This could be way better.” New Orleans was the most fun bar room show of all of them, besides Chicopee. In New Orleans, since I haven’t played there in years, it was exciting to be where the crowds are good. But once again it was like you don’t really get that comedy club feel it’s more like a rock club and it’s small even though it looks kind of big. It’s smaller than any theatre you’d usually shoot something in. And the cool thing about that one is that’s where we have all of the crowd work. Unfortunately I couldn’t put all of this crowd work into this one segment, so I just have extras that I hope to release. I’ll release them like little web things after the thing airs. There won’t be any hour cut, we just ran out of money. I don’t have enough funding to go back in and lengthen it to an hour. We have like 40 minutes, then there’s probably like another 10, 15 minutes of extras that I’ll try and get out there at some point.
How are you going to release those?
Obviously there’s no DVDs anymore. I thought the whole time that there would be a DVD of this, but Comedy Central was like, “What are you talking about? We just do downloads now.” Here’s the thing, I might as well say it to you, I’m connected to this charity called Operation Purple, which is the National Military Family Association. They do all these great outreach programs. I already gave $25,000 for that. That’s a lot of money to me. That’s a big chunk of the money that I made from the special, but it was like, you know, it’s a really good cause. I always wanted it to be something big, especially with all these guys tweeting out stuff like “give money,” but you never hear of them giving it. And I wanted to do it for a long time. I never had a good reason to broadcast why I’m doing it, but I hate promoting so I figured I might as well combine the two because I have to do all this tragedy and might as well start giving out some good news. So that’s it for that. Hopefully with the downloads that will lead to another thing later. People are cool with them, not misusing and pirating and all that kind of stuff.
That’s very commendable of you. Maybe for another time, another conversation, I would love to hear your thoughts on money. You seem to have a very interesting relationship with money.
Yeah, I always seem to end up using my own money. It’s just the system. If we’re going to do stuff on the cheap, and that’s at best, I feel like I know my own money and time, these things never let me leave. I’m not like so big in show business or famous that I can just go, “Hey I’m thinking of doing this” and people start running over and making it happen. I’ve got to do it myself.
Yeah. I loved your last interview on Howard Stern when you were talking about Dave’s Old Porn. Are you doing Stern this time around?
It’s too hard to get in there now. I really respect that show. I feel like every time I go in there I’m trying to promote stuff. I’ll keep it low key, maybe down the road, because that series will be on for eight weeks.
He seems to love having you in there, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem.
No, he’s the best. I don’t know how he does it with the TV show and the radio show and all his years. He is definitely the best of the best. I can’t say enough good things about that show and himself and what he’s also done for comics and comedy.
Let’s get to Comedy Underground.
So, the network wanted to do a show, I’m not exactly sure why they wanted to do it, I think it had a lot do with these standup showcase shows. And they wanted to do one and asked if I’d be able to host it and told me it would be like a late night dirty show. And I was like, “I would like to. I wouldn’t mind doing it as long as it’s not censored.” And to give them credit they really have tried to keep it as uncensored as possible. Comedy Central, you know, they get a lot of advertising, so for them to let it out hardcore like that, it’s pretty ballsy. And I also said, if you do it, we should do it the same style as my special, which is in a club, me and the audience. Unfortunately they didn’t have as many jokes because I had just shot the special so I really didn’t have the material, and I also didn’t want to step on the comics’ material. I just felt like this is their moment, this is their show, they all went long, they all did great. And then we have to edit them down to like four minutes from 18. So that’s also a hard ratio.
Did you have any input on the show’s lineups?
Yeah, I told them right away. I go, “This is pretty much a dirtier comedy show for funny, dirty comics.” Because there are plenty of venues now for like the storytellers or more alternative comics. And now the dirty comics show, it’s kind of like the endangered species, it’s like giving them the spotlight to do it. And hopefully there’s an audience for it. I mean, I like dirty humor, but we’ll see if people find it cool, and I really hope they do. Because there’s really no other show like this dirty. You can’t do it on a network. You can’t really do it on a lot of basic cable. If you’re a dirty comic, you’re in between no special and doing a special–you need an hour of material. So this is a good in-between thing, another rung on the ladder to an hour.
You said dirty comics are sort of a rare breed these days. Do you feel like that’s made comedy worse? Do you ever find yourself hesitating on stage, like ‘if I say something, there might be someone recording it and they might put it on a blog?’ Or do you not even give a shit?
Every comic gives a shit. Everything they say in the clubs could offend someone or somebody could take it the wrong way. The days of the late night show of just winging it and having a good time, they’re coming to an end. The crowds are pretty PC. A lot of them are coming in after seeing comedy on TV, or on the internet, or maybe there’s one name they follow and then there’s a whole bunch of other comics. I would say that audience now is the one that has to really step up a little bit. The comics are always going to be doing what they’re doing. Some of them are better than others, some of them, you know, are dirtier than others. It’s up to the audience to kind of roll with it, and let it happen. People want to have a good time. They’re really not into the experimental comedy that we all think is so important. They want a finished product. To me that’s sad. My most favorite shows were the ones where I come up with stuff, you try and push your material, something happens in the crowd, and you turn it a gem – that’s what makes it fun. I’m towards the end of the road, so I’m fine with it. It’s sad though because the audience is such an important part of it. My crowds are great. I love my people. Audiences just have to realize they are as important in the development as anybody else. Just showing up isn’t enough.
Yeah, being in the moment, not having to record it and put it on every social media – just enjoy the moment for what it is.
Will we ever see the return of Dave’s Old Porn?
I don’t have the rights to it right now, but we’ll see what happens once I get the rights to it again. I’d love to see it, maybe a different platform. By that point, maybe some kind of iCloud. I have no idea, maybe Google Glasses or something, but that show is my favorite show of the ones I’ve done recently. The most fun. Everything came together. It was short, but I like to say that that one has another life, whether it’s on my own site, Dave’s Old Porn.com, or on a network or a streaming site or something like that. But I’m really into the web stuff. You got to really make sure to give something a venue, instead of just throwing it out there. I feel like there’s a lot of that, just throwing stuff out there. I don’t know if that works. But I’m old, so, you know. Thank you for bringing it up. If you saw the special, you know I might not be doing a porn show but I’m talking about porn. It’s a never-ending well of great comedy.
Dave Attell: Road Work premieres Saturday at midnight on Comedy Central. Comedy Underground with Dave Attell premieres immediately afterward at 1 am EST.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.