In the Showtime comedy special Troublemaker, comedian Dane Cook is stirring things up again. With his patented brand of observational humor, he’s skewering aspects of modern life, from our hidden internet selves to how much time we spend texting to gender taboos, in general. His directorial debut was filmed last fall and showcases his acerbic wit and dead-on insight, as he explores the hilarious aspects of everyday life and human behavior, in a way that only he can.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Dane Cook talked about why he wanted to direct his own special and that he’ll be directing his next, as well, that he’d like to also direct another comedian’s special and help them keep their authenticity, why he wanted to delve so deeply into personal connection and relationships, just how closely he follows his plan for a live show, addressing his hecklers, the differences between being funny on stage and being funny on film, how every subject is fair game when you’re a stand-up comic, and the worst stand-up experience he’s ever had. He also talked about what attracted him to 400 Days, which centers on four astronauts who are locked away for 400 days while on a simulated mission to a distant planet to test the psychological effects of deep space travel, creating a lead role in a comedy, from the ground up, developing a TV show, and whether he might ever turn back up on Hawaii Five-O. Check out the full interview after the jump.
DANE COOK: Yeah, I have. I really wanted to produce and direct this special. I think I realized, several years ago, that if I was going to capture a true performance when I was really ready, without feeling bound or under the gun of somebody else’s schedule, that I was going to have to pony up my own money and do it exactly at the moment that I felt I was prepared. But I was also chomping at the bit to direct, and to direct my own comedy. I had worked with Marty Callner on a couple of my specials, and I learned a lot, watching him and working with him. And I realized that I had the bug, but I also had the eye for it. I had a lot of strong ideas that made it into those specials. So, I set out to create the theme and work on the material while simultaneously finding a great little crew of people that could help me bring what I think is a simpler vision that had a lot of moving parts and a lot of rhyme and reason on why I wanted to present it, aesthetically, the way that I did.
Now that you’ve survived the experience, is that how you see doing it, from now on?
COOK: I would like to. I’m going to direct my next special, as well. I would even go so far as to say that I would love to direct another comedian’s special. I think that I could really be of service to another comic that is looking to keep their authenticity while capturing that and presenting it. I think it’s often lost through some of these specials. I can watch specials now and you can tell when it’s a bit more generic because they may have run a few people through the one particular theater, or you can tell when a comic is trying to do something just to create an event or a moment and it doesn’t really suit them. When you see that, it’s a little bit frustrating because you want the sole focus to be on the material and the performance by that entertainer, and sometimes other stuff gets in the way. So, I think it would be a great challenge to direct a comic into helping them direct themselves.
This special really delves into personal connection and relationships, whether it’s how we communicate through texting, or dating sites, or how we deal with the opposite sex, in general. What made you want to delve so deeply into those aspects for this special?
COOK: It was interesting to me because a lot of relationship material has just been so done by so many comics, for so long. I thought it was just a breath of fresh air to come at it from a very modern, now vantage point. It was a whole new set of circumstances to deconstruct and find the funny minutiae in. I’ve been in relationships and I’ve dated girls that are on their phones, 24/7. I took a girl to Hawaii and she sat on the beach next to me with her head in her phone most of the time. When I finally saw what she was texting, it was an emoji of the beach, an emoji of the sun, an emoji of a palm tree, and an emoji of people swimming. I was like, “You’re sending all of these little doodles, but you’re not even experiencing it when it’s right in front of you.” It really was interesting to me, and I thought it was a great new way to present a new spin on what is just relationship material, the way we’re all trying to figure it out now. It’s not in the special, but I said on stage the other day, “You know we are living in bizarre times when your first ‘I love you’ is through text.” It happens, and that’s crazy! I don’t know what the affects of that are going to be 50 years from now. Maybe we’re all going to be sociopaths. But that’s some wild stuff that we’re experiencing right now.
COOK: It’s all things where I love seeing that audience reaction of somebody nodding and going, “Yeah, we do that.” The great compliment for a comedian is somebody going, “That is so true,” or “I really do that.” You feel like you’re really tapping into something. I felt like it was only fair to talk about girl depression and guy depression. I’m glad that I could mine the material and figure out a way to jab at both sides.
When you do a live show, how much time do you spend preparing for it and how close do you stick with your plan? Do you ever totally deviate from what you thought you were going to do?
COOK: I do, yeah. My philosophy on stand-up differs. If I’m doing a lot of real storytelling, and I’ve done long-form bits, especially with Vicious Circle where each routine was seven, eight or nine minutes. Everything was like a Zeppelin song. I really wanted to create these Cosby stories. There are a couple of different kinds of humor in the new special, with it’s short-form and jokey, or story stuff, or improv. I really work hard enough to create a frame. There’s a frame of the material, and within that frame, I know that I’m going to get a laugh off of this, this, this and this. Instead of keeping them as something linear, I trust that if I feel the moment, I allow myself to hear how the audience is reacting. If I hear a girl go, “Nooo,” I can really trust how I would think, in the moment, how it would affect me, if I was just having a conversation, off stage. It will change the rhythm, but I know that I’m going to get to that first bullet point and I’m going to get to that third bullet point. It might be out of order and it might not be as funny as if I kept them in a row, but it doesn’t need to be as funny, to me, anymore. It just needs to resonate and it needs to be real to me. That’s what I work on more. I try to be ever-present and let go of the material. Sometimes I even allow myself to say, “I’m not going to get to that piece or that chunk because it doesn’t feel right for tonight, but I found something else that was spontaneous and real.” I’ll take spontaneous and real and maybe a little less funny over just funny for the sake of funny. I like to mix it up.
