He admitted that his original motivation to perform stand-up comedy was attributed to his indecisiveness as to what he should do after college. Graduating from New York University with a degree in film and television, Dave Attell said he realized he’d probably never go on to become an actor or a director.
“And so that’s when I started hanging around comedy clubs in New York during open-mic nights, although I never thought I’d actually become a comic either,” said Attell, 47, who did become a performer and will appear at the Helium Comedy Club on Sansom Street in Center City this Friday and Saturday.
During the late 1980s, Attell worked at menial jobs during the day and at comedy clubs on nights and weekends.
“I was a kind of a loner, a shy kind of kid who could make his inner circle of friends laugh,” he recalled. “So that’s what sort of kept me going. At home, I loved listening to the records of comics like George Carlin, and I couldn’t stop laughing myself. I loved to laugh, but it took a long time to convince people I was a comic.”
After years of honing his craft, and “totally bombing often,” he eventually found himself being described as a “comedian’s comedian.” And while audience members didn’t always follow his delivery, fellow comedians were refreshed by his originality.
One of his biggest breaks came in 1993 when he made his first appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. That appearance was seen by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who recruited Attell to be a writer and occasional performer. He gladly accepted, and two years later found himself featured on two HBO specials, with a half-hour comedy special all his own in 1997.
But perhaps he is best known as the host of his own show titled Insomniac with Dave Attell, which ran from 2001 to ’04 on Comedy Central. For that show, Attell went to a particular city at night, starting out with a minute or so of his performance at a comedy club, and then to various bars, landmarks, clubs and so on. The thrill of the show revolved around the bizarre denizens of the night that he encountered, mostly while wandering cities in America and abroad.
During most interviews, Attell said he is asked about that part of his life, but never gets tired of talking about it.
“To be honest,” he said, “it was such an easy show to do, that there’s not much to talk about. But I do talk about it over and over and over again. It’s kind of my Abu Ghraib prison.
“The point is,” he added, “that I came up with the idea for the show, which originally was just supposed to be a fun travel show. It was totally unscripted, with the whole idea behind it being that no one sleeps.”
In 2008, Attell began hosting another show, The Gong Show with Dave Attell for Comedy Central. Like the 1970s version, the show had a rotating panel of celebrity judges grading unusual people and their acts — something that Attell was more than familiar with.
Today, Attell is the creator and host of Dave’s Old Porn on Showtime, featuring legends of the adult industry, along with such talents as Chelsea Handler, Adam Carolla and Daniel Tosh, who discuss the flicks. The second season will begin airing this fall.
Still, he admitted, he loves doing stand-up and appearing at comedy clubs around the country.
“Over the years, I’ve been in four films, but I’m not an actor, and I’m not a very good sitcom guy — as producers come to find out,” he said. “Of course, if something came along, I’d jump on it, but I love just being out there, being funny and entertaining people. For me, that’s the best.”
For show times and ticket information, call 215-496-9001.