Cable TV has always been a bit more daring than broadcast, but it can still be confining to some entertainers, especially comics. The live stage is where a comedian does his or her best work, and it's often where he or she is most comfortable.
Comedy Central, home to South Park, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Insomniac, is once again unleashing some of its big stars and sending them on the road. Dave Attell, host of Insomniac, and Lewis Black, a regular commentator for The Daily Show, perform at the Taft Theatre Thursday. Mitch Hedberg completes the stand-up lineup.
Asked how different his stand-up act is from his Comedy Central gig, Attell replies, "I'm way dirtier."
"It's a lot more fun being on the road," he says. "A lot freer as a comic. Being on a sitcom is cool, I guess, for the money -- from what I hear -- but I've been doing stand-up for 16 or 17 years now. It's what I like to do."
Perhaps more than his tour buddies, Attell is the most used to life on the road, thanks to his TV program, a show that came together rather quickly.
"The simplicity really made the idea stand out," he says. "I see it as a parody of the Wild on... shows on E! where they go to glamorous places with glamorous people.
I wanted to go the opposite way and use really regular people in really regular places. We don't 'punk' anybody or set up anybody hidden-camera-wise."
He and his crew have traversed North America, as well as making several stops overseas. The show has ceased production, however, because Attell didn't want it to overstay its welcome.
"I didn't want it to get played out," he says. "I didn't want people to go, 'There's that guy again.' There's only so much you can do. I have a million ideas. A sitcom maybe. I don't know if I'm an actor."
A new DVD, Insomniac, Vol. 2, just hit store shelves, for those who want a bit more, including footage Comedy Central couldn't air, along with commentary from the host.
As for the tour, sharing the bill with Black and Hedberg appeals to Attell.
"It's kind of like a make-your-own sundae," Attel says. "A dysfunctional, hell-raising thing. It should be a good show, and it will be blue."
Hedberg draws high praise from the Insomniac host, who calls him "a comic genius the way he looks at things. As a comic, you can usually see the joke coming, but with Hedberg a lot of times you really have no idea."
Finding stuff to make fun of isn't particularly hard for Attell.
"I hate to give you the 'Touched by an Angel answer,' but I find humor in a lot of things," he explains. "I'm attracted to the dark and sad stuff. I guess George Carlin was a big influence on me. I do like it hard and dirty. Hard comedy."
So where does good comedy come from -- anger or depression?
"Both," Black says. "But really, it's all about a punch line. Look at Jack Benny. He did it all with just a pause."
The often-fiery Black sounds unusually restrained. "I'm talking on a cell phone," he says. "And I'm calm."
A playwright by trade, he went into stand-up to make ends meet and because, as he explains, "I just didn't have any common sense."
Though his first passion is writing for the stage, Black is comfortable with most gigs, including stand-up.
"I like anything that keeps me working," he says, aluding to his ongoing work with his "Back in Black" commentaries on The Daily Show. "John Chancellor on acid, we like to call it."
The commentaries are one of that program's most popular features. In one, Black complains about how sick he is of hearing about the big blackout.
"Shut up!" he screams at the camera. "Nobody cares that you had to walk to Brooklyn. It's only a mile!" He then says there will be no mini-baby-boom due to the power outage. "I didn't have any sex during the blackout, how could I? My computer wasn't working."
Anything and everything is fair game for Black. Something as seemingly mundane as a coffee shop can be a huge vein of comedy as well.
"I walked into a Starbucks in Phoenix, and it becomes a big part of my set," he says. "I'm like, 'What's wrong with you people?' "
Black has just released a DVD, Lewis Black Unleashed. And, like Attell, he's comfortable on the road and hangs out with his colleagues.
"When you're a comic, it's like a great weird Elks Club," he says. "You tend to hang out a lot together."
Anger, depression, a unique way of looking at things -- what makes a great comic? Maybe it depends on the messenger.
"You could say my comedy comes from anger and Dave's comes from depression," Black says, laughing.
A strangely compelling mix.
COMEDY CENTRAL LIVE, featuring Dave Attell, Lewis Black and Mitch Hedberg, is 8 p.m. Thursday at the Taft Theatre, Fifth and Sycamore streets, downtown.