Dallas — 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.