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Comedian Dave Attell on Insomniac, Marc Maron and vintage porn nerds

Dave Attell appears at Comedy Works South this weekend.
Dave Attell appears at Comedy Works South this weekend.

Best known for his hit Comedy Central show Insomniac, Dave Attell is an all-around beloved character in standup comedy. While often edgy and at times arrogantly confrontational, his razor-sharp wit gives him an everyman-at-the-bar diplomacy. During nearly three decades in the business, Attell has seen the ebb and flow of the comedy industry and his own career; in anticipation of his four-show run at Comedy Works this weekend, we caught up with the knight of nightlife to chat political comedy, the irony of reality TV and vintage-porn nerds.

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Westword: You've been around the New York comedy scene for so many years, working alongside comics like Louis C.K., Marc Maron and Jon Stewart. With those comics becoming huge successes late in their careers, do you think they improved, or did the rest of the world finally catch up to what they were doing?

Dave Attell: That's a good question. They all were great comics for a long time, but it took them finding their vehicle to get to a bigger audience. I couldn't be happier for them -- they've been good to me and they're good for comedy.

I guess Louie's stuff has changed to some degree; he's been focused on being a dad and having kids, and when I started with him he was doing more eclectic, esoteric stuff. I'm not really into the whole family stuff, but I could see why that appeals to a wider audience.

With Maron, he was bouncing around for years and years between the alternative scene and the straight New York club scene. He didn't fit in with either, but with this podcast he connected with his audience. I've seen him since the podcast, and the audience hangs on his every word -- it's great.

You worked on The Daily Show before it really became the sensation that it is today. Looking at then and now, do you think programs like that and Bill Maher's show have altered comedy to be more focused on politics?

With The Daily Show, a lot of kids were getting sick of straight-up news; they wanted something unfiltered and smart -- and Jon is definitely super-smart. He got what was funny about the news. Shows like his and Bill Maher's, they tackle stuff that's easy to make fun of but really hard to do it right. It's cool that those shows are this generation's news source.

One of the best political comics that I know is Lewis Black. He takes it to a level that you want it to be taken to, which is that it's all ridiculous and there are no white-hats and black-hats; it's all a gray area. But I'm not a political guy. I enjoy it all, but it's not really my bag.

It's been said that Insomniac stopped working because you'd go out and people would recognize you and the camera crew, and the spontaneity would be lost. I wonder if that would happen today: With so many reality shows sprouting up everywhere, maybe we're getting used to camera crews following people around in public.

Well, today's reality shows are so scripted and set up beforehand. With Insomniac, all that was scripted was calling ahead and asking if we could come to their bar. But, yeah, it got pretty popular and became hard to do. The idea of reality shows today is kind of a parody of itself. They all stick to a format. People don't seem to tire of them, though.

In terms of getting on camera, everyone's on camera today. With YouTube and Facebook, everyone wants to be heard, be a product, be both the performer and the audience. Doing a show like Insomniac was really difficult, because it wanted to be spur-of-the-moment, going from place to place to place. That was a different time; people weren't always TV-ready. We saw that more toward the end -- people would be performing for the camera. I'm glad that that people liked it and grew up on it, but I'm also glad I'm not doing it now. The crowds we were getting were all drunk frat boys wanting to be on MTV.

Did that affect the audience of the show? Was there a push to appeal to that demographic?

Yeah, I was pushing for talking to more late-night-jobs kind of people, interesting things. Today it's hard to do anything new on TV; anyone who is, I feel for them, because it's really difficult.

You recorded your album, Skanks for the Memories, at Comedy Works -- so why no Insomniac episode in Denver?

We tried to do one. Since we're on the street all the time, the show ran into a lot of problems with weather. So when we were there, the weather was bad and no one was walking around.

But I would say that Comedy Works is one of the best clubs in the country -- and I'm not the only one saying that. Pretty much every comic that I work with looks forward to playing there. The acoustics are great, and it's a small crowd. These clubs today are more like theaters. And Denver crowds are more laid-back and don't get offended as easily; they get that these are jokes and stay cool about it. I always enjoy playing there.

Being that you had a cameo on the show, are you excited for the return of Arrested Development?

I get a lot of press out of that. I think it's one of the coolest shows ever, and I'm glad they found a home for it.

Were you surprised when it was canceled in 2006?

No, being in and around TV for so long, I got it. Just because a show is good doesn't mean that it's a hit. Today we're living in a golden age of television; the audiences have caught up to what's good. The fans of Arrested Development revitalized the whole thing; the fact that it's not on network TV or cable really opens it up. That's what's so cool about today: You can make a show the way you want and not have to go through the whole pitching and pilot stages. You can make it and get it right out there. It opens the door for a lot of underground projects.

Your show Dave's Old Porn was a kind of comedy commentary on vintage pornography, which was really unique, because usually that type of comedy is directed at nerdy things like sci-fi or brat-pack movies. Are there porn nerds out there?

Yeah. It's definitely not for everyone, a comedy show with porn. It was kind of a tip of the hat to Mystery Science Theater. I wanted to do something that was fast jokes, a lot of riffing, while paying tribute to these legends of porn. Obviously, there are a lot of people who watch porn, but there are so many people who are into this retro stuff. This was the porn that I grew up on, the '70s and '80s stuff, and it's like, what happened to these guys? Today it seems like there are thousands of porn stars, but back then it was only like fifty people. So we wanted to pay tribute to them.

Dave Attell will perform two shows on Friday, June 7, and two more on Saturday, June 8, at Comedy Works South, 5345 Landmark Place, Greenwood Village. Tickets are $32; for more information visit www.comedyworks.com

For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.


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Comedy Works South

5345 Landmark Place
Greenwood Village, CO 80111

720-274-6800

www.comedyworks.com


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