You clearly address your hecklers directly and make them part of the act. Is that something you’ve always done, or is that something you had to learn how to deal with?
COOK: There are two things that happen for me, in a heckler moment. Some comics hate hecklers. For me, there’s that one moment where I like to act like I’m a bit kerfuffled, like when they clap at what I deem the wrong time and I say, “When these people stop clapping, I can finish.” That’s playful attitude. And yet, when it’s a one-on-one challenge with the voice in the dark, my approach to that was always more of going into interview mode. I always like to try to figure out what’s made a person feel like they had to be a part of it, besides just maybe alcohol. So, I like exploring the heckle. I don’t invite it. I don’t like it to happen. But when it does happen and I think it’s organic, I like dissecting that, a little bit. Then, it feel like it’s not just, “I’m gonna make fun of your shirt for three minutes, and then smash you.” I’m still gonna get my jabs in, but maybe there’s a way to do it with a little more attention to detail.
COOK: Yeah, when the guy booed, I said that diatribe and was like, “I’m gonna do the material and come back to you. If you boo the second time, I’m gonna own it.” And I would have kept it. If he had booed the second time, it would have stayed in the special. That’s life. Not everybody thinks I’m funny. Not everybody agrees with what I’m doing. I think that’s what makes me so proud of the special. You’re really getting to see me at what I think is my most grounded, and yet my most enthused. I see my sparkle back, up there. I’m doing what I love, and I’m doing it the way I want to do it. Even when it gets a little topsy-turvy, it’s okay to show that side of myself. I’m confident enough that people will stay with me on the long haul, especially if they see I’m only human, too. When I take a hit, I bleed a little, and I’m gonna show you.
More so than in any other profession, people see a comedian and think, “I’m funny. I can do that, too.” They don’t realize just how much of a skill being funny is. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to realize that being funny is an actual skill, and not everybody can get up on stage and keep an audience laughing?
COOK: I think there’s something to be said about the stripped down nature of it. Visually, you go, “Oh, that guy just walked out there. He’s just in his jeans and a coat. I wear my coat to work and they tell me I can’t wear it.” I think there’s a weird identifiability. People think they can just strut out there. A lot of people are also watching really, really well-rehearsed comedians. When you watch somebody who is making it look like it’s all happening right there, in the moment, it’s very easy to go, “Well, I can do that.” Just like sometimes you see a magician and you go, “Yeah, I bet I could do that. It’s a hat, and something is hiding in the hat.” But no, it takes so long to learn sleight of hand, and comedy is sleight of hand. It’s, “I’m gonna do this so many times, night after night after night after night, and sometimes year after year, and I’m gonna get it to the point where it’s just so broken in, like a great old chair, that it’s just so comfortable coming off the top.” But what you don’t realize is that this wasn’t funny two years ago. It was kind of funny a year ago. The last six months, it started getting book-ended. And then, by the time I brought it to you, I had the laughs per minute to make it look like it was a fully flushed-out idea, all along.
Do you think it’s because everyone thinks they can be a comedian that comedies and comedic performances aren’t usually recognized the way they should be, especially at awards season?
COOK: Yeah. And a lot of comedy is vulgar. I think it’s changed a lot, and it’s definitely changing perspective, and yet I do still believe that there’s something about stand-up comics and comedy. I see it a lot online with people who Vine or tweet. People will live-tweet an event, and it’s not just comedians anymore. There are a lot of people who maybe want to be performers, but don’t have the guts to do it in front of a group of people because they’re fearful, and yet they feel comfortable writing from their couch. It’s changing. The way we find entertainers is going to be different and unique. I’m sure that people who have been tweeting funny things have ended up on writing staffs of a late night show. I bet a few things have happened like that because there are some really funny people on Twitter and Facebook. So, even though it is changing, I think more people think that they can approach it. They learn that it takes about a decade to find that voice and really hone it.
COOK: Yeah, it’s very different. It really is. It doesn’t feel the same, at all. Comedy is immediate. Comedy is a solo mission. You’re all by yourself, up there. And when you’re in a film, on a set, it’s a collaborative effort. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are in a moment, you have to know that the director is going to put the camera in the right place, and that the people you’re reacting off of are also in the know. There’s such a metronome type of rhythm that is necessary for film because the director is locking scenes together in his mind. It’s so intricate, and yet I like it because it’s not about me. It’s about me being a tool for somebody else to create a story and a character from nothing, from their imagination, and I need to do it in a way where I can communicate with strangers who now have to be my brothers and my sisters, and I have to be an assassin or an astronaut. I love that. I love getting into the homework of that.
