Exclusive: Dane Cook answers his critics

The last time Dane Cook and I talked at length face-to-face, we were in his dressing room backstage at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden, minutes before he’d perform for two sold-out arenas of screaming fans for his HBO special, "Vicious Circle." At the time, it was the biggest night of his life. He seemed pretty calm and content that night.

Earlier this week, we met again, this time in a hotel lounge in Midtown Manhattan. And this time, Cook’s in a different place. He’s now trying to becoming a movie star. He has more than 2.1 million MySpace "friends." Yet he also is at the center of a nasty backlash, both from within the comedy community and from the mainstream media, who use his name as a punchline for things that are wrong about comedy. Perhaps for the first time, Cook decided to address it all (even Louis CK!). Part of our interview appeared in the New York Daily News. But here’s the full interview, in which fans and foes alike should get some rare insight into what this comedian and fledgling actor/musician is really thinking.

You’re kind of inescapable at this point.
“Now more than ever. The other night I was at a Red Sox game in Boston and a commercial came on for Good Luck Chuck and then a commercial came on for the MLB stuff (he’s the face of baseball’s Actober promotions) and then a commercial came on for Dan In Real Life. And I was throwing out the first pitch of the game, so I was on SportsCenter or whatever it was that night, and I remember sitting there, thinking like, wow, I remember a time when I was sitting in my no-room apartment, and wondering geez, am I ever going to be able to get my face out there and get people into my stuff.”

Is this a surreal experience for you, or maybe are you thinking it’s too much exposure?
“For the purpose of the movie and what I want to be doing right now, I don’t feel like I’m out there too much. I feel like you want to get as much face time. That is the key right now. To get people into your movie, you’ve got to be out there. The awareness has to be up. It’s working. I definitely can see it through my emails or people who are aware of Good Luck Chuck. It was really part of the plan, when MLB came, I thought maybe this might be a situation where somebody like yourself might say ‘Is this too much?’, but I looked at it as everything is coming to a head. And it is surreal, but at the same time, it is beneficial.”

How hard has it been to make the transition from stand-up to movie leading man? Most comedians who do it first become sitcom stars, and the only person I can think of off hand who jumped straight to movies was Steve Martin with The Jerk.
“He’s really the guy who I wanted to emulate. I really watch movies like The Jerk or Planes, Trains and Automobiles – one of my favorites – and he had been well known for making SNL appearances and things of that nature. I really admired how Steve Martin handled his career. And so I wanted to do whatever I could to make those steps into bringing my comedy fans into film. Certainly I’d cite him as somebody who meant a lot to me as a young’un.”

But Martin brought his comic persona fully into The Jerk. It has taken you until the second half of this movie, Good Luck Chuck, for people who were fans of you as a stand-up comedian to see that same person on film. Do you agree?
“I definitely do. Movies like Employee of the Month, or even some of the things from Mystery Men, or even Mr. Brooks, which was a departure into dramatic, those were all stepping stones and certainly things I looked upon as being beneficial in helping to structure my approach to acting. But Good Luck Chuck is really the first script that I ever read that I thought, you know what, I could really take this character, and I could start off as the everyman, and by that midpoint, kind of unleash myself and allow myself to use the physical comedy, little tools and techniques I learned in the stand-up world that I know also are appealing to my fans, that comedy fans – and like you noticed, kind of go from zero to 60, but still tell a story and have a beginning, middle and end with this Charlie Logan character.”

Was the studio OK with that? Were they gung ho about letting you be you? Did they try to rein you in?
“No, no. If anything, I’ve worked with Lionsgate. And my next film, it’s the first film my company is producing, and I’m producing it with Lionsgate…
Is that Bachelor No. 2?
“Yes. With Good Luck Chuck, they basically came to me and said, ‘We’re going to stay out of your face. You do your thing. We know we have a great script written by Josh Stolberg, we know we have a director who is tenacious and really wants to get in there and make you look like a hero, and you now you have a great co-star in Jessica Alba, also somebody who hasn’t had that experience of being seen in a comedic light.’ So that was great because I also felt like I was introducing Jessica to an audience in a way they’ve never really experienced her before. But for me personally, I do feel like Good Luck Chuck is the first thing I can point to – maybe Adam Sandler would point to The Waterboy or Jack Black in School of Rock – you know, they had work before that, but that’s the one I can finally look and say, this is me given permission to really take you to a new place with a character but also kind of go home with physical comedy.”

