Dane Cook and the Art of the Hustle

I have a secret. A dark, terrible secret that I have trouble even admitting to myself: I don’t hate Dane Cook. I know I should. Practically ever since Dane Cook arrived on the national stage over a decade ago, his critics have been extremely vocal. He has been accused of being a joke thief, a douche, and plain old not funny.

However, despite all of these accusations, Cook is arguably the most successful standup comic working today. Numerous film roles, stadium gigs, and a double platinum comedy album (a feat not accomplished since Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy in 1978) are just a few of the stand out accomplishments Cook has accrued throughout his career. And yet, naysayers within the comedy community constantly hound the man. Like a lot of comedians that have been covered in this series, Dane Cook’s career often seems like the twist ending of a Twilight Zone episode: he is incredibly successful, yet no one seems to like him.

Ironically, Cook’s most vocal critics have arisen from the Internet, a relatively new technology during the 1990s and early 2000s that Dane Cook, as a struggling standup comic, exploited expertly to become the comedy sensation that he is today. It was through MySpace that Cook was able to brand himself while working as a touring standup comic and cultivate a strong following among college kids throughout the US. Certainly, Cook has proved that he has quite a bit of entrepreneurial acumen, but is he funny?

Now, as a comedy snob when I watch a clip of Dane Cook, I am actively trying not to enjoy it. Yet despite my aversion, I admit I’m enthralled and entertained and much to my chagrin, I laugh. It is exceedingly difficult to admit, but Dane Cook did not become the most famous standup comic in America by accident. He is funny.

In this clip from his 2006 comedy special Vicious Circle, Cook tells a story that starts with the premise of “have you ever said something that you regret?” From that innocuous line come riffs on bro culture, palming a newborn baby, and ultimately swearing on your unborn child’s life. Throughout the five minute routine, Cook traverses the entirety of the “in the round” stage, acting out several bits with great confidence and commitment that in the hands of a lesser comic, would hardly elicit any laughs at all.

And perhaps that’s what comedy aficionados find most galling about Dane Cook. Not only is Cook a good looking and fit guy who seems to embody the type of dude who terrorized us when we were younger, he’s able to perform with few recognizable “jokes.” This isn’t meant as a slight. Dane Cook is obviously a terrific performer and keeps the audience engaged even when there isn’t so much as a punchline in sight.

In a lot of ways, standup comedy is a kind of con game. There are those with enough charm, charisma, and pure unadulterated confidence that they’re able to thrive for long amounts of time onstage without relying on typical setup/punchline types of jokes.

That’s why we tend to hold comedians like Mitch Hedberg, Steven Wright, and Hannibel Buress in high regard in the comedy community. We know exactly how hard it is to craft those types of jokes. There is no chicanery in a good joke. There is no razzle-dazzle. The one liner is comedy distilled into its purest form and few are able to do this successfully.

However, these comedians rarely achieve the sort of huge fame that a Dane Cook does. While the jokes are inarguably more creative and better than anything in Dane Cook’s repertoire, they often lack the personal (although recently, Burress has seemingly found a way to merge the two). And this is something that Cook is able to inject into his act very well. He is extraordinarily personable, even if he sometimes comes across as a bit of a douche.

Douche is a word that comes up pretty often when describing Dane Cook. While Cook insists in interviews that his persona is purposefully smug and bombastic to allow him the ability to say outrageous things on stage that gives the audience the opportunity to laugh at his preening persona, there is something in that persona that becomes less inviting as he climbs to the top of the comedy mountain. Much the same way David Spade’s “Hollywood Minute” from Saturday Night Live (in which he would impishly bag on celebrities) became wearisome and hypocritical once he became a huge celebrity himself, Cook’s persona can sometimes come across as rather bullying now that he is incredibly wealthy and famous.

Of course, some may say that is not the reason they hate Dane Cook. In fact, most would say that they hate Dane Cook because he’s a joke thief. The only problem with that is there’s no proof that Cook stole any material at all. For the most part, the cries of theft came down to three jokes from Louis CK’s act that were similar to jokes that Cook did. The three premises were seeing someone get hit by a car, having an itchy asshole, and naming babies something weird.

None of the three subjects were exactly virgin territory for comedians by the early 2000s and this is why accusations of joke thievery, if one really cares about comedy, must be made with the same careful analysis and evidence that one would make about murder. That seems rather hyperbolic, but jokes make up the very livelihood of a standup comedian and it’s serious when someone steals.

In the case of a Carlos Mencia, the evidence of joke theft was overwhelming, so much so that he was forced to admit as such during the second part of his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF. However, in the case of Cook, there simply hasn’t been enough evidence that anything other than parallel thinking was happening when he touched on the same subjects as Louis CK. In our rush to defend whom we believe to be the better of two comedians, we risk running into a boy who cried wolf scenario.

However, if nothing else, this minor controversy gave us a great scene from season two of Louie in which Louis and Dane Cook sit down to hash out their issues.

Despite what you may think about Dane Cook as a comedian, to go on Louie and address this issue, even in a fictional way, is pretty damned impressive and the moment stands as a highlight for the entire series. Cook isn’t afraid to lampoon his image a little bit, which gives us a refreshing view of him as being a bit more self-aware than we may have previously assumed. And the argument he makes in Louie is a pretty good one. He’s amassed an enviable amount of material over his career and it would seem pretty self-destructive to steal from Louis CK, who in 2006 was perhaps not as big as he is now, but was still widely known among the comedy community. So, let’s resume the rest of the article giving Cook the benefit of the doubt in this case (since, writing about joke theft is pretty tedious) because if nothing else he’s proven himself to be passionate about what he does.

And passion is something that Dane Cook brings to shows. When he’s performing, whatever you may think about the material, it’s hard to deny that he’s passionate about what he’s doing. His whole body is used as a prop to sell bits; he devours the stage with a kind of relaxed athleticism and he bombards the crowd with his contagious enthusiasm.

It’s with that enthusiasm that he connects with audience members as well as fans. Dane Cook famously used MySpace to connect with fans and network in a way that had previously been unheard of. Through those connections, he was able to grow a sizeable fan base in a relatively short amount of time. Cook utilized social networking techniques before the phrase “social networking” even existed. In other words, Cook hustled.

Generally, when we think about how to “make it” in stand-up comedy, we think of learning how to be better writers or better performers, but we rarely ever think of becoming better hustlers or better marketers or better salespeople. However, learning those things is just as important. Heck, you might be doing it now and may not even be aware of it. If you’re passionate about comedy and are hitting up as many venues as you can and meeting as many people as you can, then you’re hustling. Congratulations!

However, the idea of “selling yourself” is often anathema to anyone entering into any art form. We all want to be recognized by our talent, however if no one sees that talent, then the point is moot.

And let it be known that I am absolutely hypocritical in giving this advice. I have a difficult time asserting myself for anything. However, after doing the research on Dane Cook and getting a better look at the arc of his career, I’m energized by the possibilities. Say what you will about Cook, but he is not someone who is afraid to put himself out there. Whether he is lambasted for questionable taste in material or starring in questionable movies, he does not do anything halfway.

This is something we should admire about any performer. Dane Cook does take chances in his comedy and despite the mountains of critical scorn heaped on the man over the years; he’s still out there doing standup and performing each show with passion and enthusiasm. It takes a thick skin and grit to carve out a career as a standup comic, and Cook has shown he has this in spades.

Dane Cook and the Art of the Hustle