The Rise And Fall Of Dane Cook
Close your eyes and imagine it’s 2006. You’re standing in line outside Madison Square Garden. Someone three spots ahead of you is playing Akon’s “Smack That” on their iDog. Your frat buddies behind you are endlessly quoting Talladega Nights back and forth to each other. One of them says, “If you don’t chew Big Red gum then f— you.” The rest erupt in laughter.
Suddenly the doors swing open to a collective gasp from the crowd and the building anticipation breaks into a full on rush to the seats. Twenty thousand people just like you are now clamoring to get into the arena to see the sold out show that everyone had been talking about on AIM for ages – Dane Cook.
Dane was the single most popular stand-up comedian of the late Myspace to early Facebook era by a wide margin. He played sold out stadium tours across the country. Two of his albums, Retaliation and Isolated Incident, cracked the top 5 on the Billboard 200. He starred in middling movies like Employee of the Month and Good Luck Chuck where he played the romantic lead opposite Jessica Simpson and Jessica Alba respectively. He onscreen dated both Jessicas!
Flash forward to 2022. His last special, Dane Cook: Troublemaker, was released eight years ago to a muted response. He hasn’t landed a lead role since his 2019 straight to DVD crime thriller American Exit. He has weird Instagram relationships with girls 28 years his junior. His meteoric rise was followed by a swift plummeting out of the public eye, which begs the question – what the heck happened to Dane Cook?
Dane began his stand-up career in the late 1990’s, first entering the scene in New York City before moving to Los Angeles where he remains to this day. In 1998, Comedy Central invited him to appear on Premium Blend which would later prove to be the first flake on the snowball that would roll into the giant, hulking, lumpy goliath that eventually flattened the comedy world.
His style was distinct – high energy, in-your-face, heavy on wordplay and light on subtlety. He joked about commercials, fast food, news stories, anything instantly connectable. Dane’s fast-paced frenetic energy attracted a younger audience – looking at his girlfriend, it still does – and he became one of the first comedians to amass a huge cult following on social media.
In 2002, Dane Cook spent a whopping $25,000 to build his interactive website, DaneCook.com. He created a MySpace page to connect directly with his small but devoted fan base which quickly ballooned to over 1.5 million friends as his web presence spread like an aggressive virus across the early internet. Dane was, arguably, the first comedian to hit massive mainstream fame by going viral online. He pioneered social media as a tool for tangible comedic success, which left those comedians slumming it on the traditional path of open mics and bringer shows deeply, deeply resentful.
Dane’s first album, Harmful if Swallowed, dropped in 2003. It would go on to be certified platinum, and his 2005 follow up Retaliation went double platinum and became the first comedy album since Steve Martin’s 1978 hit A Wild and Crazy Guy to hit top 5 on the Billboard Charts. College campuses across the country exploded with Dane Mania, prompting Dane to create the HBO documentary series Tourgasm, which chronicled his college tours along with his closest friends in the industry, Robert Kelly, Gary Gulman, and Jay Davis.
When asked about his engagement with late-teens-to-early-twenties fans, Dane said, "It's always been very important for me to do these college shows because let's face it, those high school and college years, those are the years that you pick up whatever music, whatever comedy, whatever those entertainment moments are in that part of your life, you hold on to those moments forever. Those four years of college, that will always be your music. That band you wanna listen to for the rest of your life because it's gonna remind you of that time. And I believe comedy works in the same way as music…I think you have a greater possibility of making a fan for life, because you're now part of the fabric of their life, of their years."
No one connected with young people the way Dane did. He updated his MySpace page constantly with pictures and posts from his tours. He passed out his AIM handle freely and invited fans to chat whenever he was online. He would spend up to three hours after every show signing autographs, taking pictures, shaking hands, and making personal connections. Campaigning. And his constituents loved him for it.
The rest of the comedy world, however, was not quite as enamored by the v-neck wearing yoked comedian who dominated the public sphere. His reputation and credibility came under public attacks from Joe Rogan who claimed that Cook had stolen material from both him and Louis CK – of course, it would ironically be Louis CK and Joe Rogan who would undergo the most dramatic shifts in public opinion for very different reasons.
Rogan and CK would later squash their beefs with Cook, but during the waning years of Dane’s dominance, it seemed like every comedian who’d ever had a Comedy Central spot was coming out of the woodwork to pile onto stand up’s biggest target. Said Jim Breuer about the situation, "Everyone kills this guy ... Not one comedian comes on and says 'I'm so happy for him', which is weird. ... They can't stand this poor guy." Journalists, critics, and commentators all joined in on the Dane Cook hate train, attacking his material, his bro-y persona, and his – uh – “Superfinger.”
Even MadTV turned on him, which is one of the gravest insults possible for a comedian in the aughts.
Starting in the 2010’s, Dane’s career began to fizzle out, with acting gigs coming fewer and far between. Allegedly, he missed out on playing Captain America. His tours slowed down. The days when he could sell out Madison Square Garden slid further and further into the rearview. Nowadays, he doesn’t do much besides vacation with his much younger girlfriend, sleep on a giant bed of cash, and post slightly alarming selfies on Instagram looking like a dried out, pre-scandal, movie star version of Harvey Weinstein.
Even DaneCook.com has fallen on hard times. The once bustling site now only shows three tour dates from 2021. The biggest comedian on MySpace has slid off the collective radar of the internet just like MySpace itself.
The question remains, how did we go from sell out stadiums to borderline irrelevance? There are plenty of theories, mostly revolving around the poor reception of his film career, the plagiarism accusations, and dwindling ticket sales of his live shows. Unfortunately for Dane, the college kids that once screamed his name in packed arenas grew up into indifferent adults with their Superfinger t-shirts collecting dust in the attic.
Dane Cook’s success wasn’t precisely due to his material, but his brand. He was on MySpace and AIM. He had a website back when most comedians were indifferent towards internet communities and web presence was a non-existent concept. He was hip. It wasn’t just Dane Cook the comedian that went double platinum, it was Dane Cook the marketer. He tapped into the potential of the internet and social media at a time when no other comedian could even fathom the possibility of growing a fanbase online.
But the timeless truth of human innovation is that as soon as one person proves something is possible, everyone who comes after them will tap into that well until it runs dry. Nowadays, every open-micer has a website, and Twitter is filled with wannabe comedian reply guys desperately trying to engage with whatever corner of the internet will have them. Dane changed the game, but the game moved past him.
Tune in next week when we ask the question, “What In The World Happened To Carlos Mencia?”
Top Image: Dane Cook / Comedy Central Records
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