Lightening up the graveyard shift

On Comedy Central's "Insomniac," join stand-up comic Dave Attell on his boozy journey through a late-night world of drunks, strippers, cops, sewage workers and just plain folks.

Published December 4, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

Dave Attell has been doing stand-up comedy for 16 years. He was a writer-performer on "Saturday Night Live" for one season in the mid-'90s, and a correspondent for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" for another. He has been a guest on "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," appeared on "Everybody Loves Raymond" twice and on "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" three times (in squiggle-vision). He was once fired from a part on "Spin City." People have tried to build shows around him in the past. People have not succeeded.

"You can say I failed," Attell says cheerfully, speaking of his television days, pre-Comedy Central, over the phone from New York. But you can't really say it now. Attell may self-identify as a "loser" and "a bitter, loner-type drunken guy," but "Insomniac With Dave Attell," which begins its third season on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 10:30 p.m. (following a special "The Best of Insomniac," at 9:30), has stealthily become one of Comedy Central's most popular original series, averaging 1.1 million viewers (for which it was rewarded with a new, improved prime-time slot).

Where other television efforts failed to capitalize on his talents (though widely respected in the world of stand-up, Attell is an admittedly subpar actor), "Insomniac" focuses on what he does best: drinking, smoking, chatting with strangers and staying up all night in strange cities across America.

"It's a hard show to do," he says. "It's hard to give it its own feel, because there are so many shows like it out there. We were definitely not the first one. But we take away the pretense of exotic places and beautiful people and the hottest dance clubs and fine food. We take away all that and put that feel on to just going to your neighborhood bar."

As he describes it, "Insomniac" is basically "'E!'s Wild On' for ugly people," a sort of nocturnal travelogue for which he provides the enthusiastic, smart-mouthed but rarely caustic commentary. It's neither particularly original nor particularly innovative, but the show's seedy charm creeps up on you, thanks entirely to its host's own seedy charm. Attell is a 37-year-old, bald, big-nosed, tubby guy who smokes too much and drinks too much and seems most comfortable in a bar. But he also exudes a weird benevolent energy.

On the show, Attell runs from one exciting place to the next with troll-like wonder. And as the show has become more popular, people seem happier and happier to see him. The college kids watch him on TV, then they go out drinking and suddenly there he is, buying a few rounds and pressing the flesh. One young woman on the street in Albuquerque, N.M., greets him like a long-lost friend. "I can't believe you're here!" she says. He's like the mayor of late night.

"I'm a stand-up comic, that's my real profession," Attell says. "I'm not a host or a TV personality. So I take my mediocrity at that and try and meet regular people and see what happens. A lot of it is just getting what you can get, depending on who you run into on the street. The good thing and the bad thing about the show is that you run into a lot of people -- a lot of college kids have kind of adopted it as kind of a drinking show.

"That kind of hurts us in the bars, because when we first started, I could go into a bar and just hang out and talk to a couple of people. They thought we were like the news or something. Now we go in and it becomes this big college drinking competition. That kind of hurts the whole feel of the show. A lot of it has to do with the fact that in some places all the action is at the college bars or the gay bars and usually there is a big crowd and it gets a little hectic.

"We don't really show it when people are mean drunks or racists. Because that's not what the show is about. It's not about like, 'Ooh, the late-night world: Once you get a few drinks into someone -- they're an asshole!' I mean, we all know that, you know? It's more like a continuous party after my stand-up show, until dawn. To keep the show moving and to show how every town has something to offer and something to see."

Atlanta, for instance, has the Clermont Lounge, where overweight strippers crush beer cans with their breasts. Charleston, W. Va., has late-night monster truck rallies. Boise, Idaho, has target practice at the gun club, Chicago has the Windy City Wrestling School, Tijuana has a cockfighting training center and Boston, of course, has frat parties. One thing Attell actually doesn't seek out is weirdness. The show stays away from exploiting people for laughs, and Attell, who is polite and gregarious, seems to find something interesting in everybody.

"The problem with weird is that because of things like 'Jackass' and 'Fear Factor,' we're running out of weird," he says. "Weird has been exploited, and when I started the show, I knew that I didn't want to play that game. That's not what I'm about. I wanted to show people being normal, late-night drinking and partying. And any kind of alternative lifestyle stuff is appreciated. But I don't see the point in being weird for weird's sake. I had an experience in Portland where this guy said to me, 'If I get naked I'll get on my bike and ride around and you can tape me.' And I said, 'Well, I can't tell you to do that just for the camera -- unless you would normally do that.'"

Each episode kicks off with highlights of his live comedy in a new city (past sessions have visited Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, New Orleans, Kansas City, Boise, Philadelphia, Montreal and his hometown of New York), then follows him as he hits the local bars and after-hours scenes. When even the partiers have gone to bed, Attell checks in with fellow graveyard-shifters and insomniacs: steelworkers, sewage treaters, crime-scene cleaners, dairy farmers, cartoonists, strippers, astronomers and traffic reporters.

