Dane Cook: The “Isolated Incident” interview

Dane-cook-myspace-twitter Mere hours after his appearance on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Dane Cook called me up last week so we could chat about what it's like to have two stand-up comedy CDs debut in the top five on the Billboard charts, perform for arena-sized crowds as only a few had done before him (notably, Steve Martin and Andrew "Dice" Clay), and overcome not just the cultural backlash that came with it, but also his own early insecurities.

But first, a clarification on my earlier review of Isolated Incident: The bonus DVD is not the TV special at all, but rather an hourlong documentary, called "30 Premeditated Acts." This is where you see the Dane Cook that fans rarely see anymore. The guy who pops up unannounced at The Laugh Factory to try out new material, to bomb, to do crowd work, to get rid of temporary demons, to even get bumped by Dave Chappelle. There also is a running infomercial quality to it, with segments in which Cook talks about the evolution of certain routines on the new special, and we see jokes that didn't end up making the final cut. We also get to see glimpses of Cook's longtime friends and former comedy partners, Al Del Bene and Robert Kelly.

It's all quite fascinating (well, maybe not all of it), and I dare say (no one dared me to say it) that it would have made for a much more interesting and enlightening Comedy Central special than the actual special that aired on the network last month. Lots of crowd work, which shows you how Cook reacts off the cuff. There is a segment with two loyal fan who happened upon one of the shows and flirted with him during his set. He is self-aware. Isn't he always, though? Among quotes that could be taken out of his context by his detractors: "I like a joke that isn't going to be laughed at for maybe a year or two. That's kinda cool."
Later, he talks about a lengthy bit on suicide, and how it has changed his outlook on comedy. Or race. Or abortion. He tells the camera: "I attribute some of the more successful comedy bits that are darker in tone, to truth. When a comic talks about something that has touched him and affected him personally, and it's real — not just something that he pulled out of nowhere because he thought it was funny…that's when you can smell fear in a comic, where it's like, I haven't experienced this but I'm trying to sell it to you — but when you've lived through something and had an experience like that. Like somebody close to me that took their own life. And how I struggled with it, and it made me mad, and pissed and sad, and you know made me feel reminiscent, and closed off. You can sense those things." Certainly a much different Dane Cook than you probably remember, right?

So I was eager to hear from him the other day.

Because he had just been on Conan, we talked about that first. Cook mentioned this on his Twitter feed later, as well. Here's what he told me: "There's a lot of pressure on him and that staff. I could certainly understand the pressures from the powers-that-be when I walked into that new space tonight. That being said, Conan's great and I had a howl performing with him."
And yet he's not going to be keeping the tape anytime soon. Not everything clicked.
"Sometimes I wish that what we talked about during the commercials was the show. There's some great insight…Things I keep in memoirs, talking to Jay Leno, talking to Letterman, talking to Conan about what goes on behind the white hot lights."
What, no mention of Kimmel? I know you do his show a lot. "With Kimmel, he's almost like the audience. He's like hanging out with the Joe Regular. Jimmy is fast with a line, but it's a different vibe."

He mentions how those late-night talk-show guys living in a rarefied air that few can ever know, which leads me right into the interview, because I wanted to know what it must be like to be a stand-up comedian who is touring arenas on a regular basis — something few comedians have ever done. Does he feel a similar pressure to a guy like Conan to be as big as the venue he's playing?

"I can definitely relate to it. I've had my own pressures driving this big rig of comedy that I've been behind the wheel of. But what Conan is doing and what his staff is doing…he's in a rare air, an elite class, that historic chair that he's sitting in."

Of course, Cook himself is a long way from where he started out in comedy in small clubs in and around Boston. "When I stepped onto my first stage at Catch A Rising Star in 1990, David Cross was still doing Cross Comedy there," he recalled. "It was like watching Gladiator. Steve Sweeney, the Chance Langtons, the DJ Hazards. I was coming up among these heroes (of the scene). What I realized was, I want to go into this occupation, holding an ax, or a pick and dig. I wanted to carve my own route, and I'd really like to do that as trial by fire. And I told my folks early on, if you stick with me, I'm not going to languish on this, I'm gong to take this as far as I can possibly go…and it just kept going. Year after year, I kept expecting my dad to put his hand on my shoulder and say, 'You had a good run, kid."

