Dave Attell has seen these United States of America. Much of it after a comedy club set, between the hours of midnight and closing at the bars. So when Attell, a comic of high esteem among other comics if not the public at large, took a meeting at Comedy Central, he mentioned the fact that there was a whole other America out there during the wee hours, a humming alternative universe while most of us slept. And he wasn't only referring to strippers.
To which Comedy Central said: "That's a show."
"Insomniac With Dave Attell" debuts Sunday at midnight, part of a doubleheader of new weekly late-night shows on the cable network Sunday nights from 11:30 to 12:30. Preceding "Insomniac" is "The Chris Wylde Show Starring Chris Wylde," a talk show featuring twentysomething host Wylde, who swears freely (he's bleeped), perspires and seems jacked up on cans of Red Bull as he works through taped bits, interviews and various other forms of post-Letterman ephemera.
Like many shows Comedy Central launches, there's a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks quality to "The Chris Wylde Show" and "Insomniac," both of which have orders for 10 weeks. Bill Hilary, the network's executive vice president and general manager, sees the late-night shows as Comedy Central's continuing effort to brand itself as basic cable's preferred home for fresh, comedic twists on existing formats, whether reality shows, game shows or late-night talk.
"The shows are all about pushing buttons and making people think," he says.
But this week, Comedy Central decided not to renew one of its more expensive button-pushers, "That's My Bush!," the sitcom parody of a George W. Bush White House from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The series, plugged into the Wednesday slot after "South Park," debuted to 2.9 million viewers last April, but the numbers dropped off from there, with an average 808,000 viewers per airing since, according to Nielsen Media Research.
A decision must still be made about another series, Robert Smigel's "TV Funhouse." A downturn in the advertising market has further affected the network's decisions, notes Hilary (though "The Man Show" has been renewed). In the polyglot of Comedy Central shows, ratings do and don't matter. They don't matter, for instance, when it comes to the Emmy-nominated "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," which, despite averaging only 358,000 viewers in June and July, has brought the network a continuous stream of the right kind of press, with recent cultural thumbs-up from "60 Minutes" and Esquire magazine after winning a Peabody Award for its coverage of the 2000 presidential election.
Likewise, since debuting to 1.5 million viewers in June, "Primetime Glick," featuring comedian Martin Short as celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick, has dropped to an average 530,000 viewers per airing. On the other hand, Short delivers his celebrity friends to the network. Moreover, "Primetime Glick" is produced at a relatively streamlined cost of about $350,000 an episode. This week, it was renewed for another 10 episodes.
Add to this mix "Battlebots" and "The Man Show," two series that speak more directly to the network's core demographic of urban males between the ages of 25 and 34, and Comedy Central appears to be doing as good a job as any basic cable network of launching shows.
And yet, the network continues to struggle for a post-"South Park" ratings hit, and lately has seen its edgy luster usurped by MTV's "Jackass," the gross-out stunt show that consistently ranks among the top 10 programs on basic cable. (In the ratings war, Comedy Central is at a slight disadvantage, given that the network is carried in 73 million homes, compared to MTV's 78 million.)
One could argue that "The Chris Wylde Show" and "Insomniac" are "Jackass"-influenced because both series present a kind of basic-cable bacchanal of the lewd and crude.
If this is the case, then Attell, 36, could be seen as a thinking-man's voice in a still-evolving (or de-evolving) genre, someone who's done much more to deserve a show than a person willing to set himself on fire.
He is making "Insomniac" with Nick McKinney, with whom Attell worked at "The Daily Show," where the comedian was previously a writer and on-air contributor.
In the debut episode, Attell scours the streets of Manhattan, where he lives. He takes his camera into an S&M club and visits a fortune cookie factory. Later, he visits a waste transfer station. It's a cinema verite show starring Attell as himself, a socially awkward comedian touring the country and sending back a travelogue of wee-hours prowling from a different city each week. Later episodes will find him in Kansas City, Mo., Miami and Tijuana.
On the phone from Baltimore, the site of a future episode, Attell says he's been "fighting the Tom Green, 'Jackass' urge ... the making fun of the making fun of somebody.
"I don't get on some poor dude, he's working at a power station at 5 in the morning and [say], 'Let's send in a naked stripper and make him reconsider his whole life."'
If Comedy Central is still awaiting its next big hit, or at least its next taste-maker in a sea of look-at-me hip, Attell insisted he couldn't predict who would watch "Insomniac."
"Comedy Central doesn't need another show [about breasts], 'cause they've got it well covered," he said. "I keep saying it's a reality show. It's not a sketch show, it's not a game show. There will be moments when it's not funny. Mostly when I'm talking."
"The Chris Wylde Show" can be seen Sunday nights at 11:30 followed by "Insomniac With Dave Attell" at midnight on Comedy Central. The network has rated them TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).