Your longtime friend and comedian Robert Kelly has a funny cameo with you in this film, and also a part in your next project?
“We filmed it already. He plays a bouncer at a strip club that Kate (Hudson) and I go on a horrible date to. So, yeah, being able to work with your friends that you also feel like maybe haven’t had the shots. That’s something that the producer side of my business I really feel privileged to help people out like Bobby who have been pounding the pavement for so many years. If I didn’t see it, then eventually other people would see it, because he’s such a funny cat.”

You also had producers hold an audition showcase in Boston for comedians to be in your next movie. What came of that?
“We’ve got a couple of guys. I just worked with Tony V, he’s in there. He plays a cook in the kitchen that I have some dealings with.”
Much like you were a cook in the kitchen in Waiting…
“Yes. Floyd! He has a sort of similar role in there. He’s my partner in crime in this kitchen scene. Al Del Bene, who is my first real friend, and is really getting himself back into stand up comedy in a whole new way, he’s going to come in and play a role. Hopefully, Gary Gulman’s going to get in there for a part.”

Tell me about your music. I know you sang one song at the end of your Vicious Circle taping. You’ve got the second single out. You’re trying to be like John Mayer and John Mayer is going out at the Comedy Cellar (he laughs) and trying to be like you.
“And we both have Jessica (Simpson), uh yes, in common.”
What’s going on?
“I always looked at stand-up comedy as a vehicle to many places where I can be creative. Yes, I’m primarily known as a stand-up comedian/actor. But people don’t know that all my CD designs, I create. I love doing graphic design and everything from the fonts to the colors, I’m there creating posters. Even the movies, Good Luck Chuck and Employee, I’m part of that process. I live to be dabbling in something creatively. Played guitar since I was a kid. I think music was as important to me as comedians were. I grew up in a family that loved music. We listened to The Beatles, you know, we listened to Hendrix, we listened to Fleetwood Mac, we listened to everything. Although I understand there’s a stigma with can a comedian be funny or put out a serious song. I don’t really think of the ramifications of it. I know people are going to bag on me for it. I know there’s going to be people out there who hate it. I know there’s going to be people out there who laugh at it for the wrong reasons, but I’ve also received emails from people who said ‘That song made me feel like I want to be alive – ‘Forward’ in particular. That song made me feel like I want to move forward in my life, that there’s something I need to do.’ If it affects, you know, a handful of people like that, and it meant something to me to record it because I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote all those lyrics out, and maybe that’s all it’ll be. But I’m certainly not saying I need to be John Mayer. It’s a hobby. If I float music out there from time to time, and it might be like ‘I’ll Never Be You,’ which has kind of a Tenacious D vibe, or it might be ‘Forward,’ or it might be something else, but you know what, people should always expect the unexpected with me. I really want to push myself in many different ways creatively, and I know I’ll take the hits, but that’s OK.”

