The Star of Comedy Central’s Insomniac might not be able to sleep, but he can sure as hell drink. The Drunkard talks to Dave about dives, dames, and how booze built America.
Modern Drunkard: I’m trying to imagine your pitch session with Comedy Central: “Okay, I’m going to get loaded and talk to a bunch of weird drunk people.” Ten years ago they would have chased you down the street with sticks.
David Attell: That was my other pitch. I don’t know how it worked, but I did use the words “you dig” and “baby” a lot.
MD: Things seem to be turning around on cable. Considering the popularity of The Man Show and Sex In The City, drinking appears to becoming fashionable again.
DA: They just look like they’re drinking on those shows. On my show we’re really drinking. I don’t see Sara Jessica Parker getting drunk and saying, “Somebody lick my fake tits.” I’m drinking. I’m getting drunk. I’m slowly dying. Those people are just acting.
MD: You’re the only TV show where I’ve seen someone do a real shot.
DA: Tom Green did some on Leno.
MD: That’s right, I saw that.
DA: So a tip of the hat to Tom. Is there anything he won’t do?
MD: I’m more surprised NBC let him do it. What do you drink?
DA: I have a few usual drinks. I don’t drink all those crazy drinks. In the summer I’ll have a Stoli and tonic, but my main drinks are Budweiser and a shot, Jager or Jameson chilled.
MD: Have you tried dropping a Jager into a Guinness?
DA: I’m not into those ales or meads, what do they call that?
DA: Stout, yeah, I don’t like that. I like straight-ahead beer drinking, I’ll have a Bud, a Miller or a Coors. I’ve done all the other stuff, on my show everyone has some crazy drink or shot I have to do. It’s just too messy, it’s too much work. The point is to get drunk, not do chemistry. I like it when a bartender has a personal drink, something he created on his own.
MD: What’s your favorite quality in a bartender?
DA: There are two types of bartenders that I like—one is the guy bartender like Doug Coughlin (Bryan Brown’s character in the film Cocktail) who’s seen the world. Then there’s the girl bartender who’s hot, but not Coyote Ugly hot, not one who wants to be an actress. I like it when they drink with me and buy me shots, so I can feel important.
MD: When you say Coyote Ugly hot, you mean those really attractive girls who work in yuppie bars, and they’re just mercenaries in it for the money, they don’t really like to drink.
DA: They might be party girls, but they don’t want to party with me. They want to party with a rock star.
MD: In a previous interview you said only drunks recognize you.
DA: People recognize me more when they’re drunk than when they’re sober. They make some kind of weird connection.
MD: And then they’re like, “Where’s the camera crew, dude? I’ve got something to say.”
DA: All the time. I was in Pittsburgh and this guy came up to me and it was so funny because you could see the alcohol working through him. At first he was really into my stand up show and he’s like, “Oh man you’re great, let me show you some bars.” He wanted to be my tour guide which is kind of flattering, but a few drinks later he was like, “You’re not funny. Your show sucks.”
MD: He was mad because the camera crew didn’t show up. Have you or your crew ever been attacked when you go into dive bars?
DA: Not so much the dive bars, it’s more often the alternative art-school bars. We get these long impassioned speeches about how the show is exploitative and how they’re the ones who should have a show. It’s the dance of the hypocrite. We try not to get in everyone’s face, but sometimes we’ll make a wrong move, go to the wrong bar at the wrong time, and we’ll pay the price. People will throw ice at me or be really annoying. Or worst, no one will be there.
MD: You’ve said that you try not to interview people who are too drunk.
DA: Yeah, that’s when it’s less interesting and more sad and that’s myself included. Sometimes I go off the handle. It’s bad enough when people you know remind you forever about what you did while drunk, it’s worse when there’s a camera there to record it. We try to find people who’ve been drinking but not smelling-of-puke, racist-jokes drunk.
MD: I think it was W.C. Fields who said the worst kind of drinking buddy is one with a good memory.
DA: That is so true. Like I say in my act, nothing ruins the day after like a dead hooker. You got lawyers to call, carpets to clean.
MD: It’s a big hassle. Every stand-up comedian I know is either a full-bore drunk or in A.A. or trying to decide which is cooler.
