He’s got all the cringe-inducing comic edge of Sarah Silverman, Dane Cook or Whitney Cummings, with none of the pesky sex appeal. The Hawaiian shirts and permanent 5 o’clock shadow take him out of the running for a sitcom leading man. But after 20 years of playing clubs and project-hopping with his scruffy, non-sequitur humor, Dave Attell still gets props from droves of fans and fellow comedians, including Jay Mohr, John Pinette, Jon Stewart and Adam Carolla.
Attell has certainly earned his audience over his time in the game — several different audiences, really. The 46-year-old New Yorker started out in 1988, and by 1993 he’d made his first stand-up appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman.” Soon after, he was hired as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” where he stayed for the 1993-94 season, and then he spent three years on Stewart’s pre-“Daily Show” gab program, “The Jon Stewart Show.” He made boozy forays into night living with his 2001-04 Comedy Central show “Insomniac With Dave Attell” and hosted a short-lived update of “The Gong Show” in 2008.
For such an affable guy, Attell is pretty hard on himself. “I’m not really proud of my act or my comedy,” he says flatly. “I think I’m an OK-to-good comic — I’m not a great comic. I’m really kind of depressed that after so much time doing it, I’m not better at it.”
Attell seems a little despondent there, but bleakness is a key part of his humor — which is best experienced live. His trademark warped deadpannery is something that just can’t be delivered with the same hilarious discomfort through a TV. So he’s back on the road, stopping for a nearly sold-out run at the DC Improv this Thursday through Sunday — squirming, conflict-averse audiences be damned.
“When you go to a comedy club, you’re really just going to listen. But people don’t — they bring in all these control issues,” Attell says. “Today’s audiences — every comic will back me up on this — will groan at the setup and laugh at the joke, or groan at the jokes, too. Like, the setup is ‘Somali boat pirates,’ and they’re, like, ‘Ohhhhhhhh.’ ‘Are you people pro-boat pirates? Let me finish my speech!’”
Well, could be. This is D.C., after all. There’s a lobby for everything.
THE MANY FACES OF DAVE
Cultural Anthropologist: With “Insomniac,” Attell plumbed the depths of the graveyard-shift set, giving crime-scene cleaners and porn overdubbers a moment in the late-night spotlight. His commitment to cultural study continues with his new Showtime program, “Dave’s Old Porn,” which debuted Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. “Think ‘Mystery Science Theater’ — of porn,” Attell says. “It’s me and comics watching retro clips from the … wildest, hairiest time of adult filmmaking. Midway through the show we bring out an adult star from the movie or the era and … they give us a play-by-play, like ‘Monday Night Football.’”
Wonk Defender: “The DC Improv is one of my most favorite clubs,” Attell says. “For the amount of [expletive] people have to do all day long [in Washington], when they get off work, they really do let go. They don’t want to hear all about politics — they want to hear about anything but that, and they’re really cool about it. D.C. is one of those places where you’re always excited to go to.”
American Patriot: While Attell is tired of the road, he’ll travel anywhere to entertain and support the troops. He’s made several USO trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, and he visited the now-shuttered Walter Reed Army Medical Center on several occasions. “It’s the least I can do,” he says. “There is stuff we all can do. It’s as close as you can get to feeling like what you do is relevant and good. It’s really up to them if they want me to come [back to visit again]. After this porn thing, they won’t.”
DAVE’S DEEP THOUGHTS
On Relationships: I don’t have a girlfriend, but sometimes I like to pretend I do. I just stand in my apartment screaming, “No, that’s not what I said!”
On Children: I’ll tell you what’s great about children: They don’t need a show to have fun. What do they need? A book of matches, some oily rags, a little brother — that’s all they need.
On Travel: I travel a lot. I hate traveling, mostly because my dad used to beat me with a globe.
On Style: I have kind of a weird look. It’s kind of an “Andre Agassi with a drinking problem” kinda look. Not many ladies go for it.DC Improv, 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 8 p.m., sold out; Fri. & Sat., 8 & 10:30 p.m., sold out; Sun., 8 p.m., $35; 202-296-7008. (Farragut North)