You either love Dane Cook or you hate him. There's really no third option; no greyscale that can connect two passionate camps so intent on their feelings about a person. But the truth is, it doesn't matter. Cook has persisted for nearly 25 years through sheer virtue of his talent, intensity, drive, and an unmatched ability to give very few fucks.
"I’ve always embraced the hater community. I never fought it," Cook, 42, explains from his L.A. office as he prepares for his New York Comedy Festival show at the Beacon, and the debut of his aptly titled Showtime special Troublemaker, his first since 2009. "At the end of the day, honestly, all it comes down to: Is the material funny or is it not funny? What people say about me or what they think of me off stage is just so disconnected from everything else."
Cook made his mark in the 90s talking about bank heists with monkeys and punching sharks in the face. But as he enters the second act of his career, the arguable comedy voice of his generation is taking on relationships and what we're hiding on our phones. He's seen couples break up during recent shows, but believes that "once you see that visceral reaction, you know you’re really tapping into something."
We recently chatted with Cook about his special, how he's embracing growing up on and off stage, Syria (but not really), and why he likes being the Darth Vader of comedy.
Now that you’ve spent more years as a standup than not, do you ever feel overwhelmed by constantly coming up with new observations?
No, never overwhelmed about coming up with the ideas, but definitely overwhelmed with the execution of it and trying to figure out how to present it to a wide audience. In terms of going into a club, or a theatre, or even an arena some nights, you just feel like, "You know, this show is for these people right now." There’s an entirely different layer that happens when you start futzing around with it in an edit bay and trying to prepare it for public consumption. The comedy brain, in the way a lot of comics think and overthink, is great for when we’re on a stage and we’re in a moment, and can sometimes work against us anywhere else.
Do you keep a notepad or something with you to write down your ideas as they happen, or are you more apt to sit down at the end of the week or the end of the month and think back on the things you’ve been through?
I’ve always had this belief that if I’m meant to talk about it on stage, it will occur to me. It’s kind of funny that, through years of not writing anything down or keeping copious notes, there would be moments when I suddenly say to myself, even recently, "Oh, I’ve gotta talk about this thing and what I experienced." Then it’s just kind of in my head bouncing around, and by the time I hit the stage I have a framework and a notion and I can go from there. It’s also happened where four years after I thought of something that was funny, it hits me on stage in the middle of the set and all the sudden it’s like, “Wow. Well this is the time I was supposed to be doing this.”
Could you have done this Showtime Special four years ago?
I definitely wasn’t… I didn’t have all the right tools at that point to be behind the camera, and to prepare the team and the vibe that I would like to always have when I work with a crew, and then to also be working as diligently on the stand-up trying to figure out what’s funny and what, really, isn’t. Four years ago I wasn’t quite there, but in the last two years I’ve arrived at a really interesting pivotal point as I’m approaching the Act 2 of a career. A lot is riding on this special, but I felt like I was in the right headspace to really focus on that now.
Has anyone given you advice on how to approach your second act?
I had a conversation with Jerry Lewis, who’s become a really good friend of mine and somewhat of a mentor. One day I called him up while I was in the throes of putting the edit together on my special. I was having a really rough day. A lot happening and a lot on my mind and feeling really overwhelmed. He told me to get a piece of paper and a pen "because I want you to write something down and you need to look at this every day: I’m an important person and I have great ideas." I wrote it down, and in the days to come, as I looked at that on my desk and read it, and it really gave me a push unlike anything I’ve ever had before. Granted it was from a person I consider a hero, but it really worked. It really helped me to regain some balance after a year straight of ruminating about the special and what I wanted it to be. It was very valuable.
Is the special coming down to the wire now?
No, the special’s done. We finished all the bells and whistles and credits and music and stuff like that, and now we’re just waiting for it to get out there on Showtime.
I would have been working until they ripped the tape out of my hand.
[Laughs.] What was really great about this process, unlike anything I’ve ever done, and why I’m proudest of this versus several other high watermarks in my stand-up: This was my everything. This was my money I put into it. This was the crew that I wanted. This was the stage that was right for me at the right time.
How have you evolved as a comedian in the last five, ten, twenty years to be able to arrive at the right moment?
