Photo by Tony Duran

Dane Cook’s Art of Hustle

Dane Cook has reached the kind of stardom usually reserved for rock stars. It’s a height that most stand-up comedians never achieve, though not for lack of trying. However, it’s the sort of success that hasn’t come without its pitfalls.

Though Cook’s name has become ubiquitous in comedy circles, it wasn’t that long ago that he was a comic like many others, trying to figure out the best way to reach people. In the late ’90s, he began using the Internet as a tool to spread the word, and as it turned out, that word spread like wildfire.

“I really looked at it as a way to create a grassroots following,” Cook says about his first forays into using the Internet as a promotional tool. “You’re talking about 1998 that I started spending a lot more time on the computer. At that time, I was watching a lot of documentary stuff on bands in the ’70s and how certain bands took over. What I was really learning from it was the hustle factor of, like, getting flyers and what it means to paper the town”¦ The next thing you know, I’m sitting online, saying, ‘OK, if I create a Web site and add links to my comedy, maybe I can start reaching out to people.'”

Back then, the use of newfangled gadgetry as opposed to pounding the pavement may have made purists sneer with disdain. However, “Maintaining purity”—whatever that means—is not one of Cook’s main concerns. What he cares most about is putting his content in the hands of those who want it.

“I don’t really know what purist means,” Cook says. “I think it’s like the language of our country; it’s ever evolving. People say, ‘Oh, the way we speak now isn’t as articulate [as it used to be],’ but you know, the language we spoke when we first landed on Plymouth Rock was an abridged version of Old English. It’s an ever-changing thing.”

Those familiar with Cook’s work know that he’s taken the same non-traditionalist slant to his stand-up. Manic, absurd, perhaps downright goofy—Cook has run the gamut with his comedy, never lingering on a particular style. This is something the comedian takes great pride in.

“I talk to comedy—quote, unquote—purists, and I say that I don’t know what pure comedy is,” Cook explains. “Are you talking about standing still and delivering one line? Because Jack Benny may have done it one way—some guy holds a violin and the next guy does slapstick. I always seem to find the other side of whatever the purist’s conversation is.”

Maybe it’s his willingness not to take the traditional route most comedians have taken, or perhaps it’s the level of fame he’s acquired, but Cook has become a controversial figure not only amongst stand-up fans, but also amongst his fellow comics. Nevertheless, he’s still packing arenas all across the country. The latest leg of his world tour, Isolated Incident Global Thermo Comedy Tour has just kicked off in Las Vegas. The tour is in support of his most recent comedy album, Isolated Incident, his fifth, which was released in May 2009. Cook says he wanted the album, which he calls “a bit of an homage to Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy,” to be a sort of push and pull between dark and light.

“I wanted it to be like, track one would be maybe something about my family, vulnerability, something really sweet, and then I wanted it to go to something really dark and vulgar, maybe sexual, and then I wanted it to go back to something about my pop,” Cook says, though he adds that the final product was a bit different than he had originally intended. Still the ups and downs of his rise to fame and the tumult of his personal life shine through Isolated Incident.

“I found that was my life for three years: dark, light,” he says. “Success: I’m on Letterman. The next day, boom, cancer, my mom just got sicker. Or, ‘I’m in Time Magazine, 100 most influential, how great is that? Who would’ve thought I would ever be in that.’ And the next day, it’s like, ‘These people are starting a rumor about you. They’re saying that you steal.’ How do you deal with the constant blow by blow? And that’s really what I wanted the whole album to have. I wanted it to make you laugh, but I wanted it to be light and heavy.”

The remainder of the tour will take Cook out on the road until a New Year’s Eve show in his hometown of Boston, where he will celebrate his 20th year of stand-up. Hate if you want to, but don’t be surprised if Cook keeps laughing anyway.

I watched the Isolated Incident special that aired on Comedy Central on Youtube. Someone had posted it up there. Coming up on the Internet, now that you’re established, does that sort of thing bother you at all?
It’s just another channel airing your content. It’s another way for people to discover you and have an opinion. This is the tricky—there’s a lot of layers to this conversation, because there’s money involved. The question becomes, OK, is it financially hurting artists? I don’t think that there is a right way, or just one manageable way, to have this conversation, because someone on the other side is going to say it’s hurting the artists, but at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of independent artists who may have not had the airtime, so to speak, if they didn’t have such a strong Internet crowd passing their stuff around. There’s value in all of it. The key really becomes, “What do I want from it?” If that’s the question that you’re asking, I’d rather have fans enjoy something than keep it to myself and feel that it’s only for sale”¦ Someone from a highly regarded band might say, “Oh, I’m losing millions of dollars.” And I understand that, but I think that it’s a great source for passing around material”¦ This is the way people share content. When you were a kid, you gave a cassette to your friend and you’d say, “Listen to this. It’s called Guns N’ Roses. There’s a song on there called ‘Mr. Brownstone,’ and I think it’s about drugs,” and 10 people are listening to it. The next thing you know, Guns N’ Roses is the biggest band in the nation. Maybe that ripple effect is from a couple of kids passing around a cassette.