Does that make you understand why Mayer would want to do comedy?
“I just think creative people want to be creative. It’s, I think it’s almost insulting, to say to someone, oh you can be funny but you can’t play a song. I really do. I think to confine somebody, to say, that’s what you’re known for. Dance like that. I think it’s tough. It’s not to say there hasn’t been people out there. You might look at Eddie Murphy and say, oh, man, ‘Party All the Time,’ why did he do that to himself? But at the time, everybody loved that song. We’re all ragging on Eddie now, but at the time, everybody was, (sings) ‘My girl wants to’ and for a summer or maybe two, he made people feel good with a pop song, that of course now is hilarious, when you look back because of the video and stuff like that. But I’m not a person who thinks of the reaction to stuff. I think about the creation of things. I think of the creation of a Web site, I make it. I think of the creation of a portal to fans, MySpace, I create it. I think of music, or I think of comedy, I’ve written films now. I have a thriller. I have a dramedy that I’m putting together with Disney. My brain just thinks creative – I have a sci-fi movie in the vein of Star Wars that, if I can ever greenlight an $80 million movie, I’m going to make someday. It has nothing to do with anything funny. It’s one of the weirdest scripts you’ll ever read. People will definitely accuse me of being on some sort of mind-altering substance, because it’s just really wacked out and out there. But that’s the way my brain clicks. That’s what I do. And I am willing to take the odd potshots as long as people are willing to give it a listen. I also know that my fans, I’m cool with the idea of people checking out for a while. That’s OK. I’m not saying you’ve got to stay with me for the whole ride. We jokingly call it the Dane Train. I’d always say get aboard the Dane Train. But there’s many stops. If you want to bail for a little bit because you’re not into a song or a specific style of comedy, you know, beat it for a little bit and then poke your head back in in a while, and maybe I’m doing something then that gets your goat. I’ve really angled myself over the last four or five, actually more like seven years, through my posts on my Web site and through podcasts, you can hear it, I say I’m trying new things, you guys. If you’re a fan of mine, that’s why. It’s not just because the jokes are funny. It’s because I’m a risk-taker. And I’m a producer with my fans. It’s always about we. Read my news blogs and it’s about me. Look what we did. We got on the Billboard charts, number four. I did that because I have such a great rapport with my fans that I truly believe when I asked them, can you please go and get that CD today and that’ll change my career – that changed my career in a day. I hit No. 4 on the Billboard charts because 89,000 people went out and bought that unit because I asked them to. They know it. They write me back and say, ‘Look what we did.’ It’s a different approach to a career, but I think it’s the new approach to a career and I think that anyone who’s not being hands-on and thinking of it in the terms that I am, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I think it’s the new way that media’s going to be. I think it’s the new way that television and Internet is coming together. It’s changing. The way people get their movies is going to be changing. It’s all up for grabs and I want to be one of the way people that is right on the rim of that, sitting with my feet in the pool. And I’m willing to fail sometimes to do that. But that’s how I’m rolling.”

Taking potshots…it’s fascinating to me that you’re one of a handful of guys who has been broken huge in the past couple of years – there’s you, there’s Carlos Mencia and there’s Larry the Cable Guy. And yet despite the success you’ve all been hit by a backlash, both within the comedy community and by the mainstream press. All for different reasons. What’s it like for you to be in the middle of this? To have 2.1 million MySpace friends and at the same time be used as a punchline in magazine articles, much like Carrot Top, another guy who’s hugely successful in comedy.
“Obviously, I can’t speak for Larry or Carlos. I don’t really even know them well enough to comment on how they handle their business. I know with me, people are going to gun for you when you’re going up that ladder. People might look and say, oh, your trajectory! I look and say, it’s been 17 years that it’s been slow and steady wins the race. To have people coming out right now and being in attack mode, it’s in a very twisted way, it’s flattering. Because you know that the GQ editor, there’s going to be a new guy there in a few months, and he’s going to love you and he’s going to write an article about you and put you on the cover. Then six months after that the next guy’s going to think that you’re the worst thing ever. Rolling Stone did it to me. It was like they put me on the cover said funniest guy, genius marketer, then there was a guy who wrote an expose six months later, said I’m the worst thing to ever happen to comedy. I cut them both out, I framed them and I put them in my office. That’s what a career is."

"You certainly don’t expect to be everybody’s champion all the time. Most of it is superfluous. Some of the stuff that people are saying, as far as, you know, material with me. I just say, lookit, if you’re going to jump on that bandwagon and you’re going to say you took stuff from this guy or that guy. OK. Be willing to do your homework, and look at 17 years of comedy. Look at everything on those CDs. Not just what equals maybe a minute and 40 or 50 seconds of premises, not verbatim word-for-word comedy. So, and you’re really one of the first people that I’m actually talking to about it. I’ve touched on it on my Web site about the high road and why I don’t go near that. You can’t fight a lie, man. You just can’t. If I really dig down deep and I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, you’re really done. You stay above it. The people who really really care and really want to believe that you’re not that guy, they’ll do the homework, and not just f—ing read Wikipedia. I mean they will do the work, and go, I’m looking at this guy. Did I steal from stores when I was a kid? No. Do I have a criminal record in any way of my life? Am I that kind of person? Look at a person’s entire history before you’re going to judge them on a few bits of material. And some of the people that have actually said some of those allegations against me? I still think they’re great comics. I don’t know what their motives are all the time. People are jealous. And I get it. I’ve been jealous, too. I’ve sat and watched other guys when I was sitting, playing videogames going, why don’t I have that? I work hard! I changed that thinking. I didn’t want to become a bitter, cynical type. I am by nature an optimistic person. I believe in people. I believe in the goodness in people. And I’m my father’s son. My father was always ‘Dane, when you get to a certain level, they’re going to try to bring your feet out from underneath you. You’ve got to be ready for that.’ So I’ve learned to hop when they go for the legs. And there’s not really much more I can say to it. I know what I am. Fans know what I am. And I think all that stuff will dissipate in time and what’s left will be the work."

