The Rebirth of Dane Cook

It’s tough to introduce a standup like Dane Cook. He’s explosively popular, famously polarizing, and his many comedy accomplishments – including a double platinum album and sold out Madison Square Garden show – only fuel the flames of disdain he’s received from critics and the comedy nerd/cool kids’ club. It’s been over a decade since his debut album Harmful If Swallowed, and during that time Cook has experienced everything from record-breaking success to personal tragedy and very public feuds with other comedians. Cook’s mixed bag of life experience gets put to work in his latest standup special Troublemaker (which he also directed and produced), and I recently got the chance to ask him how his standup has evolved over the years, his thoughts on joke theft allegations, and what he thinks of the “comedy purists” who love to hate him.

Congratulations on the special! What made you want to direct it as well?

Thank you very much! Well I always wanted to direct my own comedy, and I just felt like, through the years, I had these opportunities to work with really prolific comedy directors. Marty Callner directed me in Vicious Circle and Isolated Incident and Marty has a storied history – he worked with Carlin all the way back in the ‘70s, and you’ll see his name on so many comedy specials through the years. So initially my idea was to just shadow people who were at the top of their game and maybe try to learn a thing or two – or maybe realize that I could not learn a thing or two. [laughs] So yeah, I learned a lot from Marty, and as I was approaching this special a couple of years ago, I knew that I wanted to do something that was really stripped down and I knew I wanted to do something where the focus was entirely the material without any frills – in other words, no arena as a backdrop, no one long tracking Goodfellas type shot as in Isolated Incident – I wanted this to be about forgetting the aesthetics really.

So finally what happened was I had the opportunity to meet Jerry Lewis a couple years ago. I gave him my number and he started calling me, and he became a really important figure of my life, a real mentor. I started talking to him about this [special] a couple years ago and he goes “You know what? Look at my life, look at my track record – the things that people remember are the things that you created yourself.” You’ve got the vision internally, you can create it externally, and I think he gave me that extra push I needed.

Does directing your own special factor in while you’re performing in any way?

Not initially. I think for the first year or two it was mostly about performance. I wasn’t thinking too much about how it should look other than I had a sense of how I wanted the special to feel, and that derived from a couple of things: First, I was watching a lot of way-back comedy specials. I was finding really unique, sometimes poorly produced, but well-shot comedy specials from the ‘70s, and they all had this very very unrehearsed, unpolished approach, meaning you’ll watch Richard Pryor and he’s wearing like a red sweaty shirt – that would never happen today. They’d stop rolling, they’d get him a fan, they’d be blowdrying his shirt saying “We can’t air this” – and I was loving the vulnerability of even just the production value coupled with the intimacy of how that performer was connecting to that particular crowd without thinking so much like I’ve gotta look good or whatever. It seemed like they weren’t even really cognizant of the cameras being in the room, and that was interesting to me because, thinking of this swell of ‘80s and ‘90s specials even into the 2000s were just…it just felt mass-produced, you know? Another comic in the same theater, six in a row, same dolly shots, same crane overhead. And then a couple years back I was watching a lot of YouTube stuff and finding that there’s a whole new generation of comedy fans who enjoy watching comedy that’s also really deconstructed, meaning somebody’s holding a cell phone in the air recording Chappelle onstage with like a bright light shining off him, he looks like he’s glowing, and you have to tilt your head to the side – and it was kind of like those ‘70s specials. I really want to capture a very bootleggy, in-the-room performance with the hopes that as the director you’ll never give me credit for it, because it’s something you won’t ever really see.

How would you say your material and style have evolved since your last special?

