The Collider Interview – Dane Cook

     July 29, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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Dane Cook is so likeable, he can make beating up a nursery full of newborn infants funny.; That’s not hyperbole.; He actually goes there on his new comedy CD, Retaliation, but, when he does, it’s the most sweet-natured episode of baby abuse you’re ever likely to hear.

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That’s Dane’s gift, and it’s served him well as he’s dutifully refined his act over the last fifteen years with the dedication of a comedy zealot.; As he explains in the below interview, Dane understood the value of getting stage time early on, and found a way to perform several times a night.; Not content to skate on his personality (or, let’s face it, his good looks), Dane immersed himself in the intricacies of performing, paying meticulous attention to every facet of delivery and joke structure, and is now one of the most polished stand-up comics working today.;

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I got a chance to watch Dane do his thing Wednesday night at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood, and though he’d just rolled in from Tower Records, where he’d been signing autographs for hours, his energy was electric.; Almost instantly, he had the room hanging on his every utterance even though it’s likely this was not the first time they’d heard most of these jokes.; He must’ve been exhausted, but, as with any born stand-up, his restorative was a stage, a packed room and a microphone.; He fucking killed.

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Thursday morning, I got on the phone with Dane, and found him to be an intense, articulate student of his chosen trade, which is always refreshing.; Listening to him discuss his act in such heavy technical detail was fascinating.; Like many stand-ups, Dane doesn’t feel the need to be “on” at all hours; he can shut it down and be a human being, and that made for a fantastic interview.

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How long have you been doing stand-up?

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I started in 1990 and never stopped.; In Boston, especially then, there were really great places to perform stand-up.; There were a lot of hole in the wall restaurants or little pubs that had open mics.; It seemed like I could get on stage at least two or three times a night.; In fact, the first night I ever when on stage was at Catch a Rising Star in Harvard Square, which just closed, and David Cross was the host.; That was the first show I ever did.;

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I always looked at stand-up comedy as a puzzle that would take years to figure out because there were certain elements that you would only receive through the constant ebb and flow of being on stage.; Hearing so many comics before me say, “Ah, it takes four or five years to find your real voice”, which is completely true.; I kind of thought it was asinine at first.; Two years in I thought I knew everything; then, three years in, I realized I knew nothing.; (Laughs.)

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I tried it when I was living in New York, and that first year is all about getting five minute slots.; And it’s, like, fuck a rapport with the audience, you’ve just got to go up and be funny.

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You have literally no time to even pause without the crowd thinking, or you thinking the crowd is thinking, “They see through me.; They’re onto me.; They see me thinking.”; That’s the thing with comics:; we have this fear of letting a crowd see us think.; There are a few guys who can incorporate it into their rhythms, and make it look like it’s a part of their deal.; One of the key tricks in comedy is, “I’m in charge”.; You control the room.; And if they see you thinking, they start wondering if you know what you’re doing up there.; And once you leave your head in comedy, once you come out of your zone, it’s an avalanche after that; it keeps spiraling out of control.;

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So, I just started doing comedy in Boston, spent a good four or five years there, again, getting on stage every night.; If I look back at my calendar, there was a year, maybe even a two-year period where I did comedy every night.; Even if I was sick, I would go to the club.; And when the clubs were closed for the holiday, I was doing shows.; I was dedicated, wanted to be the best, and got better and better every time.

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When you’re just starting out, you can find gigs in the oddest places.; I knew a Laundromat that used to host stand-up.

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(Laughs.); Which is great, because not only can you do your set, you can do your laundry.

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Exactly.; But when you were starting out, it was the tail end of the stand-up comedy boom.

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Yep.

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Who was inspiring you at the time?

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Well, I guess as far as offstage – people I would be watching on television – it was endless.; I was a just a fan of the art of comedy, and would watch anybody and everybody even if [a particular comic] wasn’t necessarily my style of humor.; Anything on HBO, from Louie Anderson to Andrew “Dice” Clay to young comedians specials – you name it, I was watching it.; I was also watching old Carlin, old Pryor, and, even going further back, getting my hands on Norm Crosby and vaudeville acts, which was a whole different time in comedy.; Whereas now there are hacks who steal jokes, back then it was common to write a joke and everybody else would do it.; And you would say to someone, “Hey, I was just up at the Berkshires, and did that bit.”; They did each other’s bits; it was a completely different take on comedy.

