Last summer, when Dane Cook appeared as himself in Louie, it felt like he was addressing way more than a little joke stealing: It felt like the beginning of the backlash to the backlash. Since becoming the biggest thing in comedy around the midpoint of the last decade, Cook has suffered setbacks both personally (his brother-in-law manager was caught embezzling millions and both his parents died from cancer) and professionally (Good Luck Chuck). But with a serious role as a philandering therapist in Matthew Leutwyler’s Answers to Nothing, Cook might be at the beginning of a new wave. We talked to him about his new career outlook, getting hated on, and making up with Louis C.K.
You play a cold, calculating therapist in this movie. Why so serious?
When this script came to me, I was in a real turning point in my personal and my professional life. I felt like I had taken my fans to a lot of great places comedically while also coming through a monsoon of personal issues: Both my parents died of cancer [and] I dealt with betrayal from a business manager who was also family. And then I picked up some incredible advice from people who I had worked with over the years. Juiliette Binoche, who I had become very close with, said, “Don’t settle for good. Wait for great.” Also, seeing Sandra Bullock when she had accepted her award for Blind Side, being so vulnerable and open about not being happy with all her choices and wanting to make better choices. So I thought that’s what I need to do, both as a person and a performer.
Will you talk about this stuff in your stand-up?
You know, I talked about my family the last couple years, I talked about my parents’ death, I talked about haters and backlash. I shared a lot of deeply painful things on stage and then owned those moments. It feels great. Nothing feels better. I’ll continue to do that. It may be in a one man show, I talked to people on Broadway about maybe doing something there. It might reveal itself in characters like this in different ways. My comedy can still be about joy and escapism. It doesn’t have to always have a sidecar with baggage in it. And yet, if I can stir something in you, why not? I’m not going to be political, there are ten guys out there who do it way better than me, and it’s not as interesting to me, but being real and being present — that is interesting to me.
So is that why you did the
Yeah. Louie was such an important moment for me personally, and then I thought it was a tremendous moment professionally. When you’re maligned, you can be in a position in your career where you realize, “Okay, I’ve seen the way the machine can perpetuate goodness and a positive message, and I’ve seen where the teeth come out and it can gnash and really contort things.” And I wasn’t really in a mental space where I could do much about it other than let it just kind of rain down on me. I’m dealing with my parents dying, and this isn’t the first thing that I want to be dealing with, but it’s there. This Louie thing, it’s there. So, he finally came to me four years later and emailed me this idea and said, "I’d love to sit down and talk to you about it." So when we read it together, it was it: Here’s forgiveness, here’s closure, here’s owning your insecurities. I thought that he had crafted a remarkable piece of art.
So when you were in the room with Louie, were you angry with him or did you feel hurt by him, before you started, you know, reading his art?
No, no, I never felt an anger towards Louie. I actually felt, when it first hit … I was disappointed. I was disappointed that it wasn’t handled the way it’s handled almost day to day with two comics, which is in the back of a comedy club with two guys hashing it out: You said this, I have a concept that’s this, that’s my bit. But I was never angry. I kind of understood that a lot of people were very frustrated at my success. And I understood that comics are very fragile people. You know, we’re intricate, man. So there was no anger in the room. If anything, we had a great day. We really allowed ourselves to go toe to toe. There was no improv, there was no off-the-cuff remarks. It was what Louie wrote. It was his the way he perceived it. And I wanted to embrace it.
Some of the resentment was coming from these hipster comedians that weren’t able to connect to a wider audience in a way that you did. So what do you have that they don’t?
I think I realized, pretty early on, you know, having grown up kind of in the geek mentality myself — being ostracized, being even as a young kid left out in the cold. I think sometimes people see me as the sort of frat boy — he’s the jock, king of the party guy. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.
It could be the Jessie Pinkman T-shirts.
Well, I can speak to that first. I grew up loving cool comics. I didn’t relate with the Rodney Dangerfields, but I loved Eddie Murphy, or I loved Steve Martin wearing his suit, or Richard Pryor, he had style. So I looked at style as part of being part of individuality, as an art. And even though people want to say, “Aw, it’s part of his branding, he’s trying to look like the Diesel jeans-wearing guy.” No, those were the cool jeans that I had! I think a lot of the animosity is because I’m actually, at my core, one of those hipster comics. I am one of those alt-guys. I speak their language. I was just as outcast-worthy as any of them. But I broke through on a mainstream level. I started to use that kind of alt-y mentality of like, “I’m just going to hang out up here. It’s not going to be rehearsed.” I don’t rehearse. I don’t write my jokes down. I get up here and I play. And that’s really the central delight of the whole alternative movement at that time.
You were in the same clubs with these alt-guys in these rooms, so were you shocked when people like David Cross and Zach Galifianakis started talking shit?
Well, I knew that comedy is not athletics. It’s not, “Good game, dude.” No one is going to be that. I don’t know if I was shocked so much as I was frustrated. Again, when it really started happening in ‘99, 2000, when I first started realizing the call back was not in my favor, it was a little odd to me. Because I looked at it like, "Hey, man, I admire and I respect the art form of stand up comedy. And I don’t judge it. I’m just finding my fans."
You’re finally doing a sitcom for NBC next fall.
Yeah, we’re developing it right now.
Why didn’t it work when you were blowing up? And how is it going to work now?
Years ago, I was desperate to have a sitcom. And desperation is like Red in Shawshank Redemption — as long as he was desperate, he was never going to get out. So here was years of me trying to get the kwan like the next guy — desperate — and for the first time for the last several years, I could finally step into it and look at it with a completely different perspective.