Insomniac with Dave Attell

The Osbournes, the latest exhibit in the rogues’ gallery that is reality television, seems to have done the near impossible. In consecutive weeks, the show has earned the top spot among cable rankings and, thus, appears to have revitalized MTV’s reputation for groundbreaking programming. It’s no coincidence, however, that the show features a pastier, flabbier version of the heavy metal icon whose stage antics penned several graphic chapters in rock legend. Reality shows inevitably fudge the boundaries of celebrity, either dressing down a big name, or momentarily exalting an anonymous dimwit, or perhaps in some cases, doing both.

This paradox makes reality television such an easy target for criticism that most of us no longer take notice. Glutton Bowl, for example, the bowel-punishing gorge-fest that aired on Fox opposite the Olympics, clearly marked a new low in TV’s ongoing love affair with vérité. But with Jamie Salle weeping on the ice and a weightier matter brewing in Afghanistan, the “game show” rated hardly more than a glancing sneer.

Such wasn’t always the case. A few years back, the older generation of reality shows, “talks” of the Jerry Springer variety, sparked a highly politicized debate as the country saw to its moral housekeeping. After the usual exchanges of belligerent partisan rhetoric, the uproar fizzled, ending with some cosmetic reshuffling of time slots, a few shows dying of natural causes and the rest settling into a contented mediocrity. At present, it’s still difficult to remember how fabricated tales of trailer-park incest could constitute a bona fide cause for public concern, but even in less militarized times, Glutton Bowl and its wearying ilk would be, for both the right and the left, a waste of ammunition.

So let MTV bask in its present good fortune. And let the network heavyweights do their best to keep up, rattling their test tubes, synthesizing triumphs (Millionaire, Survivor) and euthanizing failures (The Chair), no matter how disheartening the process. In the meantime, Insomniac with Dave Attell has quietly been picked up for a third season on Comedy Central, garnered a prime-time audience over one million strong, and, in a word, legitimized the entire project of reality television.

The show is a blend of Attell’s coarse, priapic standup comedy and a wide-eyed travelogue. Like most comics, Attell frequently takes his game on the road, and his tour becomes the vehicle for the half-hour-long Insomniac. He’s a boozier, gutter-mouthed Rick Steves, minus the stuffy monument-lust. Each episode starts with a short standup segment, smartly and irrelevantly edited to catch the highlights, but the real fun begins as Attell explores the after-hours ecosystems of his host city, wherever it might be: Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and New York (Attell’s native stomping ground), as well as Miami, New Orleans, Kansas City, Boise, Philadelphia, Montreal. The list goes on, and presently Attell is eyeballing Canada for more upcoming stops.

His first act as the new guy in town is to hit the local watering holes, kamikaze-style, where he rubs elbows with the locals, unleashing icebreakers such as: “Who here has had sex with a midget?” Armed only with a disposable camera (his sidekick, Brian, hauls the heavier video artillery, dutifully mute), he swings from bar to bar and stops folks on the street for a little friendly conversation or perchance a quick exhibitionist flash of breast, buttock, disfiguring scar. Once, he nabs a portly, bald-headed Kansan to pop snapshots, he claims, of his long-lost twin. “When I jerk off, can you feel it?” he asks. At times, when the Quaker students model their bras, or when the collegiate Bostonian quaffs a cup of cigarette ash, cellophane, one crumpled lemon wedge and beer, you have the sense you’ve been transported to Padre Island in mid-March, and you might reasonably start casting around for the exit.

Attell himself never flinches. He knows he’s a 37-year-old bystander, momentarily swept up by frat-house logic, and after a few disarming jokes at everyone’s expense, he cedes the floor. Intruding on two Greek coeds frenching in a bathroom, he gestures at the toilet, preparing to relieve himself, and flatly remarks, “No, keep going. It’s the only way I can get it out.” If he doesn’t actually elicit these on-camera feats, he’s not exactly their hapless victim either, and it’s this fine shade of knowing complicity that saves face all around.

