Comedy Issue: Dave Attell on the Touring Grind

Dave Attell
Brad Barket/Comedy Central

Comedy Central’s "Comedy Underground" host says that, in the future, comics on the road will compete with a seal that doesn’t do anything “but sit in a lukewarm pool and fart sadly.”

When I first started touring as a comic, it was exciting. It was like, I’ll tell you everything I know about going on tour as a stand-up in two sentences. No. 1, don’t overpack. You need one bag. I have a bag ready to go at all times, I just throw in new underwear. I wear the same outfit for every gig. And I might bring a second outfit if I have to do morning radio. Throw in a toothbrush, and you’re done.

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Second, don’t fly unless you have to. I hate air travel. It was bad even before 9/11. Now, everyone thinks I’m a terrorist. I’d rather take a car. I can leave whenever I want.

A car is also a nice thing to have when they put you at a hotel near the airport and there’s nothing to do. Or there’s some kind of weird convention at the hotel. I’ve ended up in a hotel twice when there was a polka convention. That is in no way a joke. There’s something about accordion music — there’s never really a good time for it. They’d be playing in the elevator, in the lobby, in the bathrooms. People were just walking around playing accordions. It was a horrible nightmare. 

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The worst is when you can’t get food. I did a gig in a farm town once, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Around 9 p.m. I was hungry but every restaurant was closed. Which was weird, because this was one of those towns were everyone was either obese or morbidly obese. I was like, “There are too many fat people for there not to be food.” It seemed insane that I would be the only one who wanted a meal after 9 p.m. 

The one thing I wish the people who rep comics understood is that doing a stand-up tour really is a f—ing grind. Sometimes my manager will meet me, and he’ll say, “I get it now. I had a rough flight, and I just want to go to bed.” And I’m like, “You haven’t seen the half of it. You didn’t do five hours of bad radio this morning. And you didn’t have to have a really awkward lunch with the club owner’s friend.” I wish it was just long flights and shitty hotels.

It doesn’t take much anymore to make me happy. I used to want a hotel near the center of the action. Now I’m just excited when they have a washer and dryer in the hotel. I don’t care about gyms or pools — whatever. If they have a laundry room, I will lose my f—ing mind. I’ll go down and do my lonely person’s load of laundry, with my sad single-serving detergent. It’s a f—ing party.

If the hotel’s near a mall, that’s even better. All the gigs I thought were corny when I was young — like, “Oh, crap. I got booked in a club in a strip mall” — those are the ones that I look forward to now. I love eating at the mall food court. I’ll probably take it to go and eat it back in my hotel room — because I have dignity — but I love that shit.

That’s also what’s really depressing about being a touring comic, especially if you’ve done it for as long as I have. You realize that things are the same everywhere you go. There was a time when it was like, “Wow, I’m in Wyoming.” But that uniqueness has disappeared. The country is becoming one giant, interchangeable strip mall.

I was doing a gig in Canada, at the West Edmonton Mall, one of the biggest in the world. I was there for a week and it was so cold that no one left the mall. But it didn’t matter. They had everything you could possibly need. They had a roller coaster and a gun range. A seal lived in the mall. He had a pool and everything. People would line up to take pictures with him. He was my competition. I was walking around, trying to get people to see my show, but they all wanted to see the seal. There’s the future for touring comics. The entire country is going to be inside, in one big mall, filled with roller coasters and Cinnabons. You’ll be competing for an audience with a seal who doesn’t actually do anything but sit in a lukewarm pool and fart sadly. And you’ll be losing. 

Text as told to writer Eric Spitznagel

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