Originally created 02/25/02

'Insomniac' star needs no wake-up call



Dave Attell is scared.

He's in a Charleston, W.Va., hotel room thinking about what the night will bring, and it's making him a bit uneasy.

"Coal mining might be something we're going to check out tonight, and I have ... claustrophobia. It's frightening to me," says the host of the late-night travelogue show "Insomniac" (10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Comedy Central).

"We're finally coming up against some of my phobias. Whether I go down there or not, I am definitely hanging with the coal miners."

Having recently launched a second season of "Insomniac," the comic has seen his share of late night weirdness.

From drag queens or strippers in any given large city to a cow's artificial insemination in Boise, Idaho, "Insomniac" follows Attell as he explores the country's diverse underground lifestyles from midnight to dawn.

He has watched early-morning street cleaners do their job in New York and revelers in New Orleans get down and dirty. He has partied with fraternity boys in Boston and donned a hairnet to make cakes in Philadelphia.

This week, he'll be doing Atlanta.

When "Insomniac" premiered last summer, even Attell had few expectations, and so, apparently, did Comedy Central. The show was slotted for midnight Sunday night/Monday morning.

But more than insomniacs saw it. The show got strong word of mouth despite little promotion.

For its second season, which began in January, the show moved to the channel's most coveted spot, right behind powerhouse "South Park."

"We were kind of hoping it would be ... a keep-it-on-the-air kind of thing," he says. "We were hoping it was a word of mouth show."

"Insomniac" was Attell's idea, and he pitched it to Comedy Central. "The initial idea was to show what a comic does after he finishes a show, bar hopping," he says.

"We wanted to do more and kind of give a feel for the town we're in."

"Insomniac" has turned out to be more work than Attell anticipated. "It's pretty intense," he says.

"It's basically being up very late for a couple of days and a lot of traveling, and, as you know, this is not the time to be traveling a lot."

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Attell has found, like everyone else, that traveling has been increasingly difficult and scary. "I don't like flying anyway," he says.

"Now, it's really hard to do with delays and checks and security. We have a lot of equipment we carry so we get stopped all the time."

Once Attell and others decide on which town they want to do, researchers in New York turn to the Internet for ideas. Then they call residents and exchange word-of-mouth ideas.

Afterward, "they'll go to the town, go to the local newspaper and find things for us to do," he says. "We get access to the places we want to go, scout them out and go to the town two days (before shooting) to get a feel."

He calls his production "a bare-bones shoot and scoot." As Attell gets some mileage on the show, he is hoping it will develop beyond just finding the oddities after hours.

"It can't be all about me bar hopping and hoping some girl will flash her bags at me," he says. "That would be (the series) 'Wild On E!' and we don't want to do that.

"That's the hard part of our show, balancing between 'Wild On E!' (aspects) and being a straight-on documentary. We are trying to get more of a feel for the town. We don't want super hot models on the show all the time."

Finding out what people do at night is more interesting to Attell than stumbling upon the standards of late night: drunks and freaks.

The New York City bachelor has 16 years of professional comedy experience behind him and likes being out there as a "road comic."

Attell figures "Insomniac" suits him. He doesn't sleep well normally anyway.

"I know why," he says. "I do all the wrong things. I drink coffee really late. I drink a lot of alcohol, and I smoke cigarettes. Those are three things doctors tell you to cut out when you can't sleep.

"But I say 'No, No, No.' I can't do it."

As a child, he was a late-night person.

"It's kind of my time," he says.

What does he like about life on the road? "It's very easy," he deadpans. "I like running away from my problems. For me, that's the beauty of this show."

(Terry Morrow is the TV critic for the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee.

He can be reached at Morrow2(at)knews.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)