With last call as a recurring division point, the show kicks into a second phase of hijinks as Attell delves deeper into night-owl customs. He usually starts with a post-bar bite to, as Dave puts it, “get a little food on that alcohol.” And like a true tourist, Dave searches out the local bill of fare: devouring cheese steaks in Philly and nearly witnessing a riot (which he might or might not have incited) among the patrons of two neighboring rivals. He’ll belly up to the counter of a Manhattan diner for a cheeseburger and fries, all the while taking time with a pair of occasionally bisexual women. After scouring Boise, Attell finds a joint where the special is, of all things, a heavily buttered scone roughly the size of a human liver. Even while stuffing his face, Dave seizes the opportunity to mix it up with the folks on the clock, on one occasion working the line inside a Kansas City falafel truck where the standard protocol requires staff and customers to trade ego-blanching insults.

In the wee hours, the bar crowd has lurched off to bed, seriously thinning the ranks of Attell’s cronies, and the action becomes more official. Dave seeks out the graveyard-shifters and the city’s various skeleton crews for quick, comedic profiles. He makes the pre-dawn rounds with a Manhattan traffic-copter team and tours a Boston sewage treatment plant. He drops in on the race announcer at an all-night Miami dog track, visits a Chicago gym where he takes his lumps from would-be, but nowhere near, WWF stars, and observes the insemination procedure of a Boise dairy farm. (“Oh my God! You’ve got your arm up that cow’s ass.”) On another PETA-baiting occasion, he rides shotgun in a Jeep convertible with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Department, rifle-hunting nutria along the city’s infested canals. He even caps a few himself (yes, forty-pound rodents were harmed during the filming of this episode).

This is where vérité belongs: not sequestered in a sound stage or whisked off to a photogenic island or even nestled in the burrow of washed-out glory, but on the street, with a gutter to spit in, where life presumably happens. Insomniac‘s punchy theme song promises “a late-night freak show jubilee,” but Attell’s freaks are never divested of a recognizable humanity. They don’t have a chance to slip into a camera persona, a convenient bitchiness or put-on posture. The six foot, nine inch giant who stands out in a frankly Brobdinagian bar party has no choice but to be himself, in this case, the obliging straight man to Attell’s one-liner, “So what do people call you? Horse-cock?”

Like all forays into reality vision, Insomniac definitely has an editorial filter. Not only is the midnight-till-dawn revelry compressed into a half-hour segment, but Attell’s favored material is conspicuously sensational: he’s a man of prurient tastes and scatological humor, which might be a liability if Attell didn’t get bored as fast as we do.

More importantly, no matter what the itinerary — a Manhattan underground fetish extravaganza, a Boise gay bar where a biker is having a “ladder” installed (a triple-piercing of the genitalia which sends Attell’s Kodak into rapid wind) — there’s never a pall of gratuitous exploitation. At a New York fish market, Dave tries to play up the tough aura of the docks but is corralled by a beefy conversation-starved lout, a seafood epicure who drones on while Dave looks askance at the camera. Elsewhere, a garrulous middle-aged convenience store clerk admits he keeps a gun behind the counter and even leaps out to demonstrate his jujitsu moves, yet he never comes across as anything but sweetly hospitable. Somehow, Insomniac preserves the quiddity of whatever it records.

The credit rests largely on Attell’s sloped shoulders. Unlike the glossier reality show hosts (Regis’ retina-damaging smile, Survivor‘s forgettable master of ceremonies with his shampoo-commercial hair), he’s less an on-screen presence than an anti-presence: his face calls to mind a bag of potatoes, a little jowly, with a hefty schnoz, and since his baldness has reached the shave-worthy point, his entire head is scorched with black stubble (a look which once kept him out of a Miami model bar). His wardrobe tends to be slobbish — he always seems to have the pocket space for stowing post-bar beers — but often the clothes themselves are less to blame than how they hang on Attell’s roly-poly physique. In the course of an episode, he chuffs an impressive number of Marlboro Lights, and his homunculus gambols often leave him understandably panting. All of which makes him more, not less, compelling to watch.