The runs not over yet. His new CD/DVD debuted near the top of the charts, and every Thursday-Sunday this spring and into the summer, his Global Thermo Comedy Tour has been packing arenas with thousands upon thousands of his 2.6 MySpace friends. Yes, he's still on MySpace (and even puts in a dig on Facebook on the new CD to defend his older online turf).

"I'm smack dab in the middle of dream-come-true moments."
He says this, even with "the backlash" and "the weird moments" happening at the same time in his career.

One of those dreams has been meeting his comedy hero, Steve Martin. "I'm holding Steve Martin's book right now. I'll tell you something right now about this book and this man. My sister, Kelly, went to see him at Madison Square Garden when we were younger…and I would listen to her like she was an astronaut on an Apollo telecast, my head on my fist and wondering what it was like, holding that album. Just so in awe of him and his love of physical humor and his absurdity and smart humor, and all of his different takes on comedy."

Cook said he made the cover of Isolated Incident stark black-and-white in tribute to Martin, and recalled getting to meet him a few years ago in New York City: "Lorne Michaels brought him to see me perform one time at the Comic Strip. We had a great talk for about 15 minutes. He was pretty shy. So was I. The party's over once I step off the stage. So here I am meeting this guy and having this great conversation about comedy. And there's all these questions I want to ask him but am too shy to ask."

So he was left to read Martin's memoir looking for answers. "Maybe this book will explain to me some of what I'm feeling because some of the ways I have been treated and even being touted, have not been easy to swallow, even when they're good. So I read, and see that he was 34 when he played his first arena. I was 34 when I played my first arena." Actually, Martin was 33 for his big 1978, but that's not the point. Even more inspiring, however, was getting handed an autographed copy of the memoir when he was at the NBC Universal lot to do Conan, he said. Part of the inscription from Martin, he said, read: "You're the only person who might understand all of this. I love your work. Sincerely, Steve." There's a lift in his spirit whenever Cook talks about Martin.

I wondered, then, why Cook didn't come to the same conclusion Martin had when he hit the arena circuits and thought about scaling everything back down, so he wouldn't suffer the same depression and ennui about stand-up.

Cook acknowledged he read how Martin said he was "feeling like he was a little white dot. and just the head of the party. He felt like he was just the host of the party."

"I suppose the big difference that I was aware of early on, Steve Martin, he was the first alternative comedian. Before alternative was alternative. He had such random and absurdist humor. Whether it was the arrow through the head" or even King Tut. Cook maintains that all along, he had a plan, and the plan involved being physical when he was younger, and verbal as he matured. "I love physical comedy. I had a natural effervescent style of comedy early on, but I didn't want to keep going with the physical stuff…I wanted to become a verbologist. And I wanted to know that when the crowds got bigger, it wasn't just about gimmicks or antics. That there was some ability going on there." He maintained that his arena style is different from Martin or even Dice on a structural level. "It is more intimate because I'm in the middle.
I can hire the best group of people to come in and….make it so the guy in the nosebleeds can see the twitch of my eye when I tell a story." 

"I took what Steve Martin did and went left. I took a sharp left and went around the wall, and I'm living the experience with these large crowds."

Back to your special, though. I think the misunderstanding I and others had about your new Comedy Central special came about because the TV trailers actually teased your bonus DVD, and not what we saw on TV. Did you ever think about switching it the other way, with a regular DVD and making the documentary the Comedy Central special?

"I know at one point we had no notes, no makeup, no lights. I actually did try a version of that early on." He said he also wondered "how can I be completely myself? No Johnny Bravo jacket. Just completely raw. What works for me is, what makes me laugh, I'm trying to figure out the one camera shoot with no edits, versus 19 cameras in Boston for "Vicious Circle" with thousands of edits." He is admittedly obsessed with the technology — an obsession that served him well earlier in this decade as he figured out how to tap into the Internet and social networks in a way to build a fan base very specific and very loyal to him as an individual performer. He eventually went back to director Marty Callner and convinced him to shoot the special at the Laugh Factory.

"I've made money. Lost money. Nothing has made me happier than coming up with a new joke and learning how to present it. I don't even care bout the detractors and their new ways to tell people that I'm not funny. I'm trying to find out a new way to just simply make it funny, and do my job."