DA: There’s only a few of us left. You’ll go up to someone you haven’t seen in a while and say, “Hey, let’s get some drinks,” and they’ll say, “I’ve stopped.” And you’re like, “Oh, okay.” We lose them every day. I have to say, the ones that are sober are freaky in their own ways, they have their own obsessive habits, they’re either chasing too much poon, or always buying clothes, or into the incredibly boring habit of working out all the time. You’ll be on the road with someone and ask them what’ve they done all day and they’ll say, “I hit the gym, then I took a spin class.” I’m like, wow, I didn’t know comedy was your stepping stone to the X-Games. I mean, what’s the difference between a drunk guy who pees on himself or a sober guy who wants someone to pee on him? It’s all pee.
MD: Drinking makes you more human, it brings out whatever good or bad human qualities you might possess and exaggerates them.
DA: It’s truth serum, it brings out whatever you’ve been hiding, and that’s myself included. People say drinking alone is a sign of depression. I say it’s a sign of prudence. I mean, you can’t really insult your couch.
MD: You don’t really know someone until you’ve gotten loaded with them.
DA: Sometimes you don’t want them to know. One of the great lies of drinking is you can impress girls with your drinking. I’ll do a ton of shots and think the girl will be like, “Wow!” But she’s really thinking, “Oh my God, you’re a disaster.”
MD: You need to hang around sorority houses more.
DA: I need to start hanging out with younger women. Girls are great drinkers now, they’ve come a long way. It used to be the heckler in the crowd was usually a really drunk woman with her big boyfriend, but now these girls are handling their liquor. And that’s the kind of girl I’m looking for, the girl who can really drink hard.
MD: And keep up.
DA: Right. I’m a hard party drinker, straight ahead, and I drink too much sometimes, but there’s some people I know who can have two or three and stop.
MD: They never cease to amaze me.
DA: But two and three are just numbers, anyhow. Five and twelve, they’re just numbers too.
MD: It’s hard for me to stop after three, because that’s when you find that inner glow and you think, hey, let’s see how far I can take this. It’s important to set goals.
DA: Once I get to a bar I’m not really into playing pool or darts, I just want to sit there and drink.
MD: Everything else is just a distraction. There are medical reports that say if you drink two or three a day you’ll live three to ten years longer than a teetotaler.
MD: Sure. Even the heavy drinkers outlive the teetotalers.
DA: Yeah, but who drinks in moderation? The French maybe. People who have just two glasses of wine don’t have to worry about anything. The people who drink a bottle of wine and smash it over a cop’s head have something to worry about.
MD: There’s a guy in Yugoslavia who hasn’t drank water in twenty years. Just beer. He’s seventy-two and in pretty good health.
DA: Really? Maybe it’s his diet, maybe they don’t have Taco Bell over there. We live in a hypocritical society, there’s so much advertising for alcohol, yet you’re an asshole if you drink it. Maybe you just happen to be a good consumer.
MD: Those new Coors commercials are a good example of hypocrisy. The big brewers give so much lip service about drinking responsibly, its on the bottom of every ad, but the kids in those commercials are obviously hammered, they’re painted up, jumping around like monkeys. You can’t convince me they’re acting that way after drinking the suggested two or three beers.
DA: I don’t know how companies can tell you to only use a certain amount of their product. Don’t they really want you to buy a lot of their beer?
MD: Do you remember your first beer?
DA: I think it was schnapps or something like that, one of my dad’s drinks. I might have drank vermouth by accident. The first time I got really drunk was on sangria and Sambuca, then after that we’d just buy beer. I’m from Long Island so we weren’t really into pot or other drugs, it was mostly combinations of alcohol.
MD: How old were you then?
DA: Fourteen or so.
MD: In America I think that’s when most people first start in, between twelve and fourteen.
DA: People think teenage drinking is a new thing, but if you go through history, during colonial times for example, people were starting early with hard cider and potato mash. I even heard that to keep the babies quiet in case there was an Indian attack, they’d take rum and put it on a rag and put it in their mouths. So basically alcohol built this country.
MD: Have you drank overseas?
DA: Is Tijuana considered overseas? I’ve also drank in England, Ireland and Amsterdam.
MD: It’s different over there.
DA: It’s not like we drink, the pub is a place to tell stories.
