If you don’t follow podcasts or critically acclaimed basic-cable comedies, you might have missed one of the more remarkable pop-culture developments of the past year. It’s not quite on par with dogs and cats putting aside their differences and creating a new pet super-race, or Dr. Dre finally putting out the perhaps-best-left-unreleased Detox. But it’s close. Thanks to some assistance from two unlikely sources, Dane Cook has evolved from being the living embodiment of detestable mediocrity in comedy into something resembling a sympathetic, even likeable figure.
There’s a decent chance you thought that already. You might even be a Dane Cook fan; the guy does have millions of them, judging by his album sales and the arenas he packs throughout the country, though I’ve never met a single one. But in the kingdom of comedy nerddom—a small territory with outsized influence, where strangeness-for-strangeness’ sake and deep, dark psychological dysfunction are guiding principles—Dane Cook has long resided somewhere between “children’s birthday-party magician” and “rodeo clown” on the coolness scale. But that changed at least a little in the wake of Cook’s June 2010 appearance on Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast, and on Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie last week.
In both cases, Cook stood toe-to-toe with respected “comic’s comics” and responded to old charges that he’s a joke-stealer specifically, and an all-around d-bag generally. On Maron’s show, he talked candidly about feeling out-of-step with his fellow comedians practically from the beginning of his career as a sober, relatively well-adjusted, and preternaturally upbeat person. He admitted to being standoffish with many of his peers early on (including Maron), but only because he felt shy and uncomfortable around them. (Which, given Maron’s intensity, is understandable.) But he also (rightly) pointed out that Maron isn’t really in a position to understand him, as he’s achieved a level of fame as a stand-up that’s known only to the Steve Martins and Chris Rocks of the world.
Most importantly, Cook strongly denied stealing jokes (including three bits from C.K.), making a convincing case for his record of developing his own material over the course of nearly 20 years in the business, which—no matter your opinion of that material—seems irrefutable.
Speaking as someone who went into the podcast loving Marc Maron and despising Dane Cook, I was surprised by my own sympathy for Cook whenever Maron’s questioning occasionally came off as patronizing or even insulting. (A bit where Maron mocks Cook for accusing another comedian of stealing his “essence” goes on way too long, given Cook’s affable demeanor and reasonable-ish explanation.) By the end, I actually found myself liking this guy.
How could this happen? It’s not like Cook was suddenly funnier—he just became a lot easier to empathize with. Cook’s awareness of how people perceive him and his willingness to address it with a fair amount of eloquence and more than a little wounded sensitivity worked like hate-disinfectant on me. Cook was still the same, somewhat hacky, bro-friendly comedian, but the feelings his comedy and persona used to fill me with had been eradicated.
On Louie, Cook played a version of “Dane Cook” pretty much identical to the Dane Cook on Maron’s podcast. In the episode, C.K. comes to Cook for help getting his daughter Lady Gaga tickets, because Gaga and Cook share a promoter, and Cook knows Gaga personally. (According to Louie, anyway, though that totally could be true in real life.) Stunned that C.K. would have the nerve to ask for a personal favor after leaving him twisting in the wind for years as an accused plagiarist, Cook unloads, taking out all the pent-up frustration and resentment that’s built up over being called the “sellout” while C.K. was the “good guy,” standing up for artistic integrity. “You’re full of shit,” says a fuming Cook, as a stunned C.K. affects a “deer-in-the-headlights” look.
Whether you agree with Cook or not—and I’m treating this scene as a real event and not as a work of fiction—this much can’t be denied: When it comes to recovering lost credibility in pop culture, nothing beats that kind of self-awareness. It’s the closest thing to a magic bullet, or in Cook’s case, a “get out of jail” card. (If anybody can claim to have his reputation locked up in pop-culture prison for the last several years, it’s Cook.) When you’re publicly self-aware, you’re essentially saying, “I’m a human being, not just a person on television or a photo in a magazine. I can hear what people are saying about me, and I’m trying to have some perspective on it.” It’s very difficult to continue to say mean things about a person like that.
Most acts of self-awareness involve celebrities that have fallen into punchline status, where making fun of yourself is the only option left. Perhaps the most successful example of this is Neil Patrick Harris playing himself as a drug-crazed party monster in search of “fur burgers” in 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Harris was basically a walking Doogie Howser joke at the time of Harold & Kumar, which predates both How I Met Your Mother and his current status as a universally adored awards-show host. The movie plays this up while giving Harris all the funniest lines and radically remaking his image in the process.
The most celebrated act of self-awareness thus far in 2011 has to be Michael Bolton’s appearance in The Lonely Island’s “Jack Sparrow.” Similar to Harris’ cameo in Harold And Kumar, the idea of Michael Bolton appearing in a Lonely Island song is the joke of “Jack Sparrow” for about 10 seconds. After that, the Lonely Island gets laughs by exaggerating Bolton’s image as a romantic cheeseball in unexpected ways. (Like putting him in Erin Brockovich’s dress, to name but one example.) Bolton is the source of nearly all the laughs on “Jack Sparrow,” but it’s surprising how few of them come at his expense. He actually gets to be funniest guy in the room, belting lines like “this whole town’s a pussy, just waiting to get fucked” with the same gusto he once used to mangle Percy Sledge songs.
Both Harris and Bolton must’ve known that they were being used to some degree as comedic props, and yet they were canny enough to use it to their advantage. What’s different about Cook’s appearance on Louie is that it’s not really played for laughs. Aside from C.K.’s crack about Cook referring to his best year as a comic as “2000 and six” (“it’s like saying the year 2000, and by the way the number six”) and Cook calling out C.K. for thinking he’s the only man in America with an itchy asshole, the scene feels more or less like a straight-up summit between two enemy combatants trying to put an end to a battle that’s gone on for too long.
“You let your name be used to hurt me,” Cook says during the scene’s rawest moment. “How shitty do you feel right now?” Plenty shitty, though C.K. doesn’t totally back down from his belief that Cook (perhaps unknowingly) heard his jokes and absorbed them into his act. “I don’t think you meant to do it, but I don’t think you stopped yourself, either,” he says. Not that it really matters, because by bringing him on his show, C.K. was already letting Cook off the hook. This episode of Louie only works if you forgive Cook (or at least understand him little better) by the end. When Cook says, with a faint smirk, “Maybe if you felt bad publicly, on the Internet, we could put this behind us,” the truth is that C.K. actually did Cook one better, and put it on national television.
But where C.K. threw Cook a lifeline, he also subtly underscored how Cook doesn’t really need it by setting the scene backstage at Madison Square Garden, where Cook is set to perform. C.K. and Maron might’ve helped Cook’s image, but they didn’t rehab his career, because his career doesn’t need rehabbing.
It reminds me of another self-aware TV cameo from earlier this year, when Aaron Sorkin appeared on an episode of 30 Rock. Sorkin didn’t have to go on 30 Rock and have Tina Fey remind him of his failed SNL-inspired drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip any more than Cook needed to go on Louie or WTF; Sorkin has his Social Network Oscar in the bank as surely as Cook has his millions of followers online. This had more to do with settling an old score with a small but vocal audience of detractors. Yes, Studio 60 crashed and burned while 30 Rock lived on, but Sorkin was out to prove that he was no longer singed.
“So, it’s really that bad out there? I mean, you’re Aaron Sorkin,” Fey’s Liz Lemon asks Sorkin at one point. At the moment, no, but he knows we’re talking about him and he wants to laugh with us, until we stop laughing.