Dane Cook: Rough Around the Edges

Dane Cook
Rough Around the Edges
Comedy Central

“The scum also rises.”

— Hunter S. Thompson

Dane Jeffrey Cook is one of the most successful comedians in the world today. Since the turn of the millennium, the Boston fink has gone from pathetic obscurity to fame twice or thrice the size of Ryan Reynolds. His pesky networking has allowed him to develop a dedicated fan base committed to his sense of rehearsed timing, inoffensively fresh material, and his trademark yelps about “skiddly-do” and poopies. His 2003 debut album, Harmful if Swallowed, sold over 1.2 million copies, and its ’05 follow-up, Retaliation, became the first comedy record in 30 years to crack the Billboard Top Ten. Simultaneously, since the late ’90s, his plastic, smarmy mug was posed in over a dozen major studio films, including such cinematic hallmarks as Flypaper and Employee of the Month, co-starring the brilliant actress Jessica Simpson. Time Magazine included him in their top 100 most influential people list of 2006, as he is the “Buzz” Aldrin of MySpace with the second account — after the website’s current president (alleged propaganda minister and future patsy Tom Anderson) — to accept over two million friends. How can you argue with that?

All that hoopla looks so unquestionable on paper: the impressive numbers, the blind reassurance of being in a large group of like-minded people, the provision of consumers with guilt and thought-free entertainment. And yet, it is nothing more than the overblown hype of machines. Time Warner, having named both Hitler and King Bush Jr. as man of the year, is clearly not an accurate vouch for character. Having over two million MySpace friends all but guarantees there’s a script floating in cyberspace voting for Cook’s popularity. The fact that much of Cook’s popularity is attributed to his Internet savvy — being one of the first Hollywood marginal talents to embrace the power of forum spamming and the creation of a decent website — certainly points some “programming” suspicion in his direction. His empire exists in lines of code and lit up pixels.

The Billboard charts also don’t mean jack-squat. There are cities full of anxious, depressed people littering the globe like liver spots, and sometimes the overbearing politics of Bruce Springsteen can be too much for some of them. Often, people simply want something stupid to tune out to. It allows us to forget the lives we’ve chosen (usually by default) and to justify the shallow decisions we are all encouraged to make by a media designed to keep us ignorant. This is the only explanation for the existence of Paris Hilton’s debut album, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s slack-jawed cash grab, or the horrific success of Cook’s banal minutiae. All these “artists” cast a spell of misdirection to remedy today’s thoughtlessness, exploding in popular culture for a brief moment before disappearing in a puff of fodder for pawn shops, flea markets, and garage sales. It’s all got a defined shelf life. Regardless, hapless consumers don’t account for all the industry’s numbers.

Major labels excel at shuffling the shit around so things come out the way they intend. They’ve been playing games like that for years, alongside payola and RIAA lawsuits, as part of their multi-pronged attack on free will in the marketplace. Take the Eagles’ petrified Hard Rock Café jacket-wearing lame fest Long Road Out of Eden, for example. Wal-Mart’s lobbyists phoned up their pals at Nielsen SoundScan and got Billboard to allow titles available exclusively through one retailer on their charts. Then other Nielsen stores (specifically Virgin) used Wal-Mart as a wholesaler, buying bulk numbers of the album to sell in their stores. This allowed the CDs to be double-scanned and Britney Spears to be robbed of a number one debut. Seriously, they don’t even count votes in international elections properly anymore and we’re supposed to believe corporate-generated totals are completely accurate? There is some truth to the figures, just as I’m sure someone actually voted for Dubya, but at one time over 1.2 million people thought the earth was the center of the universe and that the moon was made of cheese. They were wrong, but you could have been tortured by a church if you told them so. So, basically, numbers-schmumbers.

More damning is that Cook’s movies and TV appearances often mark the low point in the careers of everyone involved. Mystery Men bombed worse than the League of Extraordinary Men fiasco, and dissolved from public consciousness immediately after its release. Stuck on You saw the Farrelly Brothers finally hit rock bottom with a comedy about conjoined twins trying to be Hollywood actors, and they haven’t been relevant since. He’s had some serious roles too, like the fighting-on-motorcycles epic Torque with Ice Cube and Jamie Pressly. And who can forget Cook’s amazing revelation as Nick Miranda, the white-guy sidekick in Denis Rodman’s seminal Simon Sez? Many fine actors have starred in Denis Rodman films and gone on to do amazing things, just looks at Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mickey Rourke, and Carl Weathers. Granted, one can make the argument that Cook’s box office receipts have generally improved over time, coinciding with an increased global population and a decline in public school funding, but the quality of his work has not. If you’ve seen any of the movies I mention in this entire piece of work, look back in your memory and try to remember the exact situation in which you first saw them. Could be the pot, but they’re all kinda hazy for me. Check with me in ten years and see who still has Good Luck Chuck in their collection. My bet is that every copy will be at the local pawnbroker.