It’s definitely changed. Some of it harkens back to when I first started and was introduced to people, whether through Comedy Central’s Half Hour special or Harmful If Swallowed, because after a few interesting years – tough years, personally and professionally – of really going through the spanking machine of Hollywood and getting the backlash and all those wonderful consolation gifts that come with a little bit of success, it became really fun again. And when I say that, I just mean that going through a lot of that personal strife gave me a greater appreciation, a better perspective, a deeper connection with my fans. It helped me through some really, really impossible times – losing both of my parents to cancer, having comics come back against me with allegations and things that you couldn’t control or fight. My dad used to say “You can’t fight lies,” and so for a while those kinds of things, you try to let them go, but they really have a way of steeping inside of you and dragging you down a bit – especially when you’re already so drained trying to help your family just survive or helping your parents fight cancer, hopefully with a good heart and humor. So after all of that, the last few years have been truly for me some of the best of my personal and professional life. And I think it’s reflected in the special because I still got the energy, I still have the physicality that I love, but I’m no longer a performer/writer, I’m now the opposite. I love language. I joke about it, but I am like a verbologist and I enjoy painting pictures with jargon. So I’ve come at it now where it’s less about jumping on a table and throwing water on myself – you know, “antics,” and anything I can do to just get you entertained – and it’s more about inviting people into the way I see things or the way I’ve experienced relationships or tech or some absurd situation.

You mentioned the verbologist thing, and you have a joke about a word a lot of women hate in this special. Going off that, is there a particular word you hate, and is there a word you love that you’d like to use more in casual conversation?

Oh man. You know what my favorite word lately is? I don’t even know where it came from – sometimes I’m not sure where I’m picking up some of this language – but I was very frustrated with a heckler recently and I believe I said “Listen man, let’s not get into a kerfuffle here.”

That’s a good one.

Well my dad was a broadcaster, and he used to read the dictionary when I was a kid. It drove me crazy, I really thought he was a loser when he did that. [laughs] I thought I had the lamest father in history and then I hit my 30s and next thing you know I’m doing basically the same thing: I’ve got word-a-day screen savers and I start having this great appreciation for unique words that can help to explain an entire situation a lot quicker and with a lot less ums and dudes or Twitter abbreviation type words. I kind of went the other way and fell in love with a stronger, richer vocabulary. My least favorite word…even though I use it, I don’t like it – it’s one of those weird words but sometimes I find myself discombobulated. I don’t like it, I don’t even like saying it, but I use it anyway. It’s not my favorite strong word.

Considering the huge arena venues you usually perform at, what have you learned about sustaining a connection with your fans over the years?

I’ve learned that what people respond to mostly is authenticity, and even if you’re not giving them what they want at a certain period or there’s not that connection with whatever they’re dealing with in their life and whatever I’m talking about, I look at it like how there’s certain bands over the years…like I grew up loving Aerosmith. I’m from Boston, I listened to Aerosmith a lot, my older sisters would play it, my parents loved it, and over the years you would check in and out of Aerosmith. Sometimes they’d release an album that might be a little poppy, and with every album you could be like “Love it!” or “That one’s cool” or “That one…I don’t get it. Couple of good songs,” “Wow, Permanent Vacation – killer album” – and over the years you check in and out of what it is you’re interested in. That’s the career that I always hoped to have – not trying to please everybody all the time, but I’m a risk-taker, and sometimes I’m gonna do things that maybe miss the mark or aren’t elevating because I’m not always trying to go higher; sometimes I’m just trying to expand, go outward. So I think if you’re too conscious of trying to keep everybody wrangled you’re never gonna do it, and it’s gonna just deplete you of energy.

You were the first comedian who really figured out how to use the internet to promote and connect with fans. Do you think Twitter is the pinnacle for comedy promotion? Or will it be totally different, say, 20 years from now?

We’re all gonna be wearing Oculus Rift and we’ll probably all be meeting at some hologram virtual comedy club and you’ll just be sitting at home with a diaper on and a bowl of like, it’s not even real food anymore – it’s called like “protein chips” where it’s like this chip tastes like a piece of candy and this chip tastes like a steak dinner and this chip tastes like dessert… [laughs] Um, I don’t know. I think the one thing about the Twitters and all these different apps and sites is that when it comes to comedy, it actually does a disservice to comedians; although there are people who are funny on Twitter sometimes and that’s hit-or-miss, that’s not the point. I think it’s when we kind of regurgitate and throw out those other things floating around our brain. These may not make it to the routine, but it’s a place for us to not overthink or not have to craft something for a themed routine – just throwing out some ideas, some what-ifs. And I think that when people get that it’s a blast – I would loved to have grown up and had Pryor and Carlin and even Steve Martin who’s on Twitter now and I enjoy following him, all these guys in their heyday – Dice and Kinison – I would loved to have been able to feel like they were in my pocket or with me during the day, and I personally wouldn’t care whether they were writing a weather update or if it was a nugget of something interesting to them. I wouldn’t judge them on that, I’d just enjoy being part of their process or part of their day. So the disservice is that I think people think they know somebody through something they’re posting on a wall. It’s like no, get off your ass, get off your computer, go to your local comedy club, support a comic who isn’t above the radar yet, and then come home and follow him. If you like their stuff, in a positive nature share what you’ve found, you know? It doesn’t have to always be a constant roast with the citizen at home or the consumer or fan and the comic. I like it when people really embrace it for what it is, which is just sharing a little time with somebody that you dig.

There have been some plagiarism and joke theft accusations making the rounds lately: SNL was accused of stealing a sketch from The Groundlings, Billy Eichner accused Burger King of stealing the concept for Billy on the Street in a commercial, and in January two writers sued New Girl over the idea for the show. As someone who very publicly got to experience what it’s like on the receiving end of a joke theft accusation, what would you say to someone who thinks their material has been stolen? Can these accusations ever be handled in a way that doesn’t end ugly or automatically incriminate?

It’s a very blurry, fine line because when you’re talking about plagiarism you’re talking about verbatim. You’re talking about somebody stealing not only the dialogue but you’re also sometimes talking about the costumes and the look of whatever the sketch piece is. I think I read something about the SNL thing – was that the one Sarah Silverman was in?

Yeah, the Tina Turner sketch.

Yeah, I can’t really speak on it because I don’t really know the other side of it, but I do know that in the comedy world…what happened with Louie and I was so interesting to an outsider because I think it was the first time where regular people were privy to a personal conversation that happens quite a bit in comedy clubs and Hollywood in general. Because there’s a lot of remakes and retreads and ideas that were in foreign films and now they’re here, or this guy had a beat and now this rapper’s using the same beat or someone sampled it…it’s very tricky to police those things. The Louie thing – I can tell you that I understood where Louie was coming from at that time. I really did. The reason why there wasn’t any kind of closure before he asked me to come on the show was that I knew – I put my head on my pillow at night and I knew that the realistic truth was that Louie and I both love Steve Martin, and Steve Martin had a bit on his album about naming his kid a crazy weird name. Over the years I’ve probably seen a handful of comics have a different variation of that, and then both Louie and I had our take on a concept, and that’s very different from what we’re talking about with plagiarism where it’s exact verbatim. You’re gonna hear 50 Tinder jokes over the next couple of years. I’ve got one, I saw Whitney Cummings has one…it’s parallel thinking, there’s only so many things to talk about. And I think as you’re seeing more and more people having these side-by-sides after what happened with Louie and I, I think people are realizing more and more that that’s just kind of the way of the world when it comes to entertainment. Every couple years there’s four more Dracula movies that come out and then like a year later three tornado movies; there’s a weird universal energy that gets people thinking in and around the same ideas. It doesn’t mean comics are taking from each other, it just means we’re all present and talking about the things we see around us right now. I heard something else about Ricky Gervais or something with Aziz, and it’s like no, these people are not thieves, they’re not poking around other people’s joke books. That’s hogwash. It really is just that we’re all out there and we have similar ideas sometimes. But if you look close and it’s word-for-word – and I’m not gonna name names, but there are people who have done that in comedy and literature and even in music and sometimes film – I think that’s when you gotta be careful. When you see the word-for-word, that’s when you start knowing that somebody is maybe deconstructing somebody else’s material a little bit too much.

