March 1, 2007

The Last Word: Dane Overcooked

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Dane Cook gets a lot of disrespect, especially among comedians. While this is usually chalked up to jealousy, I don’t think these feelings aren’t totally off-base. For comedians, the comedy world has always been a meritocracy. Whatever advantages you may have had, whoever you may know, doesn’t matter if you can’t bring the funny. And comics have doubts about Dane Cook’s funny-bringing abilities. Ipso Facto, Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, Caveat Emptor (I’m just throwing any vaguely Latin sounding words at this point to sound smart — does it show?) they believe that his success has been built on business acumen and canny exploitation of Myspace, to the exclusion of the honing of his craft.

At the very least, they see his success (an HBO show and special, relative movie “stardom” and so on) as incommensurate with his skill. And there’s some truth to that. There are comedians who are just as good or better than Dane Cook who haven’t had anywhere near his level of success because they aren’t as commercially savvy. He doesn’t come close to the genius of really high caliber stand-ups. Judged solely on their merits as comedians, Dave Chappelle or Jon Stewart would crush Dane Cook (though not in real life — he’s a big guy and I’m pretty sure he could take them). So why, and how, has Dane Cook achieved so much, considering his status as a pretty ordinary stand-up?

There is, I think, a key distinction that needs to be drawn in order to explain the appeal of Dane Cook. He is not really a comedian, he’s a comic. In his case, the old trope “a comic says things funny, a comedian says funny things” certainly applies. This is because, first and foremost, Dane Cook is an entertainer. To describe him as a comic (or comedian) is to reveal only a superficial understanding of the job, ignoring its deeper, defining features (for those keeping score at home, this is right where I’ve gotten way to involved, and lost the audience).

A prerequisite for a true comedian is to offer, through their routine, some sort of insight into the human condition (for those keeping score at home, this is that point at which I’ve gone off the deep end and lost the audience). While this may sound supercilious, it’s still true. The great comedians, like Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby (forget about the TV show, go listen to I Started Out As A Child and tell me I’m wrong, jerk) offered something more than funny jokes. In a way they offered themselves even if what they were presenting were skewed self-portraits. The Dane Cook persona, if there is one, is a regular guy who happens to be pretty funny. Granted, his humor doesn’t offer much in the way of insight or personal revelation, and his comfort zone does seem to include funny voices and odd emphases and little else. But there’s nothing wrong with that because he doesn’t pretend to be anything but the guy trying his best to entertain.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Dane Cook is not funny. I’ve enjoyed listening Dane Cook in the past, maybe not as much as some other comics but still. For one thing, I love “Not So Kool-Aid” from Harmful If Swallowed, where he imagines the Kool-Aid bowl of punch crashing through his living room wall, just like the commercials of old. His response:
“Fuck drinking out of him, if that was me I’d be like ‘no no no you fix that wall before my Dad gets home from work. He’s gonna beat me with a belt, he’s not gonna believe a talking bowl of fruit punch came in here, you stupid idiot. Yeah, coming through the wall is real fucking cool, using the front door is cool don’t touch me you drink. Don’t touch me you giant beverage, you are sweating or condensating, I will kick you in the tights and you will go down, you’re very top-heavy’ ”

That routine is what I would, rather snootily, describe as the platonic ideal of a Dane Cook Routine, in that it shows his aptitude for treating the sublimely ridiculous with gravity and absolute seriousness in order to get laughs. No other comedian could come up with a line like “I don’t like when juice wears tights” and then get a laugh out of it. Dane Cook talent lies in the fact that he can get a laugh just by repeating a single word like, say “shoes.” If you know what I’m talking about I bet you’re probably laughing a little bit right now.

It’s undeniable that Dane Cook tells good stories. But the stories themselves aren’t funny enough to make him as famous as he is. If someone else told them they wouldn’t be that great. The real reason Dane Cook is famous is not because he’s the wittiest kid on the block, it’s because he’s the kid who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get a laugh. He may not be clever, but he could read the telephone book and somehow get laughs. This skill makes coming up with real material irrelevant. The stuttering, punctuated rhythms of his delivery is funny all on its own. Dane Cook just needs a slight change in wording or emphasis and it’s brand new. In the beginning of Harmful If Swallowed he tells a seemingly impromptu joke about a nearby parking structure and then immediately tells it again and still gets laughs. I don’t think Dane Cook is a comedian or comic, not really. He’s an entertainer, a “song and dance” man, and he’s not a bad one either.