How is that job now for you, shuttling from Hollywood out to arenas around North America on the weekends, then back to the Laugh Factory or another L.A. club for a random drop-in to a crowd of who knows how many? "Would you believe me if i told you it all feels the same?
The hardest thing in my life that I've ever done, away from the material…the hardest thing I ever did was believe in myself when I was a kid. Because I had a lot of fear as a kid. I was deeply introverted and shy, and felt insignificant in the world." Yes, before he was this ultra-confident comic seemingly full of bravado, Cook was an insecure teenager just like, well, most of us. He talks about taking a drama class in high school and having a teacher believe in him. "The fear, the absolute terror was never doing it." Taking that chance. "Now that I'm doing it, now that I'm in the middle of it, there's no fear."
He used to be full of fear.
"In 1993, I realized I'm done. And there's nothing less that I'm good at but comedy."

He thinks about that now. "So when I walked into the arena, those people are there for me. And when I walked into The Laugh Factory and there's 22 people and I say something new and maybe it doesn't work, or maybe half of it works and only my friend gets a chuckle…it's all the same. The only thing that's been difficult…was holding onto the deaths, the suicide friend, the backlash…holding onto that longer than I should have — holding on to the dark edges, when I was really able to be done with it."

That, to him, was more difficult than dealing with any movie that didn't quite work out at the box-office and make him an A-list leading man. It helps, of course, to have all of those fans who remain very loyal to his stand-up comedy to come back to every Thursday through Sunday. That and the close support of his longtime friends who have been with him — not every step, but certainly bearing witness to every step — of his climb up the entertainment ladder.

"Today's a very brand-new time in my life. I've accomplished a lot of things,
and now I'm sitting here in the driver's seat. Now where do I want to go? What do I want to do next? It's a cool place to be. I'm really just enjoying every single time I perform. Not looking at what's the next movie, what's the next deal? I'm not looking at this. I'm in Omaha tomorrow." (We spoke a week ago)
"It's like old school New York and all that mattered was having a good set at the Cellar. If they laughed, it works….I feel like that same comic all over again. I've got my best friends with me, Bobby Kelly and Al Del Bene. I'm on the road with my best friends since when I was a kid."

So why not live it up and enjoy this moment. He says he'll probably add dates to the tour, go visit the troops with the USO, and "then i'll never do this material again."

Not many people or fellow comics, it seems, get to hear or see this darker side of your persona because you're always giving off this aura of sunny, smiling optimism. Everything's always great on "the Dane Train." Did your peers get to see how all of this — your parents dying, the backlash, other difficulties including your half-brother — has affected you personally? And has it made you a different stand-up at all?

"I travel with a pretty tight pack. But outside of that, my peers and acquaintances, I certainly didn't want to feel like, even in the early sets, I didn't want it to be maudlin, and the woe is me kind of vibe. I played my cards close to the vest."

That's been your rep all along, right? "I'm an optimistic person. I'm not a cynical person. I'm not bitter. I felt my comedy came more from having a funny family…realizing we just liked to make each other laugh..wouldn't it be great to make other people feel like we did listening to these people…In a time when (Dave) Attell and a lot of time a lot of guys were getting busted for biting Attell's style, I was getting gruff for smiling onstage." That was more than fine by him. "I'm here to entertain. I'm here to kick it up a notch."

And that rep certainly solidified itself with your 2000 half-hour on Comedy Central. You remember. The black tank top. The jumping around and leaping into the camera.
"I never in a million years thought that was going to air more than three times," he said. "I was the last comic after Brian Regan filming that night," he recalled. "I had my set planned out. And when I got there, I realized I was just going to be another comic who didn't stand out. So I switched to my black tank top."

"It was that special that I thought maybe if I lit it up and got some buzz, people would remember my name for more than a few minutes. It was a blessing and a curse."
He said he realized that people in the industry and fans alike would expect and demand to see more of that guy they say on TV in 2000. That high-energy physical guy.
"I'm going to have to figure out an exit strategy," he said he thought at the time.
"I didn't want to be Dice. I didn't want to be pigeonholed. I didn't just want to be the tank top guy. I want to be the straight man, but I also want to be the over-the-top guy mugging. Can I do both?"
Could he keep your attention trained on his eyes as he told you intimate things, and on the rest of him as he jumped around onstage?
"I don't hold onto things and I don't fester on things. I know comics, I'm not going to name names. But they fester and they just beat themselves up."