Well you’ve probably heard this in one incarnation or another from other stand-ups, but we never feel quite complete. There’s not a lot of leaning back at the end of a day and patting yourself on the back and thinking, "That’s exactly what you wanted to obtain." We’re constantly in a spiral — not necessarily a dark spiral — and I think the best comics are always works in progress. In the last ten years I’ve changed a lot, man. In my twenties, I was doing college type material for college kids. My bread and butter was playing to my generation, and when I hit my thirties, a lot changed. I lost my folks when I was in my mid-thirties, so real life stuff. Real grown-up things, and I think you have two choices when things start getting real serious. You either let things mire you, or you can, as comedian, find humor in it; find ways to release and relate on stage. I would think that because of those things that were very difficult, they informed my personal and professional life in a way that’s become a bounty of incredible ideas and notions. From that I was able to find a great balance.
How does that new maturity manifest itself on stage?
The great thing is that I still feel like that same kid that got up on stage. I think my ideas and my perspective of the world have definitely grown, but when I’m on stage I still love performing and entertaining. I’m not brooding or trying to circumvent my pain with some cryptic message, or politically tear one side or the other down. I’m still up there to just make you laugh your ass off, and if I can do that in a slightly more personal way, than it’s a double-bonus. I get to grow as a man, but I still get to be as irreverent and witty and silly. I’ve always just wanted to expand on the tools that I have onstage, instead of limiting myself. It definitely helps to cultivate the performance, but it isn’t important that I get a message across one way or the other. It’s still just about what’s funny, how can I help you forget about your stuff for an hour and that’s it. That’s really the mission statement of my stand-up.
I always felt the same. People have 15 minutes at the end of their lunch, and I just want to make fill that with something they can enjoy. Some people feel compelled to write about Syria. And it's important, but that’s not me.
Yes, but now you have to include that we talked about Syria in this article.
Yes, and we should absolutely try to solve Syria during this conversation.
We’re talking about the very things we said we would avoid!
Is that idea of never really taking things too seriously why you still label yourself a Troublemaker, if I can use the name of the special against you?
Yeah, what I really loved about the title was that it’s based on the material, but also on the concept I come out with at the beginning, which is, like, "I’m going to break some relationships up." And I have. [Laughs.] When I was working through the material, I had couples fighting in the middle of the set and I’d see two people stand up and walk in different directions. Once you see that visceral reaction, you know you’re really tapping into something. And then I felt like it played on my public perception a little bit. I’m not a controversial person and I’m not someone who was ever looking to make waves in somebody else's pool. It was always about what I could do to exceed my own expectations. And yet time after time, I found myself a target of hater nation. So I liked the idea of playing into the idea that I know those people are going to be targeting me again, so why not use them and lock into the hater community. It’s a massive group of people, and they get the word out better than fans sometimes. A fan will sit back and reminisce about what they like. A hater will tell ten people why they shouldn’t like you, and out of that I get at least one more fan. So I like the idea of playing into the fun side of what I think that hater community is all about.
Are you finally embracing the haters at this stage?
I’ve always embraced the hater community. I never fought it. I never spoke out about it on a morning radio show. When I was growing up I loved Star Wars, and like most people I just thought Darth Vader was so cool. There was something so cool about the bad guy. Why? I was shy introverted kid from Arlington, Massachusetts. I was never at the center of anything. I never dreamed that I would be able to be the cool villain, and when it started to happen, I remember thinking, "This is great. This is great for everybody." My friends would be like, "Dude, just squash it." I’d be like "Nah, it’s more fun to actually sit back and let people believe the idea of what you are." At the end of the day all it comes down to is: Is the material funny or is it not funny? What people say about me or what they think of me offstage is just so disconnected from everything else. You can only know what you see of me onstage. Everything else is just hearsay; the internet bathroom wall where somebody made something up. To me, it's kind of hilarious that someone would spend the time to dissect anyone like that, let alone me.
Has your idea of success changed as you enter the second act of your career?
Yeah, I think success now is starting ideas in more the petri dish phase. It's really about creating something within the day that’s more meaningful and personal. I think that’s it. Make things that are more personal. Whether something is going to win big or miss the mark, I'd rather have that entirely on me. It's given me the healthiest mindset I've ever felt in my career. This year, from January 1 to today, has been the greatest year in my career, and that might even mean my life. I've worked with the exact people I’ve wanted to work with, I hang with the exact mentors I always hoped would embrace me, the things that I have lined up are all stuff that came from my brain, and I can work with wonderful people and we can accomplish goals together. I'm looking forward to people enjoying the special and then we’ll see what’s around the corner.
How are you going to watch it?
That’s a good question. It would be great to do something cool as it's airing, but I've seen it so many times, watching it all year and preparing all that went into the final product. So I'd like to have it on somewhere in the room, but I'll probably be working.