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Johnny Carson… anytime I would watch Johnny Carson, I was just absorbing the idea that this wasn’t just a guy who said funny things, this is a guy that just pours funny out of his skin.; You loved Johnny.; You didn’t necessarily love the jokes – I mean the jokes could be funny sometimes – but you loved him.; And I started looking more at guys like Redd Foxx, who could be really in-your-face, brutal, play really blue, and, yet, get away with things.; Redd Foxx had one of my favorite quotes that helped me along early, which was, “If you’re likeable, if you learn what makes you likeable, everything is funny”.; The key was I needed to learn about myself offstage as a person.; I found that comedy changed the way I carried myself, the way I looked at myself, the way I looked at my timing.; Even in life.; Timing is everything in comedy, but I started learning, “Don’t let things wait in real life.; If you like that girl, you go tell her right now, because if the timing is off it’ll never work.”; And I found that comedy started almost dictating the way I should live myself, which was really fascinating.; But watching Johnny Carson, watching guys like Redd Foxx, then through the 80’s and into the 90’s, guys like [Sam] Kinison and [Bill] Hicks.;

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Hicks is a great example of a guy who would really push the boundaries of likeability.; He could be really lewd and crewd and angry and just vile, and, yet, you would look at him and you can’t deny that there’s something in his eyes that’s extremely lovable.; That’s why he could get away with anything.; Because even if he was pushing you away, even if he was squeezing your fucking face and pushing you back, you just wanted to be close.; You wanted to watch; you wanted to know him.; Kinison had a look and a quality about him that, even at his darkest, you loved him.; You just loved those guys.

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Kinison and Hicks – those are guys who, when they were losing the audience, I think they were at their best, because that’s when they got really savage.

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Not only that, but, if you really want to look at the tricks and the buttons pushed in comedy, they purposely lost their audience.; There are a lot of times in comedy where you know as a comic, “Okay, I’m going around this corner now”.; And you start to get to feeling like, “When I say this, I will get this reaction.”; So, I can listen to guys like Hicks and go, “This guy is a composer, and this is the part of the symphony where the thunder rolls in and it’s going to get scary.”; Because after the rain – to stick with the metaphor – it’s like, “I can bring them over here now.”

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Metallica [has] a great quote:; “Why did you start more doing ballad-y stuff?; Why did you slow it down?”; And James Hetfield said, “Well, the heavy stuff hits harder when you pull back a little bit.”; It’s like, “Boom!; Okay!; I get it!; I really see these guys working.”; Kinison’s the same way:; the way he would get (imitating Kinison’s sotto voce) really quiet and talk about stuff, and then he would (does Sam’s scream) go into the tirade.; These guys knew.; So, when you see the crowd being pushed away, and you think, “Oh, man, these guys are getting pissed”.; Sure, some times things just happen in the room, but a lot of that was part of the act, part of the magic of their entire performance.; I could talk about it all day.; I love comics, I love comedy and the structure… I enjoy watching it.

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Well, you’re not just a student of comedy, you’re a student of performance, which just shines through in your act.; The way you present the material, it’s just apparent that you spend a lot of time thinking about it technically, and a lost of comics don’t.

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Look, I’m fifteen years in, and, in the last couple of years, I really started feeling like I was getting good.; I feel like, now, there are certain things that I have a complete grasp of:; confidence on stage, knowing my comedic cadence, knowing my tempo.; I have those in my back pocket, but I’m just starting to feel like it’s getting really, really good.; I’m psyched with Harmful If Swallowed, I’m extremely proud of Retaliation.;

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I never wanted to have a stigma as a comic.; My challenge, beyond just trying to be funny, was how can I do stand-up comedy and have the ability to use any style of comedy to get my point across.; I’m a naturally physical guy.; I love having energy, and that’s me when I hit the stage.; That’s just there no matter what.; But learning how to use language, how to be able to paint a verbal picture and use my vernacular, and use words that say ten things at once… and keep going with the joke versus sometimes purposely putting fifteen extra words that probably shouldn’t be in there.; Because there’s a style of comedy when you’ve got that stutter-step… that’s funny.; I wanted to be able to say, “Okay, I can use physicality; I can use language; I can use a cutting, violent sarcasm, but be silly, light, goofy, corny”.; Most people are corny people.; I love corny humor.;

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Just listening to you talk about the constant refinement of your act:; you know, a month or so ago I heard Owen Wilson call Vince Vaughn the Terminator Model for comedy, but I think it applies to you even more.;

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I’m constantly looking for new ways to upgrade – Version 3.0, 4.0.; It trickles back to how some people say stand-up comedy is the bottom rung on the totem pole of entertainment.; Some people say comedy is the least respected.; Not in my eyes.; I think it’s one of the purest forms of from-my-mouth-to-your-ears entertainment.; A lot of things have been manipulated by media – whether it’s radio or television – but comedy is still a guy with a mic telling you what’s on his mind.; There’s nobody in between, and that’s fucking beautiful.

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But with an act as tight as yours, there’s a danger of it coming across as rehearsed.; How do you avoid that?

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By never, ever writing anything down.; I’ve never written a joke down.; Well, I should say in the past eight years.; Before that, I would jot down little comic notepad notes to be able to glance at.; But keeping it always improvisational, always being spontaneous.; I started in improv for four years, and my favorite moments during improv shows were the unexpected moments.; I wanted to bring that into my solo stand-up: ;having a little fear of not knowing what’s next, and a crowd sitting there waiting, already laughing.; It’s not like I’ve got to herd them; I’ve got ‘em, and, yet, I don’t know after this bit what’s going to be next.; There’s two thing happening on stage:; I’m performing and I’m editing.; I just always have these pictures going on in my head.; When I saw Minority Report, and I saw Tom Cruise with that glove on moving all those pictures around, the way he could see everything – that’s the way my brain works on stage.;