Hell, that's part of Marc Maron's onstage persona, beating himself up in front of the audience.
"Marc Maron doesn't know me personally, but I know how Marc feels about my comedy. If we sat down…he would really get to know a guy who has the same passion and respect for comedy that he does. We just have completely different landing patterns in how we approach life and comedy. God bless it.
When I was in New York, I didn't want to see 10 guys doing Attell. I didn't want to see 10 Bill Hicks. And I love those guys."

He said it's just part of the nature of stand-up comedians to be in their own heads sometimes.
"Rodney Dangerfield sat down with me one time at The Laugh Factory when I would host there…talk about the certain insecurities with comics. He would sit at the table and I would have to go onstage, and I would ask, 'Do you want me to bring you straight up?' And he'd say, 'No, no.' and I'd have to do a big thing, acknowledge him in the crowd. Beg him, get the crowd to egg him on.
He said comics are a strange breed with one another. A comic that sees another comic, there's that competitiveness that we have, and when a guy like me hits a new plateau, the first thing I said to my friends, get ready, a lot of these guys who dont know me are going to let everyone think they know me." 

If you're one of those comedians, he wonders if he could just get 10 minutes with you to get inside of your head.

"I was talking to a DJ the other day. He asked why do people not like you?
I don't even like saying this, but except for Steve Martin and Dice, nobody's done this. The more people that you make laugh, the more people think you're funny, but the much more people think you're not funny." 

So he may have 2.6 million MySpace friends, but now there are 26 million who cannot stand him.
It's a different level from a beginning comic who have a few fans, while the rest just don't know about him or her.
"I'm living in the middle of what I absolutely understand of the people who dig me and the people who resent me. The only place where it crosses a line…is the lies. And the bullshit. People spreading rumors, that you're a hack, that's the only place, the whole plagiarism of it all. That's the only thing that when fans are affected by it, you just try and you bite your tongue."
And wait two years for that hater to come around, as you say in your bit on Isolated Incident?

Doing arenas at this point for the money, for the ease of crossing the country quicker, both?
"I was doing clubs for a lot of years…I was plum tuckered out by the fifth of nine shows in a week…and then financially, it was packing a lot of shows into clubs.
for the amount of energy being put in
and certainly wear and tear on the body." And then when he did theaters and was doing massive meet-and-greets, he started to see that fans were thinking if they didn't see him that time around, he wouldn't be back for a couple of years. Doing the math, he thought, if he can do an arena, why not?

"If i can do it. If people want to come out. If I can rent these arenas out myself. I can come into town and get everybody in here. And I can own my spot. I can say this is what guys I loved did. It might not be this five years from now. A career is a mysterious thing. There is no telling. There is no rhyme or reason for it."

But he feels like if anything, he certainly has prepared himself for everything that has come along the way, because he approached stand-up as a job that he wanted to excel at. "I really, really did due diligence, read every microfiche article before there was the Internet. How did these guys do it? When I watch a comedian on a talk show, part of me wants to enjoy them, to laugh, but part of me is busy thinking: That's good, oh, do that, and that's the stuff you dont want to do. Pete Townsend knows when to do the windmill. Johnny Carson knew when to get up on his bunions and do the bounce in his step. I'm into the tells. I looked at Steve Martin, I looked at Dice. If I'm a character, it's going to get old fast. It's going to be old hat."

And you don't have to remind him that comedy is ultimately subjective, which means even his own fans won't like everything he does. "I'm going to be hit or miss. If you're a fan of my risks, you're going to be a fan."
What does he mean by that?
"I love Aerosmith. I don't always love Aerosmith. Sometimes I peek in at what they're doing and go, oh, I didn't like that blues album. But I like them. And I'll always peek in at what they're doing. Some of my fans don't like the new special. Some of my old detractors do like it. I got an email from a fan the other day…whether people loved it or hated it, one thing that I read into it, 50 percent of it made somebody laugh on both sides." 

"For me it's simple. It's funny. If the laugh is there, I got it. I did my job. I can put my timecard in and check out for the day because it worked. This is all I ever wanted to do. Hanging out with you, owning it. The goods, the bads, the ups and downs. The funny things. It beats banging nails."

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.

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