The first time I saw you several years ago, at the Tempe Improv, you already had quickly sold out the entire weekend, young college fans adored you, and you’d meet with all of them in the lobby afterward for autographs and pictures.
“Well, that drives some people crazy. Just seeing that kind of success – I used to wish that comics were, I used to think, maybe comics are like athletes. You can beat somebody but then they’re going to come and when the interview happens they’re going to go, ‘He played a great game. I’ve got to give it to him.’ Not to say there isn’t a lot of great comics that are – Chris Rock called me after Vicious Circle. Probably the one call I’d want to just talk to me about my special and give me props. He shared some things with me that I will forever, you know, light up my memory banks. Steve Martin, I had a conversation with him after a set at the Comic Strip one night. You know, the guys that really know the game. Some of these guys on the other side looking on, who don’t know me personally, who’ve never said, let me ask you, let me sit down with you, never talked to me. And I’m not going to name names. I’m not going to even give them that. But we know. There are some big guys who’ve said certain things about me. And some of them I’ve gone to and sat down with, and talked to. I will say, Louis CK, I wrote Louis CK a letter. Louis CK wrote me a letter. I’m cool with Louis CK now. We hung out backstage at Comics Come Home, and I think we have a nice rapport. Do I think it sucks that I had to go through that rocky time, and having people saying that? Yeah. But it was going to happen, from somewhere somehow. There’s too much good happening to me, somebody had to come and blast me from somewhere. I told my family ‘Get ready, because it’s my turn to take some shots.’"

"But Louis CK is a great comic, and again, I’ve never spoken to this but, about those premises, some of those things were things I’d been doing for years. And certain people would come to me and go, ‘You were doing that in New York City too after that guy got hit by the car. What if he took it from you and put it on his CD?’ Never. Because I can look and say, if 10 comics watched a guy get hit by a car out here, right now, seven of them might go onstage that night and talk about the observational humor that they had. How many people have probably talked about it? It just happened that Louis and I had some parallel thinking. And when I look and go, maybe one night at the Cellar, he absorbed? No. I’m not going to go and blame him or say that at all, because I think he’s a great comic, and a great guy. And I hope to work with Louis CK on something someday. I hope we can put this behind us and actually do something good for the benefit of comedy. I mean, he’s a good guy.”

I saw another guy earlier this year who did essentially the same bit with the naming the kids strange sounds, and he did it for his Live at Gotham set for Comedy Central.
“I know the guy that you’re talking about, because I remember people talking about it.”
And I wondered why would you do that when that’s one of the bits that people claim you’ve stolen from CK?
“What’s going on? Right. But I’ll tell you who else did that bit. Steve Martin. And Louis loves Steve Martin, and I love Steve Martin. Now would I say, ‘Louis you stole that bit from Steve Martin?’ No! Absolutely not. And that’s one of these three little pieces of things, again. Just, I’ll say to anybody, you really want to know the truth? If you want to just hate me for the sake of hating me, you want to jump on this? Well, you’ve got a good excuse. But if you really want to know the real deal, listen to ‘Harmful (When Swallowed),’ listen to ‘Retaliation,’ watch Vicious and go, ‘Who the hell else is doing this B-and-E thing?’ My comedy is my thing. I have my own unique spin that I put on stuff. You can’t look at one little piece of something without looking at the whole thing.”

Talking about your self-promotion. You’ve got the normal ambitious schedule this week for Good Luck Chuck, then in a few weeks, it’s Dan In Real Life, but then a few weeks after that, you have a new CD/DVD from Madison Square Garden to promote. How will you handle it all?
“Richard Belzer, you can see, walking by.”
Belzer did walk past our window on the sidewalk on West 56th Street. If only he could weigh in, right?

