“I do feel like I'm not relevant. I do feel like I could care less about speaking to power and all that stuff. That's not my job. I feel like I'm there to be funny.”
– Dave Attell
Dave Attell: Guy, how are you, buddy?
Guy MacPherson: Good, Dave. How are you?
DA: I'm good.
GM: Where are you?
DA: I just got back to New York. I was out in California doing some gigs. I'm doing my favourite thing: I'm opening my mail.
GM: Oh, I thought you meant standup in California.
DA: There's nothing more depressing than opening your mail.
GM: I spoke to you last time you were here. I forget how long ago that was. Eight years ago or something like that? [Nine years ago.]
DA: Was it that long? But it was definitely for the Just For Laughs thing, right?
GM: I don't think so.
DA: Oh, was I just doing a one-off then?
GM: I think you were. You were doing it at the Commodore, which is like a big dance club place.
DA: Right! And people were sitting around like on beanbag chairs and risers and stuff.
GM: I know know about that. Now you're playing a theatre. I know you consider yourself a club comic. Does it bother you to play a theatre or is it just the same?
DA: Yeah, it's not my first choice but that was the gig. It's a lot of seats. I don't know if I'll be able to fill it out. I'm hoping I will.
GM: Oh, come on.
DA: I don't know. You never know. Who else is in town?
GM: And you're here on Valentine's Day. There's nothing more perfect than going to see Dave Attell on Valentine's Day.
DA: I thought that you guys didn't celebrate it.
GM: No, of course we celebrate it.
DA: The same day?
GM: The fourteenth.
DA: I thought it was like Boxing Day, like it's a different thing.
GM: Nope, it's the same.
DA: [laughs] Well then yeah, I'll be there on Valentine's Day. I'll be up there sad so you can look at me as the road not taken.
GM: Doing dick jokes on Valentine's Day.
DA: Yup. I'm excited because it's going to be me, Louis Katz, who's a really funny comic. And I'm hoping to see who's around there. It's a festival so you can get a special drop-in. Give it the full tilt thing. Pull out all the JFL favours I have.
GM: 'Dick jokes' is shorthand for dirty material.
GM: Why do you like dick jokes?
DA: I think everybody likes a dick joke. I'm going to go out on a limb here. When I did Bumping Mics with Jeff Ross, I was the one in the edit was like, 'Oh no, we can't talk about that. The crowd will get blah blah blah.' No. Even though the crowd at the show loves the stuff, you're always thinking now about the web, trying to be very forward-thinking, that kind of thing. And Jeff is fearless. He's like, 'Come on, it's funny. Let's just put it in there. Everyone's laughing. You know it's good.' We got such great reaction on that that it really did show me that, you know, I thought dick jokes were dead, but I guess not. I guess people do like them. The way things are going now, I guess people can see that there's no reason for silly to not be silliness anymore. You don't have to look for all these hidden meanings in everything.
GM: I think they like dick jokes when they're done well. They like anything when it's done well.
DA: Yeah, but people always say that now. You know comedy just as good as I do. They say, 'If it's funny, it's funny.' But usually that's always followed up with, 'Whatever you said was not funny.' Not, 'You know what? I thought it over and you're right, that is funny.'
GM: I only recently watched the two seasons of The Green Room. That was only eight years or nine years ago and I'm shocked at what was allowed to be said then; now you guys would be run out of the business.
DA: Absolutely. And Paul Provenza is another guy who's a starter. He's a comic and a comedy fan and he brought all those great comics on there. Just look at the lineup of that Green Room. Like Garry Shandling... I'm trying to think of some other people that are no longer with us. That really is a time capsule now for comedy. That show is really cool for a lot of ways. I personally, when I was doing it, I was like, Paul's not really hosting as much as I thought. I asked him about that and he goes, 'I want you guys to-- [cut off]
GM: Dave, come back!
DA: I can hear you.
GM: Oh, now I hear you.
DA: Okay, I was just going to say that that show was definitely a groundbreaking show. It never got the due that it deserved.
GM: You're considered the best.
DA: I'm not. I'm a good club comic, you know? There's like a whole other world of comedy now, like arena comedy, theatre comedy, Twitter comedy. There's like all these different mediums for comedy. But I'm just really a club comic.
GM: Who do you consider the best club comic?
DA: There's people that I never got to see live that I think just from what I've heard rocked the club. And that would be like Sam Kinison. At the Comedy Store in the seventies people would come down to see him at the end of the night and he would do like an hour-plus of just great comedy, of pure, full-tilt, amazing comedy. And now that I'm old and I have all this time waiting on flights and stuff like that, I started watching all these old Carson shows. You know, I'm a joke comic so I love watching other joke comics. Like watching Rodney Dangerfield bang out maybe 20, 30 punchlines in one appearance on Johnny Carson, I was like, wow. I've had to do that where I've had to panel and they're like, 'Okay, give us a couple of topics.' But he's just basically gunning it, like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I saw him live one time, but I would love to have seen him earlier in a club. I would love to have seen Rodney Dangerfield. And Joan Rivers, who I also think is another great, who really does not get the due for the amazing joke-writing she had. I've seen her live a couple times, but seeing her in a club in the sixties or seventies, I would love to have seen that.
GM: I wonder if she was as filthy back then in the sixties as she became in her later years.
DA: Well, if you look at her on those really early TV appearances... which now, by the way, there's very few comics who can do it – do a set to time to network standard. I know a lot of comics look down on that, but the ones who can do it, it's a lot of young comics that are doing that so I feel a kinship to them because I know how stressful and hard that is to do that on network television in front of an audience of strangers basically who are really not there to see you. You're almost like this thing getting in the way of them seeing their host or the actress or the musical group that they want to see. Some comic's coming out there and wasting time. So it's really a difficult spot. People don't give it enough credit for being able to do that. I think that's still is one of the skill sets of being a good comic is being able to do late night TV. But club comedy? There's so many good ones, you know it, I know it, over the years, the ones who can roll with the crowd. That was the beauty of club comedy. It was a wilder experience. I used to call it like a knife fight. Now they'll sit there quietly. You don't know if they're having a good time and then you have to read the tweets and go, 'Oh, I guess I did okay.'
GM: You mentioned Rivers and Dangerfield. They both had writers, though, didn't they? Or at least Rivers did; I don't know if Dangerfield did.
DA: Yeah, but Joan also wrote a lot of her own stuff. And she also was a playwright, she directed a movie. So she did a bunch of stuff. And she definitely is an icon to me, at least. There's something about her, the way she self starts and always keeps plugging. There were so many highs and lows in her career that I relate to that, you know?
GM: Did you know about Kinison playing Toronto?
DA: No, tell me.
GM: Mark Breslin, who started the Yuk Yuk's, would pay him extra if he walked everybody.
GM: And he often did.
DA: What year was that?
GM: That would have been the seventies, I think. Or eighties? I'm not sure.
DA: Isn't that crazy? That's amazing. I'm talking about Kinison before he became super-famous, not the rock star Kinison. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the earlier Sam, like on the Young Comedians special. Those years, when it was him, Bill Hicks, Dom Irerra. That time. Right before he popped into this great national rock star comic.
GM: How often do you think about quitting?
DA: Quitting smoking or quitting comedy?
DA: I think about quitting it all the time. Not because I'm not having fun doing it; it's just the actual promotion and the travel. I get stressed out more. I have to take care of my mom. There's no fun to the road. Doing the shows is the fun. But I think about it a lot. Like I do feel like I'm not relevant. I do feel like I could care less about speaking to power and all that stuff. That's not my job. I feel like I'm there to be funny. A lot of my jokes, I think, cross the line enough for people to go, 'This guy is...' I'm definitely not as dirty as I used to be but I would say it's still not a PG-13 act; it's an R act. And that's what I do. But the way I see things going now, there's so much talk about comedy. It's really for the fans, the people who do come see the shows. They're the comedy audience but they don't really get the attention. It's all this tweeting and reviewing and critiquing of comedy and jokes and apologies. That's not my scene. And all the podcasting, too, talking about comedy; these live TV shows about comedy. So it's definitely not as cool as it was when I started. It was kind of like the Knights Templar back when I started, like a secret society. There are at least three comedy shows on the air now about being a comic.
GM: You work in New York in one of the most prolific scenes. What are some of the most overdone joke premises or structures you think should be retired?
