The phrase “comedian’s comedian” usually leaves me cold. The tired tag usually implicates a smart aleck-y brand of inside jokiness that never spreads its joy, outwards, to mere mortals.
That said, in the case of the late Gilbert Gottfried and the still-living likes of Marc Maron and Dave Attell, the “comedian’s comedian” name signifies a continuous, ever-present sharpness and unique take on stand-up comedy that draws nothing but envy and admiration from fellow comics.
Attell, in particular, has maintained his long-time standing as a comedian’s comedian who takes no prisoners and suffers no fools in his executing of mad, bad and blisteringly edgy comedy.
Unlike many of his fellow stand-up comics with whom he started (1988’s VH1 Stand-Up Spotlight featuring Lewis Black, Margaret Cho, Jeff Garlin, Jay Mohr and Wanda Sykes; 1995’s HBO special with Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle), Attell wasn’t ever much for television or film. Save for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and his own television series Insomniac with Dave Attell on Comedy Central, Attell is all-in for stand-up.
Which is fine. Since before the days of his Comedy Central’s Insomniac with Dave Attell program, the Queens, NY stand-up comedian has been earning a cult following based on his undiluted, uncensored, quick-witted, insult-driven, hardcore dirty and darker-than-dark, blacker-than-Vantablack work. Look up and check out Attell’s YouTube sensation “There Is No Romantic Way to Fist Someone,” a video that also touches on the “dark side” of eating a Philly cheesesteak.
“Everything goes,” Attell told this writer at the start of his co-headlining, shared stage stand-up showcase, “Bumping Mics,” executed for Atlantic City hotel cashinos with pal, roast master and equally rude, blue comedian Jeff Ross, and filmed for Netflix.
“Anyone who is part of the show gets it. It’s cool to just let it all out, and roll…. There are a lot of sex jokes and racial jokes that, if you didn’t see the crowds laughing, you would think they didn’t get. Our audiences get us, though. They want us to go there, and if they don’t, they’ll tell us immediately.”
With skin in the stand-up comedy game for three decades-plus, this most audacious, foul mouthed and inappropriately funny comics – renowned for self-deprecation and a physical presence he jokes comes close to homelessness, Attell sold out eight shows at Philadelphia’s Helium Comedy Club over the weekend, before moving onto Raleigh NC’s Good Nights Comedy Club dates throughout the remainder of January. All this follows his annual end-of-the-year series of stand-up shows at New York City’s Caroline’s Comedy Club and his reminiscence-heavy story for the New York Times about that Broadway club’s closing after nearly 40 years.
Touching, again, on the glees and horrors of eating a Philly cheesesteak and his potential for having sex with local soft pretzels – to say nothing of his fondness for Philadelphia brand cream cheese – the recently-sober Attell went about the business of coldly riffing on the dementia-driven memory loss of his mother, sex with people his own age, a pandemic filled with nothing but Game of Thrones and House of Dragon-blood- shed, hardcore porn, the wilding out of Boy Scouts and their scoutmasters and cutting down his own appearance with racial and terroristic self-references. No race, gender or sexual orientation was spared during Attell’s stand-up and no PC rules were observed. If Attell was concerned about any level of cancel culture, he didn’t seem to care. He knows that faithful audiences attend his stand-up comedy shows because they know exactly what to expect: ill savagery. Plus, as a master crowd worker, Attell never let a heckle go by un-cut or a nearby, front-row couple go with a scolding or a scathing remark
“What I do is what I do, and I’ve been doing it for years,” Attell told Alibi Magazine. “I’m an old school club comic and I know that in today’s time, there’s a lot of trigger words, but I just go for the joke. People put an importance on comedy, and you see people tweeting about their outrage and for me, it’s not my scene. My audience can take a joke. What I would say about my audience is that they drink, they can take a joke and they tip big. They just want to hear the funny. They don’t want to be preached to. They don’t want a life lesson. They just want to have a good time. At the end of the day, I think most of them leave pretty happy. And that’s who I play to. I listen to the audience and if they groan and moan, that means I need to fix the joke. And if they get up and walk out, then I usually know that that joke needs a definite tune-up. But there are definitely some people who are not used to live performance comedy. They watch it on YouTube or are big fans on Twitter, and it’s a totally different experience. You’re kind of in a zone, a part of a group and present. For some people, that’s getting a lot harder now because of the technical world that we live in.”
Normally my total recall of a stand-up comedy night’s reverie is complete and unequivocal. But, Attell’s freeform, freefalling mad, sad riffs were as subtly but manically freshly imagined and improvised as a silvery, braying Lester Bowie trumpet solo and pulled from a place never-before-realized. I didn’t attend every gig touring his eight-show run at Helium Philadelphia, but I wish I had. I’ll bet not a set-up or a punchline got repeated.
Leaving audiences breathless, red-faced and doubled-up with laughter on his own, Attell must miss the staged camaraderie of Jeff Ross and “Bumping Mic,” because, for the latter half of his swiftly moving set, Dave brought out opening acts Peggy O’Leary and Ian Fidance for banter and back-and-forth insults. Attell even encouraged his younger contemporaries to go harder and higher in their savaging of Attell – to punch down, dig deeper and be brutal.
The overly-manic, multi-voiced Fidance – the NYC-based comic host and producer of the weekly “Ian’ Infinite Playlist” program on SiriusXM radio – who I’ve written about previously in small doses at the Philadelphia Weekly, was as cuttingly mean and stoppable as Attell (albeit weirder), a sight and a sound that seemed to make Attell prouder than any father. But, no matter what, nobody touches Attell for out-and-out down beat and dour insults when it comes to working blue or rattling off stream of conscious jokes that happily border on offense.
Long live Dave Attell.