Don't call it a comeback: Dane Cook prefers to think of his national re-emergence on the Tell it Like It Is tour as something more like a renaissance. After getting his start in the Boston comedy scene, Cook evolved into a comedic powerhouse, earning record-setting ticket and album sales thanks to a robust and meticulously nourished social-media following, thereby creating a direct-to-fans promotional model nearly every working comic follows today. However, Cook's career ascendancy, which included such highlights as hosting Saturday Night Live and starring in hit comedies like Good Luck Chuck and Employee of the Month, was eventually beset by an onslaught of personal tragedies that included the deaths of his parents and the shocking discovery that his half-brother had embezzled millions of dollars.
As he weathered both private adversity and public critical backlash, Cook never strayed far from comedy, and now he's in the midst of his first national standup tour since 2013. Westword caught up with Cook ahead of his performance at the Bellco Theatre on Saturday, April 13, to discuss the evolution of his comedy and speculate about which characters will die on Game of Thrones.
Westword: How’s the tour been so far?
Dane Cook: I have to tell you — and I'm not trying to be braggadocious here — I had expected that it was going to be received well because of both the time I've put into the material and the building blocks I've put in by communicating with fans over the years. And because it's been such a long time since I did a big promoted tour; I mean, I've been touring, but I haven't done a big promoted tour like this one with LiveNation in a while. So all of those things created a sort of perfect storm that led me to thinking, "You know what? I've got a solid hour and a half to two hours of material now," so I started out with confidence. What I wasn't expecting was that it feels like sort of a renaissance. I've been doing this for 29 years without really taking any pauses because I just love creating, getting on stage and working the craft.
But the reason I say "renaissance" is because I do meet-and-greets after each show where I meet 75 to 125 people each night. I ask everybody one question, which is "What's our born-on date? When did you and I first find each other?" And most people will say, "Oh, I saw you at Madison Square in 2011, or I saw you in Tampa way back in the day," but now it's getting more and more common to have young people coming up to me in meet-and-greets who are seeing me for the first time. And I'm blown away by this. It's been very validating to see the next generation discovering my standup and digging it. I love performing for people seeing live standup for the first time because it's so different than what you've come to expect from watching it on TV. It's just not the same. Television is whittled down and edited by a third party; there are so many factors between you and the authenticity of the live performance. I get DMs from young people who've just had their minds blown. It's very cool, and I'm having just as much fun now as I did when I first reached the upper echelons of the business, because at that point I was just a newbie learning as I went. Now that I'm the old bull on the hill, I can enjoy the entire process a bit more.
How would you characterize the hour you’re touring with on Tell It Like It Is?
Something that I've always aspired to as a comedian, something I learned from the guys I loved growing up, was firstly commitment to a character, especially outlandish ones like Robin Williams, Steve Martin or Eddie Murphy. That commitment elevates their persona on stage. The other thing I admire is the strong perspective of someone like George Carlin, someone who pulls you into their way of thinking. I remember a couple of years ago when my act was mainly predicated on the physicality and bombast of my twenties, even during those tank-top-wielding days, I was already looking ahead and saying, "I'm gonna grow. I'm going to mature along with my fans, I'm not going to try and stay twenty forever." No more hair gel and tank tops, I really wanted to find introspection.
It took a lot of years and it took a lot of drama in my life. But that drama was an artist's gift. It helped me find so many nuances that are now reflected by my comedy routine. However, the one thing I didn't want to lose through that shifting process were the LPMs, the laughs per minute. I don't want it to be a maudlin one-man-show, but I want to be able to go inward while still delivering the show my fans have come to expect. That's probably why it took almost five years to put this tour together. It took me a while to be able to go inward and talk about the successes and failures in my gamble of a self-made career while still getting the laughs. A lot of people have said that they feel like they're getting to know me better.
That does seem to be where the comedy zeitgeist is right now. People want some sense of what entertainers are like in person.