Recently, he launched a recording career, releasing his first couple of singles to iTunes. “I’ll Never Be You” from 2006 is a fusion of Adam Sandler’s man-boy lyricism and Nickelback’s hack vanilla grunge, while the sobbing, emo-country tragedy “Forward” screams a desire to be Bill Hicks, or at least to have people love him as much as he loves himself. They are both insults to music and contain no comedy outside of the brutal irony of their colourless triviality. Basically, he has no discernable skills away from a modem.

Above everything else, Cook considers himself to be a comedian. And yet, for a largely observational stage persona, he has the keen eye and intellectual development of your average MTV-addicted teenager, reflected by his Teen Choice Award. There is a reason he is the most popular comedian amongst Americans aged zero to 12. I can kinda understand that, too. We had “Weird” Al Yankovic and Howie Mandel back in my day, only there was a difference. Yankovic and Mandel, simple as they were, had enough talent and integrity to actually write their own material. Almost every comic on the planet has had a bit or three lifted verbatim by Cook. Joe Rogan’s rhino/tiger fucking debacle, Emo Phillips, Demitri Martin, Patton Oswalt, and Louis C.K. (who had three bits from his 2001 Live from Houston record appear with the exact same delivery in Cook’s trend-breaking Retaliation four years later) have all fallen prey to Cook’s Manifest Comedy, which has made him few friends in the business along the way.

Rough Around the Edges, Cook’s carefully timed third album in six years, is a misleading title for a failed opportunity to prove all the naysayers wrong. For starters, comedy performances don’t really work in stadiums. You’re trying to connect with a large gathering on a basic human level, and for that they need to be able to make out your face. It’s not like there’s a lot going on. There’s no big light show, visuals, and musical virtuosity where people just need a cowboy hat bouncing on the horizon to give them a direction to stare at. Recorded in front of tens of thousands of perpetually screaming, drunken New York college kids at Madison Square Gardens, this CD/DVD of the same performance has all the intimate, smoky ambiance of a wind tunnel viewed through an apartment peephole. Cook paces steadily around a small octagonal stage in the middle of a crowd bigger than Canada and runs the old “reveal” stage technique into the ground, which leads to millions of quick cuts that give the viewer the feeling of being slapped in the face over and over again like an LCD Soundsystem video. You can just imagine what watching it on a scoreboard drowning in constant, deafening hooting must’ve been like, let alone getting one-sixth of a show from the front row.

Recording the album in such an inappropriate venue, as well as the fabulously timed fade-to-black of Cook clapping himself offstage, tips his cap as to the sheer monumental ego behind his work. This is further reinforced by Cook’s riveting audio commentary, where he relates a story to himself about being on the set of Dan in Real Life the day after this November 12th performance. There, in response to a PA asking him what he did the night before, Cook hypothetically but confrontationally replied, “Ah… Madison Square Gardens, twenty-thousand people, two shows… what’d you do?” Prolly something a whole lot more fulfilling, like watching a Canadian House Of Commons debate. Pee-Wee Herman once sold out Carnegie Hall, and he’s a better actor. It might be an idea to take a few classes, to have something to fall back on if the fad doesn’t last. Dane goes on to express his desire to win an Oscar, if only to tell everyone who criticizes him for not saying about anything “real” to go fuck themselves. What a “real” thing to say. He truly is a man of the people.

Cook’s jokes are almost exclusively based on funny sounding words. He’s obviously well researched in the linguistics of his trailing generation. He’s a 35-year-old who talks like he’s about to flunk the seventh grade for the fourth time. Kicking off Rough Around the Edges is a rousing tale of his father teasing the seven Cook children about a visit to “Benson’s Animal Farm” (a bit the commentary reveals was written some 15 years ago). One of the jokes for that story was that Cook used to say “skiddly-do” during jubilant childhood moments. “Skiddly-do” is a nothing piece of idiocy, the same thing as “bukka-bukka” or “woozle-wuzzle”, forgotten faster than the I Didn’t Do It boy. The fact that he uses words like “chief” and “gaylord” are also jokes. So all you need is a slang thesaurus or access to UrbanDictionary.com and you can write your own Cook routines ad nauseam.

Cook also refers to ice cream bars as “creamy treats” and “creamy delights” and those are jokes, even though he probably read them off the box at his grocer’s freezer. He likes the word “creamy” because it’s at once both childish and sexual, aiming for the dead center of his target demographic. Tom Green did that shit years ago, and look where it got him. See, the thing about pandering to the TV-driven desire for trite marginality is that people get bored of it quickly and forever. What’s more, that whole ice cream gag was recycled from his 2006 Vicious Circle DVD for HBO, due to the fact that Cook “liked it on Vicious, but [he] didn’t love it, and [he] wanted to give it another shot because, personally, selfishly, [he] always though it was a smart bit.” Yeah, you can’t get any closer to the cutting edge of satire and intellect than stolen dessert snacks. Good call.

