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Raunch and heart

A few words with comedian Dave Attell


Dave Attell is notorious for being a filthy, offensive, curmudgeonly old "Insomniac," but he's also a well-respected comedian in the business. Patton Oswalt tweeted: "Watching ‪@attell's new special for a 3rd time since it premiered Friday. Same way I listened to Iggy Pop's RAW POWER over & over." Marc Maron said, "Dave's a funny f**king guy. He'll make you laugh every time. Effortlessly." Craig Ferguson referred to him as "Perhaps the funniest man in the world."

Attell performs at the Main Street Armory on Sunday, May 25, so I talked with Attell about his latest stand-up special, "Road Work," his uncensored Comedy Central show, and why bar soap is better than shower gel.

Attell is a raunchy, gritty workaholic that helps Operation Purple to send kids to summer camp and wants to vacation with his momma. Maybe that's the thing about Attell, and his comedy. If we tell ourselves that we can't discount a person based on the label they've been given, maybe we shouldn't discount a joke for the same reason. People are so quick to take offence at edgy humor these days, maybe we just need to laugh a little -- and Attell is the man for the job. Just make sure to turn off your phone.

CITY: Part of what makes "Road Work" so cool is the way it was shot. You gave cameras to random people in the audience, was that to add to the club feel -- audience perspective?

Dave Attell: Uh-huh, yeah. Also 'cause our budget was really low.

But I've heard you on several podcasts talking about how you hate it when people covertly tape your sets then YouTube them, aren't you worried it's a bit of a mixed message?

Attell: Or maybe it's poetic justice after all those years.

Is that what you're doing?

Attell: Well, we really did need their help, and it was kind of a tip of the hat to The Beastie Boys and Radiohead when they handed out cameras, and I thought it'd be really cool to capture the audience perspective, so I don't think it's a mixed message.

You don't like the YouTubing of your stuff because "the joke's not finished yet," but I've seen the way your jokes continue to evolve years after you've written them, so is the joke ever finished?

Attell: My jokes change a lot, but shouldn't it be the artist's choice whether he's taped or not, whether it goes online and stuff? When people [post] stuff, I don't think they're really particularly fans, I think it's more to show everybody what they're doing. Because I think if you're really a superfan you'd also be really stoked for the finished product and not want to jump the gun.

I've heard you say how you sometimes try to lose the audience, just to see if you can get them back. What's that about?

Attell: Since I'm not the best comic, I like to do the jokes I wanna do. I don't know, I think maybe it makes it fresh and new for me if I just keep pushing it. It sucks when the crowd shuts down on you, that's when you're really in the hole and that's when you ramp it up.

What's the worst that's happened to you on stage?

Attell: Beer bottles. They threw beer bottles at me.

What'd you do?

Attell: I stood my ground. You can't leave the stage, you gotta do your time.

That must've been a long time ago, I mean, now everyone knows you.

Attell: There's not much heckling anymore. Nowadays it more of a general turning off, people looking at their phones, whispering, that's the new heckle.

What do you do?

Attell:I guess I'm a jerk if I bring it up because evidentially looking at your phone now is almost like breathing; people need to do it. There's nothing you can do because it's really hard to get people to disconnect. I don't know, you're an audience member, what do you do?

I turned off my phone before I went in.

Attell: Thanks.

You must have a lot of pressure to clean up your act in this hyper-sensitive, ever-increasingly PC environment. I watched "Road Work" with a friend who is a Civil Rights lawyer, and --

Attell: Oh she must've hated it.

Actually, she laughed really hard but she did say, "He makes me laugh against my will!"

Attell: Sounds like her morals aren't as strong as she thought they were.

Is there something you're trying to do with choosing material that's so taboo?

Attell: I don't think it's that taboo. I mean everything's taboo now, so the whole idea of what is taboo -- I wouldn't put myself, I'm not like Lenny Bruce and trying to break the walls down or anything.

You don't think so?

Attell: I don't! I wouldn't put myself in any league with those guys, those guys are great! It's more about what the crowd wants to see, if they want to see an adult humor show then they're going to hear adult topics. That's why "Comedy Underground" is important, because it gives guys like me a platform, too. There aren't a lot of places to do that kind of comedy anymore, especially for the guys just starting out.

You've lost a lot of weight.

Attell: Thank you. I've lost my dignity. (Awkward silence) That's a joke. You were doing so good up till now! No, you're doing great, most people just ask me questions off my Wikipedia page.

That reminds me, did you know Wikipedia says that you're 5'9"?

Attell: Is this the First-Date-Questions portion of the interview?

Bar soap or Shower Gel?

Attell: I try to always use bar soap.

Shower gel doesn't sync with your old-man personae?

Attell: That's right, but sometimes it's hard when I'm on the road.

Now that you're sober, what do you do for fun when you're on the road?

Attell: I hang out at CVS. I like to walk up and down the aisles and look at stuff I could buy.

That makes me sad.

Attell: Let's talk about Operation Purple.

I remember you did a bunch of USO and Wounded Warrior stuff, what's this about?

Attell: As these wars wind down people need constant care, both emotionally and physically, and it always falls on the shoulders of the families. The families need a ton of support, and we gotta do it. This Operation Purple thing is the giving back part, for the love of this great country. I always wanted to join the military like my dad, but now I'm an old man. It's super important, and I can't say enough about it. They send the kids of wounded and deployed soldiers to summer camp.

Cool. What brought your attention to Operation Purple?

Attell: They asked me. I always feel so cool when I get asked to do things like this, so I did it and not a lot of people showed up, and I felt awful so I donated some money and committed more money from the downloads.

Hey, you haven't asked me where I think the future of comedy is.

You think about the future of comedy at your age? Okay, where do you see the future of comedy?

Attell: Skype.

What? Wait, you're kidding, right? You're serious?

Attell: Yep. I think people will be able to Skype in and out and comics will just be lined up somewhere waiting to go on, and people will logon to heckle and stuff.

That would suck. Do you really think that?

Attell: Yeah.

Then I hope you at least get credit for saying it first, but let's hope it doesn't come to that. You ever take a vacation?

Attell: Nope. Never.

Where would you go if you did?

Attell: I'd take my mom to Vegas.

Dave Attell's latest stand-up special, "Road Work," available at, or on iTunes. The $5 price goes to support Operation Purple, so don't steal it.

"Comedy Underground" airs on Comedy Central at 1 a.m., Saturday nights and features uncensored comedy from new comics, as well as old friends like Jeff Ross and Amy Schumer.