If the funniest man in America can’t make you laugh, he’ll show you his balls. That’s right, his testicles. He’ll let them dangle and jiggle and if the sheer sight of them doesn’t get to you, then he’ll start bounding up and down and running all around until those balls are doing something that looks like a cross between the funky chicken and a pile of caviar frying in an electric chair. He’ll do this because making people laugh is what he does and because if he can’t get you to laugh telling his new jokes then maybe he’ll try his old jokes and if the old jokes don’t work then he’ll take it as a personal affront of sorts and then he’s liable to do anything and anything means he just might show you his balls.
“If nothing works, then it’s balls,” he says. “Everybody laughs at balls. If it’s between balls and failure, then I’m going with balls.”
His name is Dane Cook and there’s a decent chance you haven’t heard of him, nor seen his balls. This despite the fact that the funniest man in America has been a professional comic for 15 years and routinely plays sold-out shows to audiences that number in the tens of thousands and that a few weeks ago his second album, Retaliation, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, which is the highest a comedy album has charted since a guy named Steve Martin released A Wild and Crazy Guy 26 years ago. And even if you forget all about the big numbers and just consider that when he’s not touring or not appearing on television or doing funny whatever wherever, then he’s onstage at the Laugh Factory, right here in Hollywood, some six nights a week, including his permanent rotation on both weekend nights. And still, because comedians are the most anonymous of entertainers unless they have their own TV show, you might have missed him.
So here are the facts. He is 33 years old and perhaps 5-foot-11 and from Boston. He likes the Red Sox. He likes to wear T-shirts and jeans and leather jackets. His hair is spiky and black and messy in the way that people’s hair gets spiky and messy when coated with the kind of hair product that makes talent agents look like guys trying to play talent agents on TV. Dane Cook can pull off the hair just like he can pull off showing his balls at the Laugh Factory or biting a complete stranger’s arm despite the fact that the complete stranger was the rapper Nelly and Cook bit his arm while declaring his everlasting love for Katie Holmes during an off-his-rocker Tom Cruise imitation done live on Jimmy Kimmel’s show — are you really going to argue with this guy about his hair?
His earliest inspiration came from childhood. The family would sit down to watch Johnny Carson and he would sit down to watch his family watch Johnny Carson. “I was too young to get most of the jokes, but there was something about this man that you loved. That’s when it clicked, that’s when I decided I wanted to be the guy who made people laugh at night. I didn’t have the easiest life growing up, but when we could all be together and laugh at Johnny Carson — that was something. I wanted to give that to other people. That was the beginning.”
From that point on he drew on every comic he could find, old, young, dead, living, whatever. If there was a guy cracking people up at the soup kitchen, Cook would seek him out. “I wanted to learn every trick in the book so that you could never say Dane Cook is this kind of comic,” he says.
This makes his comedy a bit hard to describe. It’s partially stoner humor and partially working-man’s humor and both at a very high level. It’s incredibly physical and incredibly cerebral, but not manic like Jim Carey or brainy like Stephen Wright. Some comics like to be comfortable; Cook likes to plumb the edge. He likes hostile audiences. He’s played a lot of rooms where his was the only white face and nobody was all that happy to see it.
“For years, I did it every Sunday in New York City. It was like go on heckle me for four or five minutes. I’ll take it. Bring it at me, but if you shut up for a second I’ll use one of my standard opening lines: ‘I’m not gonna lie to you, it is great being white. And I love it. You know, there’s a lot of perks. I wake up every morning with a huge bag of cash. I don’t know if you know that we get that. It’s just congrats on being white — and I love that. Sometimes I get credit cards. Being white is just — oh God, I’m glad I’m not black. Jesus, I’m glad.’”
Unlike many comics who labor over jokes, Cook tries to spend less than a day between the time he comes up with an idea and the time he tests that idea on stage. He adds new stuff every night, goes on tangents, takes left turns, rarely losing his audience, always getting them back again. He likes to see what plays and he likes to get himself in and out of trouble. There’s no standard patter, no real pattern.
“There’s stuff that I still bring up that’s been around for 10 years, but I guess the best way to explain it is that my strength early on was thinking of segues on the fly. That’s my best tool. I can take you from the Beverly Center to being in bed with a girl and somehow you don’t even see a change. So given that and being so spontaneous, my feeling is if a joke’s meant to be a part of the show, I’ll think it. I’ll feel it from this crowd. When I see a band, I want to feel like the show is for me. I don’t want to feel a set list. I try to bring that to comedy. I want you to feel like the show is for you. Does it always work perfectly... nah, but when it does, it’s the best feeling ever.”