Your latest comedy album, Isolated Incident, certainly seemed like a different side of you. You had to deal with the death of your parents a little while back”¦
A lot of my comedy over the years was outward, in: observational or absurdist or something physical that I saw that I could recreate and share. Isolated”¦ was the first time I was impacted so deeply in my heart by tragedy, that I realized, “OK, I’m not going to go around it, because then I’m a phony.” I’ve never had anything that heavy happen to me, to that extent. I had my dark periods when I was a kid—some family stuff like anybody that was pretty brutal—but for the most part, my comedy was about joy. There was a lightness, and even the twisted dark shit in there was almost from an optimistic slant. So, here it is; I experience these two years of hardcore, traumatic situations with my family, and I realized as it informed my stand-up that a lot of people had been through cancer and a lot of people had been through these backlash moments in their lives. I thought I would approach that, and this might be a great chance also to put the camera down in one place, confine myself to a smaller stage—less about movement and more about language—and let that camera, with its stillness, look right at my eyes. I can’t move around too much, because, you know, the eyes are the window to the soul, and I wanted people to see that pain and how I came above it and found humor even in the darkest spots”¦ This was an isolated incident in my life. You’ll never again lose both your folks to cancer; you’ll never again have your star rise as high as it did and also have the backlash and the innuendo. No matter how many times the roller coaster ride will go up and down during the course of a career, it will never happen for the first time again”¦ It informed my comedy, and I feel really fortunate that when I read the e-mails after it [the Isolated Incident special for Comedy Central] aired, a lot of those kids who were coming drunk to my college shows 15 years ago were saying things like, “Hey, I felt like you were talking to me 15 years ago, and I feel like you’re talking to me now.” It sounds weird to say now, coming up on 20 years [of performing stand-up comedy] that I feel like I’ve grown up with a generation of fans, and it’s probably the last great gift that my mom and dad could’ve given me in an impossible time to say that, “You know what, Dane? It’s OK to change and to mature a bit.” I can still be silly or off-the-wall and vulgar; I can still be pensive. I can still bring all those things to my stand-up, but I never brought vulnerability. It’s a good place to be.

The one bit I liked from the special was when you were talking about finding your mom’s number in your cell phone’s address book, which is such a uniquely modern dilemma. How did you go from that moment to eventually be able to find the humor in it and turn it into a joke for your act?
For a situation like that, it really came to me so simply. I had my mom and my dad’s number in my book there, a year after I lost them both, and it was this weird moment that I was looking down at the phone and I was”¦just having this conversation with myself: Is it OK to delete them? Those numbers”¦there’s nobody there anymore”¦ It just occurred to me, “What if I called it? What could happen?” And suddenly I’m laughing to myself over this silly little conversation that I’m having with myself, and then of course, like most things that I think of that I think are funny, I say to myself, “I bet a lot of people might understand this.” I bet there are a lot of people who have lost somebody special and don’t know what to do in that moment, and it’s hard and heavy and sad.

It’s such a simple joke. I remember somebody saying to me, “It could have gone so many different directions. Why didn’t you build on it this way or that way?” It was almost like this person was saying that they were let down by an opportunity to turn this into an extravagant bit. And I was like, no, that’s the simple beauty of it. It’s just a moment we all have, and what if she answered? That’s what I said to myself, and that’s what made me laugh and feel lighter, and that’s what people—most people—appreciate about that joke. It’s a timeless joke, if I can toot my own horn. A hundred years from now, somebody’s going to hear that, and whatever form of communication we’re using, we’re always going to lose somebody, and there’s always going to be somebody’s time to let go.

You mentioned the backlash against you, and not only did you have to hear it from fans, but also from your peers. How does it feel to get that sort of backlash from your peers? Does that affect the way you go about your business?
It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. There’s a lot of innuendo, and there’s a lot of stuff that people put up on the bathroom wall that’s just myth. Haters are vocal; we all know that. The people who blog negativity aren’t sitting there in their three-piece suits with a smile on their face, enjoying their lovely lives. People who are relatively happy don’t carry an axe around waiting to bury it in somebody’s back. But that goes with the industry. I understand that that’s the dog eat dog mentality, and also from my peers, comedians are some of the most fragile and fascinating people I know—and very competitive”¦ So you look at a guy like me, who shot to this new level—or new, old level, not since like a Steve Martin or Dice—and you realize these are the guys who are going to try to take my legs out from under me. They’re going to be the ones who are going to say a lot of shit, and you know what? I’m not going to fight back”¦ History will unfold the way it’s supposed to, and I will continue to keep on doing what I do, which is listen to the fans. On the other side of that, I’ll say that when you do talk about my peers, the people who I could talk about with you are wonderful and reach out to me. Chris Rock has called me and said some of the most incredible things, and I admire him. I had lunch with Steve Martin, my hero, about three weeks ago. I’ve sat with Bill Cosby and talked for 45 minutes”¦and he said some incredible things about my stand-up, and I could go on. So, my peers, the ones who I admire, have reached out, and they’ve been very supportive. Eddie Murphy sat next to me at my Good Luck Chuck premier. I don’t know Eddie Murphy; I’d never met him. He just showed up at my movie, and in the darkness of my movie, about 10 feet away from me on the other side of the aisle, I heard [imitates Eddie Murphy’s laugh]”¦ I heard fucking Eddie Murphy laughing at me. So if you want to talk about people who are talking crap about me, or how I feel about that, bro, I heard Eddie Murphy laughing at me. Whoever these minions are who want to picket me or be envious, let them. If that’s what got me to where I’m getting, that I can sit next to Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock or have lunch with Steve Martin or Bill Cosby, I’ll take the hits.

Dane Cook interview October 2009