Dane Cook: The Interview

In his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo wrote about the most photographed barn in America. Nobody ever truly saw the barn itself, DeLillo contended, because they had been pre-conditioned by the hype. All they could see was a representation, an idea -- they were looking at a phenomenon, at their idea of a phenomenon, not a barn.

Dane Cook is the comedic equivalent to DeLillo's meta-illusory barn. Chances are pretty good that you, valued Gimme Noise reader, clicked on this writeup because you already had a strong opinion of one stripe or another: Dane Cook is a standup powerhouse, or Dane Cook is a pox upon comedy. Neither his rabid fans nor his vehement detractors -- yes, reaction to Cook does seem to be that binary -- can see what's really in front of them. That makes writing about Cook seem particularly futile. How many sharply articulated insights would it take to pierce the caul of preconceptions? You'd be better off doing Tootsie Roll Pop calculus, it would seem.

The A-List writeup for Cook's upcoming show at the Target Center was already written, edited, and proofed when Cook's camp contacted the office asking if we wanted to speak with him. That's not particularly surprising. Cook is renowned for both his self-promotional savvy as well as his generosity with his time. So we took the call, doubtful we'd be able to untangle this particular pop-culture Gordian Knot in a 12-minute phoner.

Reports of Cook's friendliness and humility are not greatly exaggerated. Despite his cocky onstage persona, he comes off as an amiable, considerate guy. He spent a full third of the interview lavishing praise on his road crew, who he says are largely responsible for making his act work in 25,000-seat stadiums. Standup is perhaps the most intimate of all live performance styles. Boiled down to its essentials, it's one person speaking directly to another person, with no veneer of fiction or bulwark of artifice to separate the comic from the audience. To maintain that intimacy in such an overwhelming space as, say, the Target Center, requires incredible technical support, says Cook. And with his latest special, Isolated Incident, containing what he says is some of his most personal material to date, he needed top-notch producers and camera operators to make the quieter moments of the show work.

"My goal is to create a comedy event in the arena where I will be in the middle, instead of partitioning so that everybody feels like they're half a mile away from me," Cook says. "Here we are over halfway through a tour that has some of the quietest material, you could say, in terms of content and tone, emotionally, and I've never received such a great outpouring of emails saying 'This is my favorite, this is the best one yet,' or new fans saying 'I didn't think I would feel that connected, like I was on the other end of the room.' I gotta thank my crew for helping me connect with thousands of people every single night."

Cook -- or Cook's camp, or the Comedy Central promotional department -- is pitching Isolated Incident as show by a more mature comedian baring his insecurities and personal demons, returning to purer comedy through honest writing. But Cook insists that his redoubling his efforts at writing more incisive material isn't a response to critics who accuse him of lacking originality and substance.

"As a person and a performer, and doing standup 19 years, it was just meeting my evolution and growing up with a generation of comedy fans," Cook says. "Somebody said to me recently, 'How did you approach this standup as opposed to other specials?' This is the first special that really approached me. [It stemmed from] moments in my life that were very powerful moments and not to be avoided. As a performer you're trying to find, 'What can I absorb and turn into humorous anecdotes?' At the beginning I was just staring at this moment and seeing heaviness and pain. How can I wring the humor out of it? That was my goal."

The "moments" Cook is referring to include the death of both his parents; a feud with his half-brother and former manager, who was convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the comedian before being sentenced to jail; and a precipitous ascent to fame that transformed him into a polarizing figure.

But what does Cook think about his divisiveness? Does he ever worry that nobody is seeing his act for what it really is?

"It's a fair question," he says. "A few years ago when everything was going through the turnstile at the same time, there was no way to avoid these moments. I don't think it'll ever be as dark and difficult as it was becoming famous and losing my folks. That's rare air that I was dealing with. I've been through the spanking machine of Hollywood and come out the other end. The fans are what matter most, and they just want good comedy. I love comedy. It's my baby, and it's what I always wanted to do. You're catching me at a new beginning with that question. Due to the confidence I've earned with this special being accepted, I'm going to continue to find these real moments and continue to grow up with my fans."