In 1995, Dane Cook was fixated on getting a quality tape of himself doing stand-up–something he could submit to TV shows to say, “This is me.” When he left Boston to film an opening set at Caroline’s in New York, some executives at ABC and MTV happened to be in the audience. It was five years into his stand-up career, making him still a comedy toddler, and about 10 years before he’d become one of the handful of comedians to ever sell out Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena. Cook ended up not going back to Boston.
Late night talk show appearances came at a brisk pace. So did network television pilots. When he put out his breakthrough sophomore album, Retaliation, it went platinum disconcertingly quick. Indeed, from his manic performance style to the frequency of his appearance in critically unheralded comedy films in the mid-2000s, Dane Cook seemed to do everything fast. Until he didn’t do anything at all for a while.
At a certain point, Dane Cook became something too many people knew they were supposed to not like. It didn’t matter what their personal feelings were toward his material–or whether they’d even seen or heard it–it was an indisputable social fact, like the lameness of Smash Mouth or Nickelback. Although he long projected the aura of someone with way more confidence than self-awareness, nobody knows what people think about Dane Cook more keenly than Dane Cook. It’s something he’s been quietly setting out to change for the last several years.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a distinct lack of recent movies about a Dane Cook-like character changing women’s lives through supernatural sexual charisma. Maybe you haven’t heard about any new specials from the once-prolific comedian for the last five years. Make no mistake, this is by design. As his new hour of comedy, Troublemaker, premiered on Showtime, Cook talked to Co.Create about learning to turn down projects that aren’t right for him and taking the slow road toward a career that lasts.
The first time Dane Cook got paid to perform comedy was in 1990. He was given $35 to perform in the corner of a chain restaurant called The 99s. It was unclear at that point whether any other money in comedy would follow, but Cook had long decided not to leave himself any alternative.
“I never had a Plan B,” he says. “I knew from junior high school when I proudly announced to my family that I was not going to college and that I would be pursuing stand up comedy, to varying degrees of reaction. My mom was completely gung ho, though, and that was the beginning of going full throttle and never really preparing to do anything else so that I wouldn’t, out of fear and necessity, do anything else.”
After Cook’s initial success, he decided to grow his fanbase directly. He was a pioneer of radical fan interaction in the digital space, which eventually resulted in a grassroots campaign to get fans to buy his album Retaliation en masse, making it the highest charting comedy album in 28 years.
“I was starting to meet fans electronically from the time AOL Instant Messenger came on,” Cook says. “I saw right away the effects of people being able to find me on AOL IM, through Friendster, and I’d keep it on all day and when I would hear that bbrrring, bbrrring, it was like a call to arms. I’d start sending links to my standup, which I had uploaded on .WAV files. It was before Myspace and I realized meeting people a few people at a time helped a bit–certainly more than there would be if I did nothing all day. Sometimes I would even call people if they’d throw me their phone number on IM. I’d call them and do some jokes. I’d be like, ‘Listen, I’ve only got a minute here because I can’t afford this call.’
Soon, I sensed that the word was getting out. People were like, ‘Hey that guy I saw on Letterman talked to me and my friends last night!’ Then I’d be out on the road in a place I’d never been before with several hundred–maybe even several thousand—people showing up. It was proof positive that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.”
Retaliation turned out to be the catapult that propelled Cook into the entertainment stratosphere. Pretty soon, he was hosting Saturday Night Live, getting movie offers, and playing venues like Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden. It soon became difficult to discern which deals to turn down–including one for a book.
“I think the publishing company would have liked a book that was my version of [Jerry Seinfeld’s] Sein Language or [George Carlin’s] Brain Droppings, and I didn’t have the confidence at that point to feel like my material read as well,” Cook says. “Because of the physicality, because of sound effects, because of facial animation, I didn’t feel like people could read my voice. People tell me now that they can hear my voice when I tweet, but at the time, I didn’t know if it would read well and I also didn’t feel like I wanted to do a book like that. So I went back to the publishing company and said I wanted to write a memoir with some serious epiphanies from my life in it. We couldn’t come to an agreement and I gave the advance back. But I’ve been writing that memoir for the past couple years.”
Between 2006 and 2008, Cook was in a string of studio movies that were all profitable, if (with the possible exception of 2007’s Mr. Brooks) not exactly beloved by audiences. (In fact, “not exactly beloved” is a generous way to put it). He has not been in a major studio film since, and there’s a reason, but it’s not the reason you might think.
“I didn’t always like the movies I was making,” he says. “Some of them were already in the pipeline and I’d jump on board and gussy them up before they’d come out. Lionsgate was more of a boutique studio then, and I was able to work with them four times and figure out ways to take these small-budget movies and create something that would be at least monetarily very successful. But I was more proud of them with, like, my business cap on than as someone who likes movies.
When I stepped back at the end of that chunk of time, I realized I’d rather slow-play these things and be there from the beginning–or even write them myself. What I really did wrong was not take the time to cultivate those movies. So I started turning a lot of those things down that were derivative and there was a good little period of time when my agents were pissed. I want to have a career that goes until I’m ninety and I’m in no rush to do another movie. When the right one comes along, I’ll do that. I’ve actually been working with one of my favorite producers on a film, a comedy that I came up with and wrote with a friend. It’s much more gratifying to take your time and put out something that is completely yours. Win or lose, it’s mine.”
During the most successful time in Cook’s career, he lost both of his parents. He also lost some of his fanbase, due to persistent rumors that he’d stolen material from revered comic Louis CK and the aforementioned reception to his films. Then his half-brother and business manager embezzled millions of dollars from him. It was time for a break.
“I decided to take one year, and work as hard on myself as I’ve ever worked on my career. I worked on my friendships and I worked on grieving and letting go, and getting my financial stuff back in order. It was a year that I needed to put everything in front of me and really figure out where I wanted to be personally and professionally. Every couple years it’s nice to have something come out, an album or a special. But that was just kind of the way that life dealt that hand.
It felt strange that year off, getting part of an idea and not allowing myself to go to the Laugh Factory and work it out on stage. This new special has material from last year’s tour, some of it is stuff I’d already completed and stockpiled before then, and a couple pieces developed once the tour was already going. So it’s really like three different sets of material. Now I’m back fully in work mode and the hope is when one special is airing I’ll be prepping the next one, off and on like that, for the next several years. There are a lot of things I want to say.”
While Cook had put his movie career on the backburner, he agreed to Louis CK’s offer of a real resolution to their feud on his fictional show, Louie. He also began making a sincere effort toward a stage career. He narrowly missed out on playing the lead in a revival of Neil LaBute’s play Fat Pig, but he ended up earning a rave review from the New York Times for his performance in an L.A. production of The Producers.
“Mel Brooks called me up and said, ‘Dane, you can sing and you can dance, right?’ I said yes. He goes, ‘Can you do the German accent?’ I said, ‘Mel, I got it.’ He goes, ‘Because if you don’t have the accent, I really don’t want you to do it. I don’t care how good you can sing or dance.’ I knew he wanted me to do it on the phone and I just couldn’t. I said, ‘Mel, my goal is to exceed yours and my expectations and I wouldn’t sign on for this if I didn’t think I could. I will have the voice. It will be funny and I hope to make you proud.’
And it was one of the greatest moments of my life on the night of the first show when he came out and did the curtain call with us and gave me a kiss on the cheek and he just looked at me and he said, ‘Nailed it.’”
As he’s seized control of his career, Cook has evolved his attitude about dealing with the downsides of fame, and staying productive.
“I’ve had a lot of negativity in my life,” he says. “People are gonna have an opinion about you and sometimes it can be really sharp and sometimes eloquent in its painful approach. That’s the way the pendulum goes, it’s gonna swing back and forth. And if I didn’t have those dark moments it wouldn’t have propelled me to actually work harder to do this thing I love and enjoy. As I’ve gotten older, the moments in my life where I have felt the most purpose and the most accomplished came on the heels of all those negative moments.
Kevin Costner said to me, when we were making Mr. Brooks–I was having a really tough day and he saw it. He came over and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Dealing with a lot right now, huh?’ He knew I was at that point in the machine where it was like hitting the high water mark, and he looked at me and he said, ‘When you take big bites out of the universe the universe takes big bites outta you.’”