It’s been seven years since Dave Attell’s last special, Captain Miserable, and about a year and a half since the final episode of Dave’s Old Porn aired on Showtime. So it’s fair to say that the latest special, Road Work, and his new Comedy Central series, Comedy Underground with Dave Attell, represent the former Insomniac host’s return to TV stand up. And he’s coming back in a blue blaze of crudity, unloading joke after joke concerning sexual perversity and all things cringe-worthy.
“It’s going to be a filthy, dirty mess of a show, it really is,” Attell cautions at the top of the special. “I know some of you are into it, some of you aren’t.” If anything, that’s an understatement. The special takes its name from its unique format—Attell filmed at five different clubs (in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New Brunswick, NJ, and Chicopee, MA) and assembled 41 minutes of comedy, laying the highlights end to end. He also gave an audience member a camera at each spot (a bit he repeats for Underground) and occasionally cuts their perspective into the mix.
It’s visual anarchy. Attell will sometimes bump into a cameraman, then cut to a close-up as he addresses that camera. The audience cam is rarely steady and blurs with herky-jerky movements. And the comedy is a series of grenades, some more artful than others. Sex toys, masturbation, pederasty, little people, drinking, ethnicity—all are represented in the mini-sets. Attell takes the crowd’s temperature at the Stress Factory early in the opening set. “My dad used to beat me when I was a kid,” he says, “and he’d always go, ‘Dave, I really don’t want to hit you, but this is the only thing that gets me hard.” After a few groans, he adds, “Come on, it’s a joke; you know I don’t know who my dad is. I have no idea. I was raised in a carnival!”
That’s just the beginning threshold of offense. And Attell cops to it all the way. He revels in the feeling that he’s repelling his audience. He leans into the cringe. He does one bit about getting heckled by special needs kids at a benefit, basically because he wasn’t candy, and that’s what they wanted. “And it hurt, because unlike them, I feel,” he says to a burst of nervous laughter and moans. “I know they feel hot and cold, but I’m talking the whole rainbow of feelings.” At the beginning of that bit, he asks the crowd if they’re ready. In the middle, he notes it’s “not an appropriate joke.” And at the end, he confirms, “Some of you are not laughing ’cause you have a soul.”
Road Work isn’t about telling revealing stories or setting up a string of one-liners as much as obliterating any boundaries of taste and tact. It’s raising the stakes, joke by joke, topping the deplorableness of the last riff. Attell is an endearing guy, and he wields that well onstage to soften the tenor of his attack, even as he’s saying the most foul, unutterable things. Which he most certainly does, early and often, in Road Work.