Now, refreshing old material is something pretty much every comedian does from time to time. Sometimes the world changes and new meanings apply, or you get stuck in a train of thought that takes you back to an old point. It happens, especially with artists who memorize and wing their sets. But Cook, who uses a teleprompter, compares it to when “every once in a while a band will rerecord a song that you’re like ‘wait a minute, that was like the last song on their last CD or cassette.'” Do you know what else bands do? They cover songs other bands wrote and performed before them, only they have to admit someone else wrote it. He doesn’t make a good case against the plethora of rampant plagiarism charges that have plagued his career since the Rodman days with that line of thought.

As usual, the whole routine is a few years late for the prom. He tackles the incredibly relevant topics of Oprah’s predictability (“Pedophiles”) and TiVo’s unpredictability (“TiTo”), though Patton Oswalt covered TiVo on his 2004 album and Oprah has been a Michael Jackson staple of easy target comedy since Married With Children first aired. Cook announces the desire to fuck window dressings in “Mannequin Sex”, delivered as if it’s unique to him, though it was already explored in the 1987 feature-length film Mannequin and its sequel. The dialogue may be as fresh as Urban Outfitters, but the subject matter is old hat. Granted, his “15¢” yarn lets loose a hint of a social conscience, charging collective apathy and self-centeredness for not having the balls to scrape together 15 cents to put a starving Third World child through an Ivy League school. It’s the only worthwhile clip from the whole album, and yet, those ads have been on TV since at least the ’80s. Naturally, like every “Dice” frat-boy comic ever, the rest of his material consists of dick jokes and graphic sexual exploits, coaxing a dependable chorus of high pitched screaming from the local groupies at the notion of Dane dink. That leads Cook to ponder aloud moving to Saudi Arabia, ’cause there are too many chicks to “maintain” in New York. They have phones and girls in Saudi Arabia too, you know. They’re oppressed, not extinct. That is the extent of his insight and improvisational wit.

Speaking historically, Cook says every comic wants that one thing that’s only his or hers onstage. So what does he believe his bid for eternity is? “These little sound effects and things, that’s me. That’s my contribution… If they’re laughing, it’s comedy.” Again, Howie Mandel made it big on the retarded noise shtick, having entire conversations with audiences by yelling “euoooo” over and over. He does Boston Pizza commercials now. The novelty of funny sounding words, simple props (unless you’re Rip Taylor), and infant noises always wears off when the current coke craze dries up. Mandel put a surgical glove on his head and Cook brings a motorcycle helmet to bars to try to get laid… po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe. Do yourself a favour — write down some of Dane’s jokes, if you can find any, read them back to yourself, and see if they’re still funny.

So please don’t let all the peer pressure to pretend to enjoy Dane Cook’s vapid rehashing of Jeff Foxworthy for the football jersey, beer-gut college dork haze you. He’s a master of self-promotion, like the Fiddy Cent of comedy, and even his street teams have street teams. They’ll even go so far as to tell you he’s an inarguable genius because of that marketing ability alone, which speaks to a much greater problem in capitalist democracies today: the fact that there are no more professions. You can no longer be a town doctor or lawyer enjoying general autonomy without a direct boss. Everyone is a businessman now, a slave to the bottom line above all else. Even our actors, musicians, and comedians are all essentially working at Starbucks. Just like doctors now need to see more people get ill and lawyers need people to create more and more pointless strife to keep the chart lines at 45 degree angles, comedians have a vested interest, not in enlightening, but in pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Mere aptitude in abusing a system propped up against itself to fail is not justification for respect, nor is it true grounds for hatred either. The best thing we can do is ignore these goombas, try not to be one of them, and chastise all of your acquaintances for falling for another Snakes on a Plane create-a-cult Internet ploy till you’re blue in the face or don’t have any more friends. Friends don’t let friends listen to Dane Cook, not when there is David Cross, Baron Vaughn, George Carlin, Patton Oswalt, and hundreds of other more meaningful comics out there working it right. Like Doug Stanhope said on the subject of Dane Cook versus Larry the Cable Guy: “I don’t deny them their money. It’s a fucking mediocre world; they’re decidin’ to play along. I’d rather fight back. I don’t need a lot of shit.” I work, as I’m sure you do, and I know sometimes you just want something to pass out to, but don’t fool yourself. That’s supposed to be his job. Look in your heart and demand more from your artists.

RATING 1 / 10