“I’ve talked to Peter Hedges, and I’ve said, ‘I’d love to do anything I can of course to do to help the film (Dan In Real Life).’ Not that Steve Carell needs the help. Certainly he’s very viable and can do it on his own. But it’s a special movie. It’s got a great heart and a great story. So I’ll do what I can for the movie and right after that the CD comes out and I’ll also end up doing what will probably be my biggest tour to date. I haven’t put out the official press release so I don’t want to give away the secrets. Let’s just say it’s going to be huge. It’s going to be huge and I look forward to connecting with fans and getting the new material that I’ve been working on along with the material from the CD, across the country.”

What’s with all the new material? Most comedians don’t burn through material as fast as you do.
“Because when I think of these things, they have a very short shelf life in my brain and I have to put them out there immediately. And once, it’s so strange because even if I do a show in front of 1,000 people, you might say, ‘Well, Dane, you could do that same joke for three years. Thousands of people haven’t seen it.’ Those people had either better come to that show or listen to that CD because I just want to move on. I like being fresh. I like being current with myself. And something happens to me where if I hold onto material for too long, I start to feel like I’m still in March when it’s October. You know, Jay-Z writes rhymes and I think of comedy. Honestly. There’s a scientist whose thing is writing hypotheses and I want to be out there every night putting something new onstage. So it doesn’t seem odd or bizarre to me in any way. It’s just the way I like to operate.”

So when’s the last time you got onstage?
“About a week ago. At the Comedy Connection. I did a pop-in, late, late late show. It was like, I think I hit the stage after midnight after the headliner both Friday and Saturday nights. We filmed all day both days, too. And I was dog tired. But I had a couple of ideas and the guys at craft service get tired of me trying my bits out on them.”

So how are you feeling about your career right now?
“With Good Luck Chuck, I was like, you’ve seen it, but I want to do anything I can to get people on board with this movie. I watched it last night (Sunday) we had the screening in Boston …it was the first time I’d really heard it – not in front of a screening crowd but a regular crowd of people…they were howling. It was so wonderful. I really, honestly, it’s like I felt like I’d arrived. I felt like this is finally my step into the kinds of films and comedies I want to do. I hope the movie gods enjoy the movie as much, and give us a great opening weekend so I can have a long run, but no matter what happens, I know how I felt, delivering that movie to those people last night. I pumped my fist in the air, I was like, I did it! This is what I set out to do. This is my Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s got the heart. You’re rooting for these two people – I’m rooting for me in it. I’m watching, going, I want these two to be together. And at the same time, a very simple equation, one I’ve always dealt with: laughter. I want to make you laugh. And there were so many LPMs in that movie. Laughs Per Minute. I felt like a winner.”

Are you going to be sweating out the box-office figures all weekend?
“I bounce back from anything, man. I don’t take good news to heart too much. I don’t take bad news to heart. I’ve leveled off. I really just want to do it, and then I move on. Do I want it to be a big success? Hell, yes. Do I want the movie to be able to afford me the possibility to greenlight other movies? Yes. For my company and for my creativity, yes, I want to win this weekend. I did the best that I could with it. I feel like the best of me is in there. And I’m not going to beat myself up if something slips up or doesn’t meet expectations. It’s a wait-and-see. The movie gods and it’s whatever the movie populace is digging, but I do know if they go to the movie, they’re going to laugh and they’re going to have a great time.”

What do you want Rolling Stone to be saying a few years from now about you?
“Interesting. I don’t think about what I want other people to say about me. I’d love to be looked on as a guy that takes risks and isn’t afraid to travel outside the wheelhouse. People know that I could do one particular thing in comedy and probably make a lucrative career out of it but I haven’t done that. I could’ve been hosting a prank show eight years ago. I could’ve been hosting most game shows that you know about. I said no to more stuff that came toward me with big big dollar signs attached, because I want to be a relevant entity in this industry. If anything that’s what I’d like for them to be looking at as I step into new arenas of producing, writing and directing. Yeah. That I’m not a one-trick pony. That I’m here to make my mark in several facets.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →