It's a living, if not quite a life

Times Staff Writer

Here are some things you learn, being in a minivan driving through Texas with three pretty successful stand-up comedians: You get a thousand bucks to do a Letterman these days. Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa., are the only places in the country where they put coleslaw and French fries on a salad. If an attractive woman approaches you in a club, look over there and you'll see the boyfriend who was too shy to come over.

The comedians in this case are Dave Attell, Lewis Black and Mitch Hedberg. Combined, they have put in more than three decades in stand-up. What they have to show for it is a good living, a modicum of fame and bad personal habits, which include but are not limited to the consumption of fast food, cigarettes and booze daily, and an inability and/or difficulty in forging meaningful relationships with fellow human beings.

They are, in other words, show business success stories. Hedberg has done 10 "Lettermans." Black appears weekly on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," doing topical rants. Attell has own Comedy Central series, "Insomniac With Dave Attell." Their tour has no overarching theme. It is a showcase of three hard-bitten acts who have put out CDs that didn't sell gangbusters and who travel for work up to 45 weeks of the year. They are not Seinfeld famous, or Chris Rock big, but it is important to note that peers regard them as original, even brilliant -- each is a "comic's comic," in the parlance of their world. In L.A., their managers and agents try to do something with this, with their modest fan bases, setting up TV deals that will probably expire before anything materializes.

Amid this endless cycle what they have is their act, which is worth something, finally. Perhaps more intuitively than anything else, Attell, Black and Hedberg understand this. Comics aren't like singers or actors; they can aspire to greatness but will always be regarded as lesser showbiz animals somehow. Most stand-ups hope to star in a sitcom, which will probably not be good, offering audiences a diluted version of their nightclub acts (since so few comics have a voice of their own, this then becomes the dilution of something that is already diluted).

Attell, 38; Black, 55; and Hedberg, 35, are singular acts but not easily presentable. They fidget and need grooming. Black's fingernails are cracked and flaked; Attell, who is a joke machine, is also a loner type who seems most at home prowling the aisles of a convenience store. Hedberg, the most enigmatic of the three, grows his hair in front of his eyes; it is just one way that he compensates for his shyness. One night in Houston, after the show, I saw him leaving the theater holding three large slices of pizza, as if he'd mugged a delivery guy. He and his wife were going to a movie.

Mostly, then, they travel and get paid well (on this tour, Attell and Black, billed as co-headliners, will make hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece). The tour, which began last August and continues through January, with a stop this Friday at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, is not as big as "The Original Kings of Comedy," which filled arenas in the late '90s and led to a Spike Lee concert movie. Still, most headliners don't get this: 2,000- and 3,000-seat venues; a tour manager taking care of hotels and transportation; sold-out houses; a cable network, Comedy Central, carried in some 80 million television homes, branding the tour.

Most comedians don't get to specify what they want in their dressing rooms (most comedians don't even get dressing rooms). Black asks for a bottle of wine and postcards of each city, to send to his mother back in Maryland. Hedberg, who travels with his wife, Lynn Shawcroft, wants scented candles. . Attell specifies a fresh pack of American Spirit Ultra Lights, a bottle of Jagermeister and a Bible.

"I don't respect what I do as art," Attell says of his act. "A lot of what I do has to do with power and getting through the situation. You don't really see that with great painters -- how they had to handle drunks to get done with the canvas."

EYES WIDE SHUT

The comics have been doing Thursday-through-Sunday sprints through different regions of the country each week -- four-show, four-city stops.

The first leg -- Dallas, Houston, Austin, Kansas City -- begins in Dallas, at the Majestic Theater downtown. Hedberg opens, does about 20 minutes. This is the first time he has performed in months, since he was arrested last May for felony possession of a controlled substance, heroin. He walks onstage to the comedian's lonely props: a stool and a microphone. That and roughly 2,000 people who have paid 40 bucks to see him.

Hedberg's been doing comedy since after high school, but still he closes his eyes onstage -- again, the shyness. Club owners used to tell him to go home and change his clothes, but now that he's established he can wear his thrift-store-looking get-ups with impunity. His act is a series of absurdist one-liners, a la Steven Wright, jokes he thinks up and writes down in a series of notebooks. "I don't have a microwave, but I do have a clock that occasionally cooks stuff." Some jokes are interconnected, others aren't. Onstage, when he says, "I tried to walk into a Target, but I missed," the effect is of a socially awkward person trying to start dinner conversation.

Hedberg's act appears to take a reserve of courage; he relies on none of that "have you seen this commercial?" banter that so many comics use to cheat a relationship with the audience. Nor is he topical, in a political sense, but then, neither is Attell, necessarily. The notion that comics change their material regularly is a fallacy; the job is far more about developing a character and then delivering that character with a consistent energy.

Hedberg the hangdog observationalist is followed by Black, who for 45 minutes is a man raging against various societal buffooneries, the "f" word a kind of comma. He's in character like in a one-man show. He's had it up to here with the Enrons. "If you can't explain in one sentence what you're doing, it's illegal," he snarls. Of a recent trip to Ireland he says: "They get drunk, they pass out, they feel guilty, so they drink again -- it's the perfect circle."

What Black is essentially doing is a longer version of his "Daily Show" appearances, minus the hot-off-the-news topicality. Ditto Attell, who has become even more basic-cable popular because of "Insomniac With Dave Attell," the serio-documentary series in which he takes a camera into the bars and fetish clubs and industrial warehouses of late-night America.

His set is raunchy, but thoughtful, emotionally honest raunch, in the vein of Lenny Bruce. He watches "Girls Gone Wild" videos backward because then it looks like "Girls Have Learned Their Lesson."

But his most important prop onstage is a bottle of Bud; "Insomniac" has made him something of a mascot to college-age drinkers. "You know when you grow up, you think your father is Superman," he says. "And then you get older and you realize he's just a drunk who wears a cape."

PLAYWRIGHT TOO

"I didn't want to start in Dallas -- they killed Kennedy," Black says the next morning at breakfast. Breakfast is over; it is 11 a.m. Black stares at the menu. "All the food looks angry," he says.

He is wearing a Kakfa T-shirt. It's a bit of a surprise to learn that his background is steeped in theater. He went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an undergrad, then went to Yale Drama School. He has lived in Manhattan since the 1980s, when he ran a small theater called the Westbank. He has written some 40 plays. Once, Black says, he told the head of Lincoln Center to go (expletive) himself. In February, he will tape his first HBO special.

The plan this morning is to go ice skating here at the Westin (Attell has a video camera and thinks he might want to chronicle the tour), then go to Dealey Plaza (again, the video camera), then drive in the minivan to Austin, stay overnight for morning radio, drive to Houston for a show that night, then back to Austin for a show Saturday night. Later, Bjorn Wentlandt, the tour manager, will estimate that as a group we are going through a carton of cigarettes a day.

"I gotta eat here cause I don't have any money," Black says. Last night, he lost his wallet -- at a strip club, he thinks. Everyone's manager and agent flew in yesterday for opening night and, somewhat inevitably, a strip club became involved.

The ice rink in the mall next to the Westin is closed, and Dealey Plaza becomes unfeasible because we have to return to the strip club, to look for Black's wallet. It is not there. Thus commences the drive to Austin, which takes six hours and includes a stop in Waco, for lunch. In the van, nobody ever talks about craft. They talk about how much of a pain flying has become with the increased security and the fact that, as a comedian, you're often holding a one-way ticket, purchased at the last minute. They talk about bad accommodations on the road. "I was staying in the hotel room," Black says of one place, "and the kid who was opening comes out of the bathroom and says, 'There's a scorpion in the toilet.' "

In Waco we learn that Black's wallet has been found, in another van from the night before. Hedberg wants to go to the Dr Pepper Museum, but it's closed. Outside Cricket's Grill, Attell is recognized by a twentysomething fan, , the first of many such incidents.

"It's not like I'm Professor Irwin Corey famous," he deadpans afterward.

Attell, paunchy and short with a shaved head (he describes himself as a cross between "Andre Agassi and a giant baby"), grew up on Long Island, in a family in which, he says, there was a lot of "Jewish suburban yelling."

In his fitful career, he has had stints as a writer on "Saturday Night Live" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." He wrote for Jon Stewart when Stewart hosted a talk show on MTV. He is, in fact, deemed by peers to have one of the quickest, most facile minds in comedy, a heck of a nice guy, brilliant, with demons, a comic whose time will probably never quite arrive. Attell, for his part, seems at peace with this. He lives in Manhattan and is good to his mother (the other side of him, the side in his act, is preoccupied with strippers and dwarfs). He reads actual books, can hold a conversation about David Koresh when we're in Waco, but at the same time plays down his intelligence. He's far more comfortable keeping things in the realm of material.

"We're like the anti-Hulk," he says of being a comedian. "You come in and don't change any lives, then move on." Go away, in other words.

In Houston, after their sold-out show at the Verizon Wireless Theater downtown, Attell and Black meet their fans in the lobby and autograph merchandise, CDs and a tour poster. Hedberg is not on the poster. His arrest last May, at the Austin airport, left him unbilled on the tour. Hedberg says he spent 2 1/2 days in jail and six more weeks in a hospital, while a rumor spread that his leg was gangrenous and would have to be amputated. In Texas, Hedberg walks with a limp and smokes a pipe. Black and Attell give him his space.

ITINERANT LIFE

There aren't that many ways to become a comedian. It always starts with an open mike, somewhere. In Hedberg's case this somewhere was Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he'd moved after high school in his native St. Paul, Minn. He worked as a cook at places like Applebee's and meanwhile overcame horrible stage fright by night, bombing when he did go up. But eventually he got better and giddily chose the comic's life -- $100-a-night gigs at Red Lion Inns and various bars across the heartland. On off-nights he slept in the bed of his pickup.

"Most of these comics who are headlining in these bars where I used to play as an opening act, they don't ever come down to Hollywood and go on at the Improv, you know, they usually stay out there," he says later. "And they have these acts that are definitely geared to make those people respond."

Hedberg's picaresque tale continues: idiosyncratic comedic hippie outsider struggled doing Middle America road gigs. It was the '90s, a boring time in comedy, a time when, as Hedberg puts it, "comics were jogging and going to AA."

He moved to a bigger city, Seattle, where he had his last cooking job, at this diner.

"I remember a comedian who was working came in and I was still cooking, and he was working full time as a comedian and I had to make him pork chops. That made me mad. I didn't like the dude, you know. He was kind of cocky."

Then it all happened: the Montreal Comedy Festival, the big-time management, the TV deal with Fox. He was spotlighted in Time magazine as part of a new generation of comics. Hedberg moved to New York, lived at the Chelsea Hotel for a time. He made a movie. He moved to San Francisco and met Shawcroft, another comic; they were performing at the Punchline and went down to the justice of the peace and got married. They have a little house in Running Springs. It isn't much -- a hideaway. They also bought a mobile home for 1,500 bucks and lived in it for months, "On the Road" meets "Punchline."

Now they have a Dodge van, 1983, and Hedberg says they'll probably look for a place to buy in L.A. Running Springs, he has come to realize, is an impractical place from which to re-launch a career. He's gonna buy a cellphone too. He has the drug arrest hanging over his head, but hopefully, once that gets resolved, he'll go back to being what he really is: a headliner, a guy doing his comedy and traveling. Preferably with a tour bus, but Hedberg knows that you can't have everything. And other than cooking, this comedy is what he knows how to do.

*

Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Mitch Hedberg

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Price: $39.50-$55

Contact: (213) 388-1400

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