There was time when a punch line could live up to its name, literally.
It went a little something like this: You’re a comedian. You tell a joke. Someone in the crowd gets offended. Perhaps he or she has had a drink or two. Next thing you know, you’ve got an inebriated Rocky on your hands, staggering across that fine line a comic once had to traverse between knockin’ ’em dead and potentially getting knocked out.
Dave Attell’s been there.
“Comedy used to be more of a brutal sport — it was like a blood sport, in terms of the crowd with heckling. It could get physical,” Attell recalls. “It was that kind of thing.
“Now, the crowd sits there, pretty much,” Attell says with a discernible lack of enthusiasm at this development, “and you don’t even know if they’re having a good time until you go home and read Twitter — and I’m not on Twitter, so my web person will tell me a day later, ‘Oh, you really did well.’ I’m like, ‘I did?’ ”
Life of the party
To be sure, Attell is not pining for a return to comedy’s full-contact days of yore.
But having done stand-up professionally for over 30 years now, his first TV appearance coming in 1988 on VH1’s “Stand-Up Spotlight” alongside Lewis Black, Margaret Cho and others, Attell has seen how dramatically the comedic winds have shifted in recent years.
Attell is old school, a road-tested punch line comic who honed his craft the hard way (“I just went out there and bombed half a million times”). Onstage, he’s an amiably in-your-face presence, a debauched teddy-bear-of-a-man with a potty mouth frequently upturned into an Alfred E. Neuman-worthy grin.
Whether he’s riffing on his appearance (“I’ve got kind of an Andre Agassi with a drinking problem kind of look”) or offering some sage drinking advice (“Never get drunk when you’re wearing a hooded sweatshirt, because you will eventually think there is someone right behind you”), Attell is a life-of-the party type, delivering his material with impish gusto in a frequently self-deprecating, Rodney Dangerfield-type fashion.
As such, he’s a natural fit in this town.
“I think what’s good about Vegas is that I’m not a political comic, and people there really don’t want to hear about politics,” he says. “I was never political. I always felt like I was not there to preach. I didn’t really live a life where I felt like I was an example to anybody.”
‘I’m hearing trigger words’
Attell’s humor, while azure blue, is presented with such good-natured playfulness, it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone getting their feathers ruffled. Yet, in the YouTube era, even Attell finds himself watching what he says from time to time — or at least thinking twice about it.
“Everybody’s a reporter in a way. Everybody’s recording,” he says. “You really don’t get the chance to go up there the way you used to where you’re working on material as you’re doing shows all the time. I still riff on jokes, but I definitely have a filter where I’m always second-guessing what I’m about to say in terms of how people are going to react to it.”
This can impact the crowd as much as the comic, as Attell sees it.
“I think the audience is kind of spoiled now to some degree,” he says, “because they’re used to watching when they want to watch, how they want to watch it at home. So, when they come out to a live show, it’s almost like this culture shock, ‘Oh, I’m in a room with a lot of people watching comedy and I don’t know how to react. I’m groaning more than I’m laughing because I’m hearing trigger words and he’s talking about taboo subjects.’ ”
Even though he’s a veteran of the cult-classic Comedy Central show “Insomniac With Dave Attell,” a sort of drunken travelogue where Attell partied till dawn in a different city each episode, has headlined large halls and most recently starred in the three-part Netflix special “Bumping Mics With Jeff Ross and Dave Attell,” he still feels most at home in the smaller rooms — just so long as no fists are flying his way.
“I like to think of myself as a club comic,” Attell says. “That means that one night it could be a birthday, the next night it could be a bachelor party.
“Anything can happen in that room, and that becomes part of the show,” he adds. “My show goes off the rails pretty quickly, you know?”
Who: Dave Attell
When: 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday
Where: Comedy Cellar at Rio, 3700 W. Flamingo Road
Tickets: $25-$45 (702-777-2782)