It's interesting, because I was having a similar conversation a couple days ago with a few comedian friends of mine. When I first started with social networking through its earliest incarnations — MySpace, AOL Instant Messenger, Friendster and whatever else I was using — it was not in vogue to have personal chats with fans. It was kind of frowned upon, especially by comedians, who prefer to skulk around in the shadows of the dark dwellings we perform in. But I felt like I was ushering in a new, more entrepreneurial era. I think there's even a certain gravitas to being open about your struggles. So I was talking to these comics about how much things have changed. I've been doing the podcast rounds — Theo Von, Bert Kreischer, Bobby Lee, Adam Ray, a myriad of them — and the response has been even more ideal than I'd imagined. It's more than just selling tickets: You're ingratiating yourself to people. It really feels like my wheelhouse, and I'm even looking into doing something in that podcast space again.
Yeah, if you're talking about connecting to fans, it's hard to beat podcast listeners. People really feel like they know their favorite podcasters. It's a more loyal following than traditional media seems capable of fostering.
In this day and age, I think the conundrum with media is that they're addicted to these headlines that rehash negative old stories for clickbait. It's about getting attention rather than sharing information. I mean, for a personal example, I've done five articles this year and they're all about these old perceptions of me. I mean, they were very poignant and the interviews were good conversations where I felt like I could shoot from the hip. But not one of them even talked about my standup today. Not the show I'm doing or the response I'm getting when hilarity ensues today. They just want to "play the old tapes," as they say in AA. I'm not in AA, but a friend of mine is, and I've learned a lot from sitting in those meetings. If you want to find out what I felt like fifteen years ago, those tapes exist, but I think what I'm up to now is the more interesting take.
Well, the whole "comeback" arc is an awfully handy way to frame an interview.
Yeah, but if people don't do their due diligence, all you have is a refresh of the arc, as opposed to a new story that breaks down those old tropes. That's what makes podcasts so relevant. Sure, we're being funny, but we're also answering questions in a very stark, assertive, very East Coast/Boston way. I don't fucking pull any punches about the things that have happened to me or the things that I've done. So I kind of think of them like a video game where I can just explode all these old ideas about me.
This is your first big nationwide tour since 2013 and the first material you've put out since 2014. What compelled you to hit the road again?
Yeah, my last special was Troublemaker, which came out in 2014. It was the first thing I ever directed and the first time I've paid for a production out of pocket. I invested six figures to make a special and own it like the guys I most admire in music and comedy, like the Dave Chappelles of the world. And after we finished shooting and it finally premiered, I was so enthused that I was actually able to forge my own path and create my way without relying on a streaming service or a cable network. I can present this special directly to the people who want it. And I think what's happening now is pretty similar to what was happening in 2000, when people didn't really know what the Internet would lead to. I mean, I did, and so did most college kids at the time.
But anyway, to answer your question of why I'm doing this tour now is that I'm a builder. I spent years working to be consistent; I don't want to sound immodest, but I bat 1,000, even on a chill night at a club when I'm just trying out new jokes. So I want to take these tools I've spent years developing and rebuild with these new technologies and new comedians and new generation of fans.
Do you have any plans to turn this latest batch of material into a standup special at some point?
Definitely. I've met with a couple production houses and I'm talking to a couple directors; I might have someone interesting behind the camera on this one. If not, I'd love to direct it myself again. And we're looking toward a few different potential shooting dates and locations on the tour this year.
You mentioned that you were initially criticized for promoting your comedy on MySpace, but you essentially created a model that every comedian follows now. What do you think of the way social media has shaped comedy?
It's tricky. The Internet is a strange space now. When I first started posting clips and interacting with fans, the Internet was in a more welcoming era. Lewd and negative comments were actually pretty rare, and when they came up, people would sort of self-monitor the negativity out of there. Now — and this might be true of comedy more than anything — everyone's a critic. My advice to comics or other artists these days is to not read anything. Literally, do not read a single comment. Post what you want to post, be strong with your message, and keep your integrity. I've been reading them long enough to where they don't faze me as much, but I really think today you should just make your art and say, "Fuck the consequences."
I was already a Gaiman fan, but I was also a huge fan of [showrunner] Bryan Fuller, and I think [head writer] Michael Green is one of the greatest screenwriters working today. So I heard about the show and got a call from the casting director, who put me in touch with Bryan. We has a great conversation before getting down to the nitty-gritty about the character and his role in the original novel. He wanted to know how I'd approach it, because on the page he's just kind of an asshole adulterer, but I thought that if you put enough charm and empathy into it, you won't know whether to hate him or like him. I think we can still move the story forward while injecting a little levity and challenging people's perceptions of the character. By the end of my last scene, you like me more than you like her [Laura Moon], and she's like the main character.
