Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nice and Twisted

Comedian Dane Cook has learned the secret to getting away with anything

By Carl Kozlowski

Hanging out with comedian Dane Cook can be a dangerous proposition. By his own account, he estimates, “At least 15 of my favorite restaurants have closed after I started going there.”
The closings weren’t by order of the Health Department. Rather, they’re just another part of the bizarre, unexplained events that seem to follow Cook everywhere he goes – whether his life is being threatened by a fellow customer for cutting in line at Rite Aid, or he’s getting caught in the middle of a gang fight at the Sunset Strip’s dearly departed “Rock ’n’ Roll Denny’s.”

“I was sitting there with four of my buddies from Boston,” says Cook over a long lunch at a different Denny’s. “I had just said, ‘I haven’t had such a good time in a long time,’ when suddenly 12 guys pull up in Escalades, come in, and immediately start throwing ketchup bottles at this group of guys who look pretty shady themselves. Every patron immediately went for the kitchen, because they were blocking the [exit] doors and whipping ketchup bottles, and at that moment I knew what the passengers of the Titanic felt like.

“But after it was over, I felt like, ‘What a rush!’” He laughs, swigging a Coke. “But we should be scoping out places to hide right now. It’s part of living in L.A., dude.”

Cook’s mix of comedic storytelling, manic energy, and self-deprecation has earned him a rabid following in both his native Boston – hometown of Jay Leno, Denis Leary, and Steven Wright, among many others – and his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. When his name is announced during his regular weekend gigs at the Laugh Factory, the crowd erupts in the kind of cheers normally lavished on rock stars – replete with squeals from female fans pleased to find in Cook a comic who resembles Ben Affleck more than Jon Lovitz.

Cook’s career got another boost on Tuesday, when Comedy Central Records issued his new CD, Harmful If Swallowed, the inaugural release from the cable network’s new label. It comes with a DVD compilation of his Comedy Central appearances, including the uncensored hour-long version of his 22-minute televised special. This fall, he’ll appear in both the Farrelly Brothers’ Siamese-twin comedy Stuck on You and the Ice Cube action flick Torque – and he’s developing series ideas with UPN.

The release of Harmful also represents a vindication of Cook’s lifelong comedic dreams. He grew up listening to Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, and wishing he could duplicate their magic, but he might never have made it onto any stage, thanks to a crippling series of childhood panic attacks.

Cook literally had to pretend he didn’t exist in order to survive his first performance. While trying to work up the courage to do his own material, he’d watch other Boston comics at an open mike hosted by a pre-fame, pre-Mr. Show David Cross.

“He kept asking for ‘Ernest Glenn,’ so my hand shot up on his fifth try of the name,” Cook recalls. “I went onstage as Ernest Glenn and scored a laugh with my first joke. It was about a tabloid headline that read ‘I Was Raped by a Snowman.’ That’s not part of my repertoire now.”

What is part of his repertoire now is a freewheeling style that can have Cook humping a sidestage mirror or cracking jokes while performing handstands by the end of a set. He veers wildly between innocuously goofy ideas, such as wondering what it would be like to have a pet ram, and comically graphic tales of sexual embarrassments. Sit too close, and you might find him singling you out as someone who’s just as twisted as he is.

“My being aggressive onstage now is all a put-on, because I used to be the most introverted guy in school,” Cook says. “I would get sick if I had to talk in front of the class. Then I’d go home and tell my dad I wanted to be a standup, and he’d say, ‘Whoa, then you’ve really got to find your voice, to talk to people.’ Once I figured this out, standup saved my life and gave me a life. I’ll always support it and do it, no matter where my career takes me.”

One place his career has taken him is to the hallowed stages of the late-night talk shows. He was thrilled to land a spot on the Late Show with David Letterman, but that evening he got an even greater surprise upon learning in his dressing room that Letterman was sick, and the backup host would be none other than Cook’s childhood hero, Bill Cosby.

“I couldn’t believe how nice he was,” Cook says. “He came into my room, where I was sitting alone waiting for my family, and talked to me for a half-hour about comedy, and made me feel like I was special, just saying my name over and over, like ‘Dane Cook! Dane Cook is in the house!’” He slides into a pitch-perfect rendition of the comedy legend. “Then, as I was about to start my routine on the air, he came up and hugged me and whispered, ‘Massachusetts, baby! Go get ’em!’ and I had the best set of my life. Because what could go wrong after that?”

Indeed, not much has gone wrong, and these days each show Cook does seems like smooth sailing. The key to his success, he explains, lies in an old Redd Foxx quote.

“Years ago, Redd said one of my all-time favorite comments in comedy: ‘If you’re likable, you can get away with saying anything,’” he says. “I realized I was likable, and I decided to see how far I could push people, and how much I could get away with. I love dark and Evil Dead ideas, and those go through my brain, so I feel I can go from friendly, warm, and relatable to bizarre and twisted, and people will go along for the ride. Thankfully, they have.”

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