MD: The neighborhood’s living room. Kids start early, with wine at the dinner table, and because they haven’t been deprived and have had abstinence shoved on them, it’s not such a taboo. Which is why we have so much binge drinking over here.
DA: I think we’re babied in this country; we’re all bad little girls and boys for indulging our free spirits.
MD: Have you ever been to an A.A. meeting?
DA: Yeah. I went because I’d had some bad experiences and I felt really really guilty. I think A.A. can be good; it helps a lot of people handle demon booze. But I have trouble with commitments, so I couldn’t make the meetings.
MD: And who wants to be anonymous? You want to be a star.
DA: Yes. A.A. is a right time, right place kind of thing. When you hit bottom, it can work as a wake up call. I have my own wake up calls, like not being able to wake up.
MD: Is there a particular kind of music you like to listen to when you’re drinking?
DA: I like blues and straight-ahead rock. It’s weird drinking to Britney Spears, but we all have to deal with that now.
MD: Rumor has it she likes to tip a few herself. Do you think the drinking age should be lowered?
DA: I feel bad because we’re at war and there are young people in the military and they go to Afghanistan and have horrible experiences, then they come home and what can you say to them? “Hey, let me buy you a Coke. How about a Fruitopia?”
MD: That’s how we reward our heroes in the new America. Do you have any drinking heroes?
DA: Jackie Gleason has got to be one of the best drinkers. Hemingway was a great drinker, but wasn’t he kind of a bad drunk? He was always fighting or fishing something.
MD: He wouldn’t so much go around picking fights, but I understand he was rather merciless with the sarcasm.
DA: Well, I do that, so maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
MD: Almost every great writer and artist was a drunk.
DA: It’s like I say in my stand-up act: Where are the great pothead writers? I think drinking is good because it makes up for my character flaws. I’m not really a party guy, but when I drink I can stand being with myself.
MD: You really are an insomniac, aren’t you?
DA: Yeah, and alcohol helps me sleep. I know they say that’s wrong, but, you know, it works.
MD: It’s very effective.
DA: If I don’t wake up with a hangover, and I sometimes do when I drink a lot of tequila, I’ll feel very rested. My pores are open from the bed sweats and the DTs.
MD: It’s the wino workout.
DA: I know it’s wrong, but whenever I see a dead-on hobo drunk, and they’re all lean looking and they’ve got that weird sun-tanned look, they seem pretty healthy to me. I mean, are they hobos or are they working on a boat?
MD: The ones that do look rough look that way because of malnutrition, they’re not taking their vitamins.
DA: No, they don’t. That’s why the garnish with a drink is so important, the lime or lemon.
MD: You gotta eat that, that’s where your vitamin C comes from.
DA: Well, you don’t want rickets or anything.
MD: I notice you go into a lot of dives on your show. What’s your definition of a great dive?
DA: Being single, I like a bar with some attainable women in it. A place where you can get a drink right away. And you shouldn’t feel like a fight is always about to happen. Where I know the bartender. On the show we try to go to different types of bars—dive bars, college bars, gay bars, martini bars, just to give people a feel for the town, even if it’s Boise, to show it has a lot going on. I don’t like college bars so much because I feel too old, and you can’t just sip a drink, you have to chug it. A good dive bar is one with two exits. Just in case.
MD: It’s important.
DA: Going to the bar is kind of screwed up for me now, because of the show. Everyone is really nice to me and they buy me shots and tell me what bars to go to, even when I’m not doing the show and I want to just hang out and drink. And they give me a hard time if I don’t act like I am on the show. It’s weird, it’s like the guy who played Batman, they think he’s a super hero and they think I’m a super drunk, and sometimes I just want to have a couple drinks and be in my own world. After the show, on my own time, they’ll ask me where I’m going and I don’t really know where I’m going and I don’t need a guide, I know where bars are. I’ve been drinking forever and I know how to find a bar. And there are a lot of cockblocks out there, I’ll be talking to a girl and a guy will come up and yell, “You need to go to this great bar!” And I’m like, “Do I?”
MD: Ever plan on coming to Denver?
DA: I don’t know, I have to check next season’s shooting schedule.
MD: Cool, because I can tell you all the great bars to go to.
DA: See? See how that goes?
Interview by Frank Kelly Rich