TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains a discussion about sexual assault and/or violence that may be triggering to survivors.
Dane Cook’s fans are tight-knit—a group of kids who feel they grew up with his stand-up, from the moment he began headlining at age 22. Dane Cook could call these boys his fans.
For a long time, if you identified as a Dane Cook fan, it said something about you. It meant you were a particular kind of person. The typecast for these fans: The Bro. Frat boys, to be specific. For a good chunk of Cook’s career, his boys, these bros, carried him to the upper echelons of the comedy world. With his stand-up, performing in a physical, brash, boys-oriented comedic style, he has sold out stadiums, released two certified platinum comedy albums and made history with sold-out shows.
Troublemaker, Cook’s newest special and album, is his boldest move to date, the first album he alone has produced and directed. We caught up with him recently to talk about comedy and his career.
Paste: I spoke with Robert Kelly a few weeks back, who also self-produced his album. He mentioned you guys came up together. What was that like?
Dane Cook: Bob is family. We were in the same graduating class and those years of my life gave me all of the tools that I needed in the beginning of a career; improv, sketch, sometimes doing music onstage. We created an opportunity that I don’t think we even appreciated at the time—we were just trying to get girls and split $120 four ways and think we were rock stars. Bill Burr, Patrice O’Neal, Gary Gulman, a lot of great guys who came out of that time.
Paste: Was it fun? Sounds a bit rough.
DC: We laughed probably more in those four years in crappy vans to get to the gig. It always seemed fun. It was before the business was really business.
Paste: The rough parts were the times you overlooked?
DC: It’s innocence lost. When I came up into the comedy world, I was an introvert. I was anxiety riddled. I was self-loathing. I had deep-seeded insecurity. These were the first guys that I hung out with that were men. These weren’t little boys, and me just trying to figure out how to play in a playground. I was thrust into being around men. I didn’t have a strong relationship with my brother, me and my dad didn’t have a close enough relationship as we would have some years later because he was an athlete, and I went into the arts. So it was Bobby Kelly, Jay Hall. I remember sitting in cars thinking to myself, “These are the guys that I am going to know for the rest of my life.”
Paste: How did you develop your confidence? It’s such a part of your brand of comedy.
DC: This is my 25th year doing stand-up. I think with any artist, a painter has got to paint what he wants to see—the world in vibrant colors and a perspective he hopes to emulate or share. So I would take the stage as someone coming from a family of athletes. I would think of the stage like someone at the pitcher’s mound. This is me getting up here and striking out the side and I looked at comedy as an event.
It took me years before I could realize it could be so personal. At first it was so much about showmanship and it was a great excuse to get lost up there and not feel so afraid and insecure because the stage allows you to be ridiculous and off-putting and vulgar and whatever you want to be. What it came down to was always, “Are you funny or not?”
I grew into a confident man because I faked it as a scared boy.
Paste: Did comedy feel cool for you once you found your confidence?
DC: Comedy is the coolest, most glamorous thing in terms of entertainment. When you walk into a comedy club and you sit down, it is the only place where you can venture into watching artistry and get one hundred percent truth. You can’t get it from TV, it will be edited. You can’t get it from a book, there’s an editor. You aren’t going to get it from the Internet, sites have sponsors. But you can walk into a club and listen to someone’s complete truth. That is glamorous to me and that’s why I take the stage just as excited, twenty-five years later.
Paste: Comics will debate what the glamorous part of stand-up is. You said in an interview that you have slept with hundreds of groupies. How does that work?
DC: Well I was in my twenties. I was a college kid, playing colleges. From the age of 19 to 28 I was at a college almost every night. Or playing a club right next-door to a college or in a college town. I was just a twenty-two year old kid who was a headliner of a show, partying after, so things would come into fruition from that.
Paste: I see you just tweeted and screen grabbed the song “Asian Hooker” by Steel Panther. Is music a big part of your persona?
DC: I could see that. I never wanted my comedy to look hooky. I was never a fan of comics who had the headshot with the mic, where they are shrugging and making that face that says, “What did I do?!”
I grew up loving music, and strong imagery because I think that is ultimately where everyone is trying to get in their stand-up career. This is why Troublemaker, for me, was the greatest moment in my career because it was truly created and grown, paid for and directed by me, without Comedy Central or HBO or anyone giving me notes.
Paste: Do you feel you have arrived again? How would you describe your comedy now?