DA: Overdone joke structures... Wow. I don't know, we could look at my act. Let's use my act. Um... Well, you know, it's always fun to come up with a new New York joke, but now since everybody has an Au Bon Pain, those jokes kind of work everywhere. But let's see, any time you end a joke with, 'Just google it' is kind of a defeat. [laughs] I'm trying to think. That's a really good question. Political stuff seems to be what everyone's talking about. What's the other thing everyone's talking about? I don't know. Flying jokes are back because of the shutdown. So I can tell you that.
GM: That question, by the way, was courtesy of Ivan Decker, a Vancouver comic who was on Conan and has a Netflix special.
DA: What did he say?
GM: No, he asked me to ask you that. And out of all the questions I asked, you said that was the really good one.
DA: I liked all of them, but Ivan really did take it to another level. Give it up for Ivan.
GM: Gary Gulman is tweeting all these tips for young comics. Do you read any of those?
DA: Well, I'm not a young comic and I'm not really on Twitter so I lose twice. But I'll tell you one thing: sometimes I'm on the road and I'll come up with a joke and I immediately have to joke-check it so I'll call up the comics I know that are big joke writers. It's a lot of fun when you go, 'Hey, have you heard a joke like this? Have you done anything like that?' We go at it. It's basically like vetting your joke. And I love calling up Gary because he is a great, great comic. He really is a great comic. He totally knows what he wants to do. He doesn't bend or twist to the audience. I do that. I'm like, 'Oh, it's a bachelor party. All right, here comes my bachelor party jokes.' He does what he wants to do. He has things he wants to talk about. He's passionate about it and he's a really good joke writer. So tips to young comics, I would say for anybody else doing it, I'm not so sure, but if Gary's doing it, they should probably listen to Gary because he really has done a lot of standup. I saw him just the other day. Here's my tip to him: Get a new shirt. He didn't really look like a professor of comedy. He's one of the best-looking Jews in comedy. I mean, I'm Jewish, I'm gonna say it right now, he's one of the guys right there.
GM: Tall and handsome.
DA: Tall, he's got his hair, he's doing it.
GM: Do you write your jokes from start to finish or do you go on stage with an idea and flesh it out?
DA: I do it the other way. Back in the day, I used to sit with my notebook and write and write and write, and I would get nothing. Now I just get the concept and go, 'Okay, I wanna try this on stage.' And on the way to saying it, I'll work on it in my head, write down more things about it, and then on stage I'll get up there and I'll make it work. And then the next show I'll totally destroy it, like make sure it never works again. Like, I'll keep messing with a joke until it never works again and I'm like, 'What was I thinking?' But that's my own self-destructive nature. But I do write and I also – but I don't do it as much as I used to – listen to my tapes, which if I was to give a comedy tip to anybody, it would be that if you get stage time, which is the most important thing in comedy, you gotta listen to your tape. And don't just listen for the laughs. That's what people are listening for. It's the other times. That's where you really learn about, in my case, how bad a comic I am, and also like where there should be a joke, what you can do, energy, all those different performance and timing things. That's where I learned all that, from listening to my own horrible tapes.
GM: And how you get from one joke to another, I guess, as well.
DA: Right. The segues and all that. But the way things are now, there's a lot of storytelling, there's a lot of speaking to power, preaching kinda thing. They're stories so you gotta listen to this whole story. I'm more into the punchline-setup kinda thing. I like that.
GM: How many jokes do you think you've written in your life? Thousands.
DA: Wow. That's a pretty good question.
GM: Oh, thanks.
DA: I think someone said it one time – I don't know who it was; maybe it was Mark Twain. He said you're always rewriting the same joke over and over for your whole career, or something like that. And I was like, there's some truth to that, I guess.
GM: Mark Twain?
DA: Maybe it was Mark Twain or maybe it was Mark Norman, I'm not sure. Mark Norman and Sam Morell, do you know them?
DA: They're like the younger generation of comics but they're really, really strong joke writers so I love watching their stuff, talking to them about comedy. There are still a few out there of really hard-core joke writing people. Anthony Jeselnik is great. A great joke writer. Mulaney, he's another great one. Patton Oswalt, he's like an icon of joke writing. So there's a couple people out there if you're into jokes, that's the people I would suggest you watch and you can learn a lot from them. But what do you think? I mean, jokes seem now, like there's this whole generation of audience where they're like, 'Oh, this is not the truth.' I feel bad for them. Because I've seen comics that only talk about the real of their life and it's boring, unless you're like some kind of doctor without borders where you have an adventure story. I really feel like I've heard your story about going to a Jamba Juice with a girlfriend.
GM: I'm with you. I like jokes. I like what Demetri Martin said about personal storytelling. For him, it has to pass the 'who gives a shit?' test.
DA: Right. Right! And we do live kinda pretty exceptional metro lives. These stories kinda blend together. That's what I like when I work with Jeff, because both of us just want to go for the funniest joke, the silliness of it. And we're both in our 50s. I know he doesn't like me to say his age, but I'm older than him. I'm 54. But we don't care anymore. We don't give a shit. That's why it's so much more fun because we're just going for stuff that kinda makes us laugh.
GM: When people say you can't really get to know that comic, they're hiding behind their jokes, I say you're getting to know them because you're understanding how their brain works.
DA: Yeah. Or maybe you're just laughing and you don't care about getting to know somebody. How about that? [laughs] When I used to watch Wrestlemania, I was never like, 'I wonder what the Iron Sheik is like when he's not up there in a full-tilt death-throe.' I mean, that's what it is. I guess people expect a lot now from their entertainment.
GM: I think why comedians probably take that personal route is so others can't steal it because it's their own experience.
DA: I think a lot of them have more confidence in themselves than I ever did. I mean, I didn't really think I was going to be a comic until, like, seven years in. I was doing all these open mics, wasn't getting paid. I didn't consider myself a professional comic until I actually did Letterman then I was like, 'Wow, this is what I'm going to do.'
GM: Did you have other jobs?
DA: Yeah, I was a temp, I worked in bars, I was a doorman at a comedy club. I did all those different things. I would do wedding photography on the weekend – I was an assistant for that. But I did a lot of different things. I think now a lot of people decide at the age of fourteen: 'I want to be a professional comic.' That's like a career. I never thought of it that way. The people in the comedy world were losers. Especially when I started in the late-eighties when comedy was not hot; it was like, 'Yeah, I was a lawyer and that didn't work out' or 'I was a teacher' or 'I'm just a drunk and it's fun to hang out here.' There were those kind of people in comedy. And everybody wanted to be Seinfeld with a sitcom and I was like, 'What about the comedy?' and they were like, 'Ah, this is like a stepping stone to get to that sitcom.' I never thought that way. I never really meshed with those people because I saw comedy as its own thing. It was so hard to just get good at it. And now people don't enjoy the process; they don't really have fun. They really all have an agenda: 'I'm gonna do this and then a podcast and then I'm going to get my own web series and then it's going to lead to a movie.' You see a lot more of the business of it now in the comedy scene than you used to.
GM: When you were starting out, was there a kindness shown to you from a comic that stuck with you? Or was it all cut-throat?
DA: Any compliment you got from a great comic... One time Bill Hicks saw my act and said, 'Here's a tag you should try.' And I was just like, 'Wow, Bill Hicks is talking to me!' I would say the scene that I was in, we spent all of our time talking about jokes and clubs and gigs. To this day, you walk in a comedy club and it's like, 'Were you on the road?' You can start a conversation. It's kinda like talking about sports. 'Hey, you ever play this club?' And you start talking and you can immediately buddy up with any comic that way. Now everybody's in this kinda shutdown I-mode that it's really difficult to get that. But when I see somebody do something, especially a joke that I've never heard, I always say, hey, that's a great one. And when I was starting Colin Quinn was a really big influence on a lot of us in the New York scene because he's so smart and funny and fast and all that kinda stuff, so I would say Colin. I met George Carlin one time but I didn't get in his space or anything like that. I just saw him. But along the road there were a lot of people who were really cool to me.
GM: We went over time.
DA: I'm sorry if it's a short one. We're trying to do as many as we can.
GM: Well don't talk to anyone else here, please.
DA: [laughs] Hey, so maybe I'll see you at the show, huh?
GM: I hope so. Thanks.
DA: Oh good. Well come up and say hey. I really appreciate it.