Freedom of speech is no problem. Unless you're a comedian.
That's what Dave Attell will tell you – if you're in the mood to hear it.
“Everything you say on stage is being judged, but not for funny or not,” said Attell, who is bringing his stand-up show to Helium Comedy Club from Thursday through Saturday. “Now it just seems like whether it's politically correct or not.”
Being P.C. isn't exactly Attell's thing. The 49-year-old refers to himself as a “rogue” comic. His raw, uncensored material may indeed be rogue. (Example: On his former Showtime show, “Dave's Old Porn,” Attell joked about skin flicks from the 1970s and '80s.) But his résumé has plenty of mainstream credits including David Letterman, Lorne Michaels and Jon Stewart.
Attell's sweet spot is club comedy, but the atmosphere is changing, he said, for a couple of reasons: America's (fairly) newfound political correctness and smartphones.
“It just seems like in this country we're trying to be fake-nice,” said Attell, acknowledging that he does a lot of “self-editing” that was uncharacteristic of him early in his career.
“The cool times of drugs and sex, that stuff is way over,” he added. “After smoking went down, people started looking for other things to regulate, and it went all the way to what we say now.”
With social media empowering people to speak freely, that may seem like an odd observation. Until you think about the implications for a comic who operates in the context of a raw, uncensored, in-your-face environment. When your audience has the ability to quote or broadcast you instantly, people can analyze your words without hearing your intent.
“There are people in the audience who don't necessarily come to laugh,” Attell said. “They come to judge.”
To illustrate his point, Attell points to the 1974 Dustin Hoffman movie “Lenny,” which is about a comic who pushed the envelope and cleared the way for stand-ups to say as they please. In once scene, the comic is working a cool club with a couple of cops waiting in back to arrest him if he uttered certain words.
“Now it's the audience sitting there with a cellphone, just waiting for you to mess up,” he said. “They're the ones who are the cops. It's weird. It went from where the audience were the ones behind the comic to where the audience is the police. They're the ones just waiting for the comic to mess up.
“I'm not saying that out of my old-man paranoia. A lot of comics feel that way.”
But he's doing something about it. Attell hosts a new late-night Comedy Central show, “Comedy Underground with Dave Attell,” which features stand-ups performing raw, mostly uncensored material in smaller, grittier clubs.
“It's a throwback to the way clubs were a couple years back – a lot of raw material and audience interaction,” Attell said. “It either sparks nostalgia for those times, or shows younger audiences, 'Wow, a club show is cool and wild.' ”
Though Attell doesn't necessarily consider comedy an art form (“I'm not an artist; I tell jokes.”), he does see the show as making an important contribution.
“Of all the things I've done, I think that's probably one of the most important things – if there is an importance to comedy,” he said. “To make sure that kind of comedy doesn't disappear, at least make sure it gets a victory lap.”