For me, it was like ushering in a new era of what I'm interested in on the acting side. I want to do more challenging roles, I want to be risky, and dark, and maybe a little more opaque. I don't really want to do comedies where I'm essentially just doing standup in a movie anymore. I think so many comedians have dark origins, and it's interesting to put into dramas. Jerry Lewis, for example, could go extremely dark even though he was one of the funniest people of all time. So I can't say too much about this next part out of respect for everyone involved, but there was talk of bringing my character back for season two, but that was before Bryan and Michael left and the studio brought new people in. But it was cool, man. I'd love to delve into something like that again.
Speaking of surprising turns in things with the word "American" in the title, American Exit looks pretty different from anything you’ve ever done. Was it challenging to be a part of such a tragic story?
Yeah, there was a lot on the page. And when I met co-star Levi Miller, who plays my son and he was only fourteen when we shot the movie, just from meeting him, I immediately knew "I need to just trust this kid." He's a thespian, he's here to work. And his mom was just a mom, she wasn't like a "mom-manager" or anything. Auditioning was completely his idea. So the experience of working with him and taking a character who's nothing like me (a father facing a terrible dilemma that leads to him kidnapping his own son) led me to put some of my own pain into the performance and give it those flecks of realness. It was also a sort of purge for some of the things that've happened to me, so, yeah, I really did learn a lot from from playing such a caustic and challenging character.
You had a very dark chapter of your life pop up in the prompt to a Jeopardy question; what was your first reaction when you saw the clip?
I was actually watching the episode. I watch Jeopardy a lot; I usually record it and watch it at night when I get home. So I was watching, and the question about my brother came up, and my very first reaction was that I laughed. I laughed to myself. And then I paused the show to make a video. And the reason that I laughed was because I knew that I'd overcome. I'd healed. To have a sense of humor about one of the most deplorable moments of my life, this impossible betrayal. So I made a little video that got a lot of good feedback, and then I showed it on Kimmel. I'm going to sound corny right now, but it just feels so great to feel great. I'm not encumbered by the stuff I'd been dealing with, stuff I had no playbook for.
How does a welfare kid from Arlington, Massachusetts, deal with not just stardom, but super-stardom? Movies, TV, endorsements? I'm not a Barrymore, I'm the first person in my lineage to even pursue a career in the arts. So I was managing that while dealing with my mom and dad dying from cancer, and then there was this huge betrayal from my brother, and all the financial hullabaloo that followed. And amid all that, the stardom phase was over and people really got their knives out, so it was like a real trifecta of personal growth. And looking back, I don't know if I would have made it through that time without comedy.
The fact that your first impulse was to laugh is a testament to the therapeutic power of comedy.
I actually bumped into Alex Trebek like a month after that and thanked him. He definitely remembered that question.
What is embezzlement?
I saw on your Instagram that you have some interesting theories about Game of Thrones. Who do you think is most likely to die, and who do you see sitting on Iron Throne in the finale?
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Okay, so my pick is a little unorthodox. But I'm committed to this: I think Jaime Lannister is going to win. He'll be the last man standing. I think he'll fight the good fight against the White Walkers with everybody, see whatever dastardly deeds Cersei actually has planned — for example, I don't think she's really pregnant — but I think the only way he can stop this evil cycle is by getting rid of his sister. He loves her, so it'd be a tragic moment. But I think it's gotta be Jaime. The whole story starts when he throws Bran out the window, and everything since then, including the Night King, feels like it came from that push. And by the way, I can't wait to be so, so wrong.
Who doesn't love a little speculation? For instance, I think Cersei is going to kill Jaime because he just needs to get got.
I can't wait. I'm flying home that night after my show on Saturday and then having a little Game of Thrones soirée at my house for the premiere. I'll be watching it just like everyone else.
Dane Cook will be at the Bellco Theatre on Saturday, April 13; showtime is at 7 p.m., but you're encouraged to arrive early. Find out more at bellcotheatre.com.