During the upcoming season, Attell will visit Toronto, Nashville, Little Rock, Ark., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Cleveland, Albuquerque, N.M., Anchorage, Portland, Ore., Oakland, Calif., and New York. At an airport he'll drop in on an absurdly secretive head of security, some female baggage handlers ("We used to be an all-girl ramp," one of the women tells Attell, who likes the idea), and a guy who drives around looking for "foreign objects" to pick up off the runway.

At an alligator park, he'll check out the reptiles during mating season. ("Would you say this is alligator porn?" he asks the zookeeper. "I'd say this is alligator love," the zookeeper replies. Attell is unconvinced. "This is going right up on the Internet.") Later in the season he will visit with the Scorpions in Albuquerque, who will regale him with some "German humor."

"We look for people who will let us in," he says. "We don't go into places where we are not invited. And then we look for jobs; that can be anything from all-night tow-truck driver to the Coast Guard to a coal mine to a bordello in Reno, Nev. -- just late-night jobs. That's an important part of the show. That's the most fun part of the show, the most interesting. I've drunk enough. I've been in enough bars. I know what that's about. I like seeing people who work late.

"One guy who really stuck for me was this guy Neil Smithers, who does crime-scene cleanup in Oakland. After the coroner and the CSI people come in and take away the dead body, the deceased, he comes in with his crew and they clean up the room, you know, blood and brains and all that stuff. Real dirty work, real late. And that was one of the few times when we actually had too much job, where he would say, 'OK, well, I've got this hit-and-run, do you want to come?' And we would be like, 'Well, not really ...'"

Despite the grimness of some of the jobs Attell has come across, the show has a loopy, sleep-deprived feel. Most of the people Attell meets seem surprisingly content to be doing what they do -- and happy to see his smiling face. The sewage treatment workers in Boston, for instance, seemed extremely well adjusted for guys who work with feces.

"They were real fun. Well, that's the thing. Usually people who work that shift are a little eccentric to begin with. They are there in the middle of the night, and a lot of them would rather work in the middle of the night than work during the day. We also did a garbage-disposal thing in New York, and it just seems like every time we go to one of these places where you think the job is just disgusting, all the guys and the ladies are a lot of fun, and they watch the show and get the show and it's good."

Part of the reason it's good is that "Insomniac" avoids the kind of gawking that most shows of its kind make their stock in trade. Despite the circus feel of the show's theme song, "Insomniac" isn't a sideshow. And if it occasionally is, then Attell is just another one of the freaks, albeit one always willing to cede the spotlight to a roving gang of drunken frat boys or a girl with an uncontrollable urge to lift up her shirt for the camera.

Attell based the show on his own life as a stand-up comic who spends 40 to 45 weeks of the year on the road. He would hit a town, do a show and then jump around all over town, drinking, because he usually had to stay up until it was time to do early-morning radio to promote the show.

"I kind of wanted to do a show like that. I also wanted a show that was kind of a cross between 'Cops' and 'Girls Gone Wild.' I also wanted to do a show that had regular people. I was watching all these dating shows and they all have these beautiful people who you know would never have a problem getting a date. And I just wanted to show regular jerks like myself out on the town."

For a foulmouthed comic, Attell is polite and friendly, and his humor is more empathetic than caustic. At a fireworks store in South Carolina, for instance, the owner shows him a hen that shoots out flaming fireballs. Attell raises his eyebrows at the camera. "We've all eaten there." When a drunk guy tells him he's "one handsome son of a bitch," then laughs like crazy, Attell deadpans, "That laugh usually comes with an ax.

"It's circa-1989 funny," he says, describing his brand of humor. "It's not politically correct. It's kind of straight-ahead stand-up, it's not alternative comedy. I'm not doing a one-man show. I'm not talking about political issues. It's mostly about drinking and sex and all that kind of stuff. The educated dick joke, if you will."

Although he would like to think of himself as the sort of hardworking stand-up who can pack the clubs without appearing on TV, the success of the show has helped Attell on the road.

"Filling a comedy club with people on the road is really hard unless you've been on TV or you are in movies, because people don't generally go see people they don't know already. Which is kind of sad about comedy now, because people should support it more. Now that they see the show -- especially since it's kind of a grungy, regular show, that's nothing special and doesn't pretend to be something it's not -- I get that crowd, people that just want to drink and have a good time. Every stand-up spot that I've done since launching the show has been really good. I've been doing stand-up for 16 years, so it's not like I'm saying, 'Hey, I'm going to cash in on the show.' If anything, people are disappointed. They come see my show and they're like, 'Aren't you going to drink all over town?' No, I do stand-up.

"But it is a real bar show," he adds. "And it's a bartender's show. A lot of people watch it while they're tending bar, and they were the first people to let us in. They've always been pretty good to us. Wherever we go, we can always get into a bar. If I've gotten anything out of this show it's that I can get a free round at just about any bar in the country."

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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