Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

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.

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  • denm18

    I honestly did not hate him at all, didn't love him, but we were okay, till he pulled that crap in Boston Marathon Concert last month

    • Jolie S. Evans

      like Joel replied I am stunned that anyone able to profit $6102 in four weeks on the internet. did you read this webpage w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • Joshua D. Razo

    When I was about 8 or 9, I knew I wanted to pursue comedy, and Dane Cook made his comedy readily available to 8 or 9 year olds on the web. I was a fan of him when I was younger. As I grew older and became a full-blown comedy nerd, I started to hate him. This was just reactionary to fit in. Truth was, I didn't find his stand-up really funny anymore, but I understood the service he did to comedy. He made stand-up a viable industry again in some ways, and I respect that.

  • dave

    His early material was often amusing and he recognized the power of the internet early. His later material was often about what a celebrity he was and how often he had sex, which was boring and not at all funny–was he auditioning for Entourage?.

    Boyish good looks can take you only so far and for so long. If you want a good looking Boston comedian who is actually inventive and funny, plus a nice guy who to audience members after shows, try Gary Gulman.

  • http://www.arewehavingpunyet.com Are We Having Pun Yet?

    His appearance on Pete Holmes' podcast was a pretty fun, illuminating chat.

  • Bhess

    It's akin to the hate that Andrew Dice Clay got after he got popular. I was in college at the time when Dice got big and I liked him but I knew it was an act. Even at the time I thought it was perverse that people took the character Dice was on stage so seriously.
    Same with Dane. I think he's gotten too much hate mostly based on his popularity but of course that's one of the problems you get when you are really popular fair or not. I have no problem saying I like Dane Cook.
    For goodness sake comedy is supposed to be a respite from life's bullshit so why bring it with you? When you have the opportunity to laugh throw your arms around it and join in.

    • Dane Cook Smells Like Piss

      Oh fuck off. We pay to see comedy. I am not going to laugh just because there is an opportunity. I am going to laugh when it is genuinely funny, and when the content has substance. In the case of Dane Cook, there is neither. I stopped liking Dane Cook when I turned 13, not because of a the opinions of others but because I realized his jokes were infantile.

  • brkylnu

    Really happy you guys did an article on him.
    I've always thought he was funny, but could see where comedy nerds didn't like his jokes. But the amount of hate he got was unnerving. It is so dumb to me that comedy nerds find self worth in "hating on not cool things" when most of them love comic books at the age of 30. Get over yourselves. He became our generations Andrew Dice Clay, as someone else said.
    And much respect has to be given to Dane for all the work and hustle he put in. A lot of performers could learn something from that, as opposed to chasing a dream that will never happen because they won't promote themselves, work on their act, and find new venues to play.

  • Syzyjezus


  • Heather

    He is undeniably electric and charming. Comedy nerds tend to "hate" on people who don't do "smart" comedy.. but if you ever get a chance to see Dane, do it. It's like getting shot with an awesome, happy lightning bolt. EVEN IF HE IS MAKING FUN OF YOU.

  • Vicious J

    I've always thought the real talent of Dane Cook was his ability to tell a story – which might not necessarily be "stand-up" but it's similar to the way Kevin Smith can work a room and have everyone in stitches… if you can relate a somewhat innocuous story in a funny way, you'll win a crowd regardless.

  • humanwave7

    While are people always impressed by people who have "the balls" to admit they are a thief/racist/scumbag (fill in the blank) after they get called on it? That is not impressive in the least.

    I don't hate this guy, or anyone, but finding him funny seems to take away from all the naturally funny people and even those who aren't naturally funny but try their darndest to be. Giving them that 'title', so to speak, is kind of like giving an honor award to someone who wasn't smart but they were really, really nice.

    There is a difference between being quick-witted and funny. You can be one and not the other. The former usually includes a hole lotta aholes.

  • Thomas

    He is a good showman, and all the specific stuff he does physically is great. It's just that his observations and stories always seem oddly flat. And my attitude is more like, this is weird–why is this popular? I think you're right, the timing of his career and hustle is why he is where he is, and that's worth admiring.

    I don't reject him out of snobbery. And I offer as proof: two and a half men… I think there's real craftsmanship in it, and I laugh. It's not going for anything profound, and I think it's popularity is just like fast food, reliable, easy, and readily available.

  • Anon

    Could the author of this story dick ride Cook any harder? The answer is, probably not.

    "Cook is arguably the most successful standup comic working today."
    "And yet, naysayers within the comedy community constantly hound the man."

    "Dane Cook did not become the most famous standup comic in America by accident. He is funny."
    " Not only is Cook a good looking and fit guy…"

    Fake ass author, on a website that promotes a fake web presence. I bet this website is paying people to comment a certain way. Then again even the news pays people to comment a certain way to promote a fake web presence. It's to be expected when the information is controlled.

    • Jeseta

      says 'Anon'… and hey if they're paying I haven't received my cheque yet….

      • youradumbnigger

        You stupid nigger it's spelled check wtf go back to school

        • Jeseta

          Putting aside the completely inappropriate (and misplaced) racism, I live in New Zealand and it is spelled 'cheque' here, a simple google search will confirm that for you.

  • sdsd

    Dane Cook is kind of like the guy you meet and think isn't that cool or a bit try hard and assume he's not that popular but then see him at a bar on the weekend surrounded by chicks and you realize ur probably not getting pussy just like anyother night when u go home and jerk off.. and you're scratching ur head like WTF – that guy's gonna get laid and I'm not??

  • Dane Cook Smells Like Piss

    Dane Cook blows dogs for quarters. Comedy is an art form, not a business.

  • Dane Cook Smells Like Piss

    Benign mediocrity proliferates while the exceptional are forgotten. eg. Bill Hicks, Steven Wright.
    If you want to know if a particular person's comedy is funny, try saying them in monotone. Dane immediately fails that test.

  • Christopher C

    I don't hate Dane Cook,but the fact remains he isn't even a little funny.I just made myself watch an HBO special and all I could think was,how the hell do they get so many people to watch this dude?He was doing 45 minutes on going to the movies and I didn't laugh once.He just isn't funny and it isn't personal,It's the fact I wasted 45 minutes looking for a good laugh and I am still waiting.

  • ugmomoe

    I don't hate him, but I wouldn't really consider him a comic. More like a story teller. A story teller who doesn't tell jokes and is not funny.