If Attell’s loser-esque charisma is an asset for his peculiar milieu, a greater strength lies in his Olympic-caliber schmoozing. He has a seemingly limitless talent for ingratiation. At an all-night Boise gun club, the taciturn cowboy-hatted proprietor refuses, at first, to be drawn into conversation with the suspicious camera-toting stranger, but by the next editorial jump-cut the whole room is vibrant, clinking beers, as Attell heads out for a skeet-shooting competition with a one-armed rifleman (who wins easily). In Boston, the two-man crew of the sewage treatment plant includes a lanky veteran of many years and a squat Latino recent-hire who squirms in front of the camera. While they tour the works, Dave admires the sheer magnitude of the smell (which current technology has yet to convey adequately), and the crew seems slightly fortified by Dave’s humor, at one point awkwardly clapping a high-five. Later, the three wave bon voyage to Dave’s own fecal deposit as it sails down the sluice tracks, a stunt very few individuals could perform without demeaning everyone, including the audience.

But make no mistake, Insomniac has no latent feel-good ideology to get in the way of its fun. It’s less a probing of the night’s seamy underbelly than a flea in the petticoats of a girl who gets around. The human contact is strictly superficial, thanks to Attell’s foolproof treacle detector, and his show isn’t earnest enough to be called journalism. He’s the kind of guy who’d flag down Bartleby (arguably the most pathetic of all literary scriveners) just to ask him how it’s hanging. What’s more, Attell doesn’t warm to absolutely everyone; missionaries and balloon animals send him into shambling flight. In one episode, he has to give the brush-off to a sad flame-haired 20something in a tie-dye who’s looking for adoption. In another, his temper flares up as he grumbles at the lifeless patrons of a Boise ski lodge: “What is this? A bank?”

Despite its light touch, Insomniac never sinks into irredeemably shallow pointlessness. First, there’s the saving grace of Attell’s reliable comedic sensibility. And second, Dave is as much invested in his own good time as he is concerned about his viewers, so even at his most disingenuous, he seems genuine, whether he’s pissing on the gates of a Real World house or hiring a professional escort to go bowling.

With a self-consciousness of the medium that is at once aggressively postmodern and entirely natural, the show manages to feel like a collection of outtakes. Dave directs his hoarse, blustery baritone at the audience in mock exhortation as he transitions to a new segment; he’ll mumble to his cameraman when he blunders into a deserted street, and after improvising yet another one-liner, he’ll turn self-congratulatory: “Damn, Brian! I’m on fire this week!” Even the obviously redundant snapshots, which in less capable hands might be a flimsy reality-quickening mechanism, are invested with an air of ironic sincerity. Once Dave bids farewell to the camera (a showy departure: on snowmobile in Boise, on a Charles River racing vessel in the role of coxswain) and these unflattering pictures (or camera-still facsimiles) accompany the show’s credits, you still feel as if Attell has added them to his personal archives as thoroughly deromanticized records of experience.

At the New York fish stalls, a guy slicing fillets proffers Dave something from the skate family (a green, mustardy oval slab of a fish), encouraging him to take a whiff. But Attell hangs back, his nose curled, ducking in and quickly retreating: “I’m afraid you’re gonna smack me with it,” he explains. His posture — hunched over, wary, yet irrepressibly curious — captures the spirit in which life is best met: nose-first, expecting the worst.

In a rare lucid moment of existential psycholinguistics, Jacques Lacan remarks, “There can be absolutely no doubt that there is a real.” That might be true. But as far as television is concerned, Insomniac‘s cracked lens takes us as close to reality as we can happily get.

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