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I play chess.; I love chess, and you look ten moves down the line.; I see ten jokes ahead, maybe, but I see five alternatives to what could be ten moves ahead.; Sometimes I’m thinking about the last bit as I go into the next bit, and I’m saying to myself, “Don’t forget you made up a line about the guy being really narcissistic, because, five jokes ahead, if you do that bit about the auto mechanic, I think you could bring it back.”; I’m constantly wanting to make a moment happen where a crowd feels like it’s happening for them.; It’s not rehearsed, and it’s not formula, but after fifteen years, I can say to you that I know enough to make it all look like it’s all okay.; To put it simply, people say, “I see you sometimes laugh at yourself up there”.; And I say, “Well, some of this stuff I’m hearing for the first time, too”. ;

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You’ve made me very happy.; I just won a bet with myself.; Last night, honestly, I was watching your act and thinking to myself, “You know, I bet this guy’s a chess player”.

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I love it.; I love chess.

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I mean, I could see you thinking so far ahead, and I was like, “I wouldn’t want to play this guy at chess.”

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(Laughing); You wouldn’t.

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Certainly not a cash game.

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But you know the great thing, though?; As in chess, I make wrong moves constantly.; Sometimes, three seconds later, after I start something, I’m like, “Ah!; I should’ve maybe done that!”; Again, you don’t see it, it’s going on in the back of my brain, but the key is can I still save the game?; It may take a lot more time now and patience, but, in chess, you know it’s never over until you turn that piece down on the board.; The love of comedy that I have is that there are a lot of things happening moment to moment, and it’ll never change.; You’ll never get past that.; That’s the whole entire scenario – just living moment to moment with a crowd.

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Let’s talk about taking this maybe to another level:; film or television.; I know you have Waiting… coming out soon.

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That comes out in September.; It’s a comedy with Ryan Reynolds and Anna Faris that I’m pretty stoked about.; I have a bunch of cameo scenes in there.; And we’re going to start shooting a pilot that I wrote with this guy Jay Kogen, who works on Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons.; He’s just a really amazing, funny guy who came, saw my act, and was like, “I want to do a show with you” – with Sony, who I did a pilot with last year.; We all sat down, we came up with an idea based on my stand-up, which is in the vein of a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, these one-camera style shows.; Hopefully, with any luck, we’ll get that on the air, and I can expose more people to my style of comedy.

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It’s interesting how the whole pilot thing works for comics.; I know Dave Chappelle had pilots in development every year.; It seems like that could get really frustrating.

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Sure.; There’s so many opportunities to fail out here.; You just have to live at the Blackjack table, as I say.; When you play Blackjack, you’re never comfortable at the table.; Even when you’re winning, there’s that moment when you know, “If I don’t stop right now, this could start backpedaling and get ugly”.; It’s a weird thing being out here, and it’s why I keep my stand-up close.; It’s the one of the few things that can’t say no to me.; That can’t be taken away from me.; Guys like Chappelle were told “No” for years, and, even though it’s exciting to see his success, you knew that, throughout it all, he had stand-up.; That’s a blessing right there.

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Well, when he came back from his hiatus, or whatever it was, the first place he went was on stage.; Even when you get successful:; Jerry Seinfeld, who was like the biggest guy on the planet, he had to go back to the stage.

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Absolutely.; Even Robin Williams is back up.; I’ve been doing shows with him at The Laugh Factory, and this guy has Oscars.; He knows there’s nothing like thinking something… and I do this all the time.; I’ll think up something in my car or in the shower, and I’ll make a mental note:; “I’ve got to do that tonight”.; Whatever I think of that day, I do that night.; That’s the way I “write” in order to not forget what I want to do.;

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I had a computer guy come over to my house recently, and, as he was trying to explain to me what was wrong with my computer, he realized I wasn’t really a computer expert.; So, he started talking to me as my computer.; He started giving my computer’s components character voices to explain, like I was a two year-old.; He’s be like, “So, basically, you’ve got the router, who’s like (high pitched voice), ‘Hey, listen, I’ve got a lot of information, and I’m trying to send everything…’”.; He started doing this, and I’m laughing inside going, “This is something everybody has seen.; That should be part of my show.”; So, I’ve been working it, trying to get it up there and kick it around. ;

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I’ve got to ask:; on the IMDB, I saw that you once played Roman Polanski.; Did you go all method to research that?

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The film was called Windy City Heat, and it was basically an improvised comic movie.; It such a convoluted story; I was playing a guy named “Roman Polanski”, but I was a casting director, and I wasn’t the real Roman Polanski.; So, we’re messing with this guy in the film who doesn’t know he’s in a movie – it’s almost like a huge Punk’d.; He comes in to read for me, and he probably thinks he’s going to meet the real Roman Polanski, and I’m like, “Oh, no, I just have the same name.”; But it’s called Windy City Heat, and it’s probably one of the craziest movies ever put together.

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The three-disc Retaliation (two CDs and one DVD) is in stores now, and well worth picking up.; You can also keep tabs on when Dane might be playing the Chuckle Hut in your neck of the woods at his official site.

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