Dave Attell has had his share of adventures on the road -- all after-hours. "I can't sleep," confides the affable New York comic. "I have insomnia. So I do a show, I go out drinking, and I usually don't [meet girls], because I look like Dave Attell, not Dave Matthews."
The scruffy, balding comedian may be the first person ever to turn his health problem into a TV show. In the new "Insomniac With Dave Attell" (Comedy Central, Sundays at 12 a.m.) he prowls city streets to meet people who work and play in the wee hours. He rides with a mortuary pickup service in San Francisco; saddles up with the Federation of Black Cowboys in Brooklyn; schmoozes with garbage workers at a New York waste transfer station and hangs with the caretaker of a bullfighting ring in Tijuana. "I also visit a fortune cookie factory, which is like a love letter to myself because I'm Jewish," he quips.
His cinéma vérité-style show blends two of the hottest trends on TV: reality television and the late-night format -- now emerging as a fierce new battleground among cable channels. E! has "Howard Stern," MTV has the Generation-Y anthology series "Undressed" and Comedy Central has "The Daily Show" (with the very Jewish Jon Stewart) plus its new Sunday late-night block ("The Chris Wylde Show" and "Insomniac").
Though the Nielsen wars promise to be bloody, Attell won't ridicule interviewees to boost ratings. "We're not like Tom Green or 'Jackass,' where they use real people as foils," he insists. Rather, he sees "Insomniac" as an alternative to beautiful-people travelogues, such as E! Network's "Wild On."
"If you're a hot model and you go to the Bahamas, you're probably going to have a good time," he says. "But if you're Joe Schmo and you live in Pittsburgh, there's got to be something for you to do at night, too."
Attell, 36, who grew up Reform in Rockville Center, N.Y., believes he turned to comedy for the same reason as other Gen-X Jews: "I wasn't smart or popular or good at sports," he says. "I kind of had the odd look."
Self-deprecation was the core of his act when he began working open mike nights in the 1980s. "Jews are the chosen people," he quipped of his nonathletic high school years. "Except in gym class, where we're the last-chosen people."
Of his nonexistent love life, he whined, "Hitler had a girlfriend. I don't have one. Is that fair?"
By the late 1990s, Attell was a fixture on "Conan" and "Letterman" and had taped his own half-hour special for HBO; The New York Times Magazine named him one of 30 artists to watch; and he is nominated for a 2001 American Comedy Award in the viewer's choice stand-up comic category.
Along the way, he clocked 30 weeks a year on the road, where occupational hazards included anti-Semitic slurs and the occasional Ku Klux Klan march. The encounters inspired Attell to write a joke: "Why do racist groups still have meetings? Do they have new business to discuss? Like, 'I went away on vacation, I'm really tan, so should I start hating myself?' "
"Insomniac" has its own share of occupational hazards, including street brawls, unruly drunks -- and worse. "Our guide in Tijuana says, 'If you see someone wearing a hood, watch out,'" he recalls. "I go, 'What are they, hit men for the mob? And he says, 'No, they have leprosy.'"
In New Orleans, another occupational hazard proved to be Attell's guilty conscience. "After I participated in a voodoo cleansing ritual, I felt like I'd broken my religion," he says. "That's when I knew, 'The Hebrew school has paid off.'"
Now the assimilated Jewish comic says he wants to talk to a rabbi, maybe even go to temple. "Jewish ritual really helped me when my dad passed away two years ago," he explains. "I think it can really help with the tough things in life."
On upcoming episodes of "Insomniac," Attell hopes to ride with a Chassidic ambulance service, perhaps even visit a dreidel factory, among other endeavors. If the show goes international, he'd love to tape a segment in Israel. "Then I can find the lost tribes," he says, laughing.