When it comes to comedy, is there anything that you won’t talk about in front of an audience? Are there any topics that are off limits for you, or is everything pretty much fair game?
COOK: I think everything is fair game when you’re a stand-up comic. I know that there has been some criticism over the last several years. There is always someone who says, “Why would you say such a thing?!” But when you go into a nightclub and you watch a performer, I think that’s why you’re going there. You’re checking it at the door, and the idea is to go there and hear somebody struck chords. Part of the beauty of that is that it is an opinion without anybody impeding on it – not an editor, and not standards and practices. That’s to be protected. That’s a glamorous thing to me. Somebody recorded me at a club one night when I said something about one of the shootings that happened, about a week after it happened, and it ended up on CNN, as part of a CNN poll. They were like, “Is this funny or not?” Even I voted no. Of course, it’s not funny when you show it like that. To the room of people that I was in, it felt like the right thing for the right moment, for that group of people. So, my feeling is that nothing should be off limits. When you enter that comedy space, the hope is that you’re going to hear somebody have really funny, interesting, strong opinions, and maybe there’s a little bit of healing that goes along with that, as well.
COOK: I’ve had a lot. I’ve had my share. The pendulum goes both ways. There are the high water marks. I remember doing a lot of early college gigs where I would show up as a nobody, barely making any money and spending what I made in gas to get there. And then, you have somebody who’s really not interested in anything, entertainment wise, saying, “You’re the guy? You’re him? What’s your name? Dance Cook? All right, follow me. You’re going to perform right here.” I remember, one time, this guy brought me into a long hallway and said, “Pick a spot anywhere here.” I was like, “Pick a spot?! What do you mean? This is a hallway.” And he was like, “Yeah, this is our idea. We want you to do comedy in the hallway and entertain the kids as they walk by. They’ll get a little comedy on the way to class.” So, I stood on a little platform, and I had an amp and a miniature mic. It was humiliating, and yet there was something about it that was intriguing to me. I knew I was learning something, but in the very moment of doing it, I drove home from that gig going, “What did I do? What am I doing with my life? I just stood in a hall with people walking by, just staring at me. They didn’t even hear the first part of the joke, so they didn’t know what the hell I was saying.” And there were a lot of gigs like that, early on. The only thing that keeps you going is driving away from it with a few dollars in your pocket, and that little voice in the back of your head saying, “Maybe this will be a funny story for an interview, someday. Maybe this will be a funny story for a panel.” That keeps you truckin’.
What do you have going on right now, as an actor?
COOK: I have an independent film coming up in the spring, called 400 Days. And then, I have another film that I’ve written and worked on with a good friend of mine, Jeff Kaufman, who’s a very funny comedy writer. We have a producer, with Todd Lieberman. That would be my first lead in a comedy film that I created, from the ground up. Everything else, I’ve always jumped into as it was moving along. Although that can be interesting and fun, as a comedian who wants to have a clear voice in comedy, I’ve decided to really pull back from a lot of those kinds of films. I’ve said no to a lot, over the last few years, in the hopes of creating my own brand and identity. So, those couple of things are in the pipeline next.
What attracted you to 400 Days?
COOK: I like complex characters. I’m a complex individual. I have a lot of thirst for studying human behavior, and I love acting. I love doing comedy and I love comedians, but in a very different way, I love acting. I’m even working on a TV project right now, that I can’t talk too much about, but if it comes through, I’ll be working with one of my favorite writers and directors in creating a character for television that would be really caustic and a bit of an anti-hero. There would still be some humor in there, but it would be a different perspective than people are used to seeing from me. I would just like to have a career where, if you want to come see me as a comedian, you can come see me there. If you want to come see me do a Cole Porter play, and I can sing and dance on Broadway, come see me do that. If I can do a TV show that’s pushing the envelope and doing something you’ve never seen before, that’s interesting to me. I just hope that, with the right support, I can do more of that.
COOK: You’ll never get that out of me. You never know, with Hawaii Five-O. It really is flattering because people get to know you in one way, and then you can rattle that a little bit. Speaking of that, it’s so sad that we’ve lost Robin Williams. Look at all of the different dynamic roles he did, with Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Genie in Aladdin, and winning an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting. I’ve always wanted to emulate his career. He was just so good, and I think more comedians are capable of that. Jason Reitman was just doing a live chat on Twitter, and I jokingly wrote him a live chat question because I just happened to see it. I said, “You cast Adam Sandler in your latest movie. Why? What is it about working with comedians?” And he said, “They know trauma, and that’s good for drama.” He really nailed it. We really do. Comics are sensitive souls. We always feel a lot. A lot of us have been through a lot. It puts you in that place of neediness, and needing to be in front of people, and needing love, and needing to find ways to feel relevant. If a good director works with a comic that does the work, you can really take that trauma and, like Robin Williams, show the vulnerability in the eyes, and you can get some really wonderful performances.
Troublemaker premieres on Showtime on October 17th.