DC: I think it’s more personal. I love that there are conversations about the material on Troublemaker that are taking place. People for the past couple of months are approaching me, having debates and conversations, and it is changing the course of people’s relationships because of how they feel.
I did a bit about suicide years back on SNL, my second appearance hosting. Lorne Michaels protected me to do a bit about someone who was very close to me who committed suicide. I was angry, upset, hurt and I wanted to do this piece of material. And I did. People wrote me and said, “How could you joke about that?” but I got a note from a 14-year old girl who said, “I’ve been thinking about suicide. I get bullied, I don’t like myself. I saw you do that routine and it was like a pinprick for me. I laughed and shared it with my family because I never wanted them to feel like you divulged.”
Moments like that are gratifying in an otherwise very difficult industry.
Paste: How specifically were you different in your early years?
DC: If you look at me at twenty-five it was manic, it was crazy, excitement and showmanship. It was probably a lot of hoopla. I have become a writer and performer. The first half of my career I was a performer with a little bit of writing.
Paste: What’s the writing process for you? Is the internet helpful or hurtful to stand-up?
DC: I think it’s a wonderful tool to create opportunity with fans whether its something humorous that enlightens them during their day or you are trying to sell out a show somewhere and you get a Twitter following. It helps an artist be more of an independent artist as opposed to needing a TV show.
There are guys coming out from Podcasts and selling out theaters. That is remarkable because they did it all on their own. I am proud to say that I was at the tip of the arrow before anybody else was embracing it. I always feel like the closer you can be to people on a day-to-day basis, the better.
There are people who wouldn’t have the guts to get on a stage somewhere because they have built their confidence through the open-mic of social networking. I don’t negate it at all. People say Vine sucks, it’s just people making stupid faces. Somebody, someday is going to win an Oscar and they are going to say, “I used to make silly six-second Vine videos and here I am…”
Anybody who negates that are all wrong. If there are more people to sift through because of people who think they are performers, so be it. But cream always rises to the top.
Paste: Let’s talk about your fan-base. The Dane Cook fan-base seems to be very specific and very dedicated.
They are the best. It’s 25-years of Throwback Thursdays, which is my greatest day to open up direct messages or emails. People have stories of growing up with me. Meet and greets are a walk down memory lane of my career as I am entering Act Two. I have had missteps over the years, things that are high watermarks, and the only thing I take away is the knowledge that I want to give the best of myself. I don’t want to do anything that is derivative.
Paste: Who influenced you?
DC: Carlin, Pryor, the guys who did it before we realized it was even an occupation. There isn’t a comic that you could bring up that I don’t know.
Paste: What’s changed in the industry sense for you?
DC: You need to be more communicative. There are trends, political trends.
Paste: What about rape jokes? Do you feel comfortable with them?
DC: There are going to be guys or women that do things for either shock value or they talk about it because it affects them. They want to explore it because it has either happened to them or somebody around them and they want to release that. It’s cathartic to get up and find humor in something that scares us. It’s scary to talk about rape, it’s scary to talk about abortion. It’s scary to talk about suicide and yet it affects all of us. There are going to be comics who handle that with care and know how to do it because they are a pro and then there are the rest who muck it up for the rest of us. Unfortunately that is just part of the growth process.
Paste: Do you get bored with your material?
DC: That’s why I dump them after I do them. I spend about a year or a year and a half trying to put the set together and then it’s gone. I have been doing it that way for twelve years now. It feels good to let them go.
Paste: Some comics will work to perfect the same set for much longer. Seven years is the longest I have seen.
DC: You’re watching a comic seven years later and saying, “You haven’t had anything happen to you in seven years that has changed your disposition?” So, for me I can look at every special, every album and tell you how I have grown. We can literally walk through it and say, “This is what I learned and this is what happened when I listened back.”
Every album is remembering what I was doing wrong in my personal and professional life. I look at the wall in my office and I don’t just see awards and platinum albums, I see when I came back from a tragedy. If I don’t keep pushing and growing, that crowd is just going to grow away from me.
I need to grow with a generation of comedy fans.
Otherwise you are going to find yourself seven years later, a mopey, bored individual with no idea of what you think or feel.
Dane Cook: Troublemaker airs on Comedy Central on Sunday 1/25 at 10 PM ET/PT. It previously aired on Showtime in October 2014.