Dane Cook is probably the most successful active stand-up comedian in the country. He also has his detractors. His Isolated Incident — a Comedy Central special taped in May and released on CD and DVD — marked a departure from his yelpier, more spastic material, focusing on the recent deaths of his parents. He spoke with Vulture in advance of his appearance tonight at Madison Square Garden as part of the New York Comedy Festival.
You’re playing MSG for the fourth time. What is it about your comedy style that plays well in big venues?
I think that people realize that I’m there to win. I wanna be the heavyweight comedy champion of the world. I’m looking to do what Steve Martin did to my sister Kelly, when she saw him at Madison Square Garden and ran home and told her little brother about this man in a white suit who told these stories. I sat wide-eyed, already thinking, “That’s what I’m going to do some day.” I wanted to take this thing to an upper echelon.
With your last special, you scaled back, taping an unannounced club gig.
There are things that I needed to learn about myself in terms of the tools at my disposal, and what I can do beyond the safe cadences and tricks that I learned. So I’m not derivative, so I’m not repeating myself. So I’m not Johnny Bravo jacket guy. In my twenties, when people first discovered me on Comedy Central, I was talking to college kids — you know, drinking, sex, partying. But as it grew bigger, I realized I need to grow up with these people. I experienced fame, backlash, and haters, and losing my folks — real heavy, serious, cancer. There shouldn’t be anything funny in there, and yet my folks and I laughed through a traumatic, terrible time. I said, if I go and try to do the old stuff, I’m a fraud.
Did you feel you have a new audience, or did your old audience follow you there?
I think that if you’re a true artist, you allow your audience to leave you. If you’re a fan of mine, you should be a fan of my risks, 'cause I’m gonna take a lot of them. And that’s what I try to do with the film stuff — I’ll do a Mr. Brooks or maybe a Dan in Real Life, try to show some vulnerability.
Overall, though, are those college kids still your bread and butter?
The bread and butter is everybody. I know I can be rude, lascivious, and vulgar. I’m all over the board, man. I hit a lot of buttons You’re nailing every demo, every ethnicity on any given night. There’s a gang member sitting next to a reverend sitting next to a kid that ran away from home.
Moving on to your movies — they’re mostly perceived as having failed. Do you have any theories as to why?
Sure. I don’t read into the criticism so much. Especially understanding from other comics, the Sandlers and other guys — those movies aren’t critical darlings either. The movie could have made $100 million and I’m sure they still could have been slammed. You expect that. But I was working with a boutique company, Lionsgate, for those three films primarily, and yeah, they weren’t grand slams, they weren’t home runs. But they were all successful, and when you put them next to a Clooney or a Matt Damon — a lot of those guys were coming out making movies that were having $8, $10, $11 million openings, and so did I.
You have some pretty vocal detractors. Do you have any idea what it is about you that pisses people off?
Um. Yeah, you know, look, it’s a bunch of stuff. There’s a lot of buttons there. There’s that saying, what other people think of me is none of my business? But I don’t really care. And I’ve dined with my heroes, man. If we’re talking about comedians and people that have taken shots at me, I don’t get it. I don’t get that, 'cause I know that the Chris Rocks and the Steve Martins and the Billy Cosbys and the Rodney Dangerfields, guys that I loved, embraced me. Other comics, what people deem “alt comics,” a lot of them have egg on their face 'cause they’re now making talking-animal movies. 'Cause they sold out hard-core. And they have to answer to their fans now — “Hey, I took a shot at Dane,” but you’re in Alvin and the Chipmunks. And you know what? More power to you. You did a movie that goes against what you preached, and what you hard-core vehemently nailed me on. I know you got a kid to feed. You might have a sick mom that you have to take care of. And that’s okay. I’m not gonna take your legs out from under you. But I am aware that you put your head in your pillow, and maybe you should have bit your tongue a little bit.