There’s a great part in your GQ interview where you say you like “hater culture” and talk about “comedy purists” who only see merit in more “pain-based” acts. In lots of other interviews you’ve mentioned that you’ve often felt like you never belonged anywhere – in school, starting out in standup, or wanting to get on the SNL cast. Do you see that comedy snob snubbing or outsider feeling as things you want to fight against, or are they more like badges of honor, things that fuel you for the better?

I really can’t say it’s either because I don’t tout it – it’s not something I think about on the daily. When I’m being asked about it in an interview, sure, it can bring up some feelings only because it really does immediately take me back to being the kid in school who wanted to be included. I had ideas but there was nobody around me who was really helping to pull that out of me, and a lot of that was just my own social anxiety, I understand. So as I broke out of that shell and got into standup, what happened really early on was…I remember performing in Boston as an open mic’er and there were other comics who weren’t very fair to me, and I could tell right away they just didn’t want me to feel comfortable. And I loved comics – it was weird to me because I loved comedians. I loved that world and I wasn’t ready for that kind of contentious relationship. And I didn’t understand it for a long time, but I just thought All right, I guess everybody’s in their own “packs” or cliques like high school. Then as time went on and I had my graduating class which was awesome – Bill Burr and Patrice O’Neal and Gary Gulman – I was really satisfied with the guys I was around; I didn’t need anybody else championing me from other comic institutions, and yet it feels great when you have that support. So years go by and I’m like I’m just going to have to find my own fans. I was almost appreciative that that pressure forced me to not spend my days palin’ around at the local comedy watering hole but finding a way to build a fan base on my own with the comics who made me laugh and vice versa. And then as time went on and it still continued, it was a bit of a study almost on success and fame and how much of it is other people’s issues with me and how much of it is my still being introverted and maybe not always knowing how to externalize how I’m feeling.

I mean, if we’re gonna be honest, even on your site Splitsider, I remember a time where there was really this kind of disdain, I would almost say. And I thought of that the way I always have; I thought it was humorous but only because it’s like I don’t think these guys have ever reached out to me to hear things from my point of view, and that’s when it gets wishy-washy because you go okay, they’re basing it on an opinion based on hearsay, which is bias. How can you be a comedian or a comic site or even a critic without understanding the ideas and perspectives of said artist or creative person? So yeah, I’ve always found it interesting and something I would allow to freely flow around me, because as a businessperson I realized it was way better to have hardcore opinions – sometimes tough to hear or put up with – because at least people are discussing and debating you and you’re polarizing people. And as a fan of musicians and movie makers – those are the kinds of guys I like! I like debating art, so like the pieces you guys ran – that doesn’t phase me anymore, and a lot of it I think is humorous because that hater culture – they probably feel like how alt comedy felt when alt comedy broke through and suddenly alt comedy was mainstream and making a shitload of money, and all those guys who were cool because they weren’t cool are now the coolest, and it’s a strange place to have to explain to your fans now like “Yeah I’ve got a business manager and the same accountant as Dane Cook and Louis C.K.” – you know. It’s all business, and it’s all trying to stay true to the one thing you want, which is getting laughs, entertaining those fans who are helping you pay the rent, and having a damn good time while you’re doing it. Because truly – I don’t know if you’ve performed comedy – when you’re on this side of it, it is the greatest feeling in the world to wake up in the morning and know you have a show that day. I promise you it’s worth all the hell that anybody can rain down on you in a comment section to get up onstage to release the stuff you’re feeling and to also get that human interaction and that response. It’s the greatest.

Dane Cook’s new special Troublemaker premieres tonight at 10:00pm on Showtime.

The Rebirth of Dane Cook