As anybody who watched Gallagher smash watermelons can tell you, comedy is a niche business. But lately a few niche comics, who in another life would have been confined to working auto shows, have become rich comics. This year's comedy concert box-office champ, with nearly $400,000 per city, is Larry the Cable Guy, the noted Southern philosopher. Whatever his charms, Larry will not be mistaken for Jerry Seinfeld or Bill Cosby. Exhibit B is Dane Cook, an aggressively unshaven, 34-year-old comic with hair styled like a yucca plant. Last year, Cook's second album, Retaliation, opened at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts—the biggest showing for a comedy album since Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy (1978). Last week, Cook hosted the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, where he had the opportunity to play Saddam Hussein; today he opens a new film, Employee of the Month, in which, as he has pointed out on his Web site, his name appears above the title.
A native of Boston, Cook is nonthreateningly handsome, with soft, feminine features and unexpressive brown eyes. Onstage, he keeps his lower body rigid, squatting on his haunches and striding stiffly across the stage, while his torso remains loose and willowy. If you listen to his albums—Retaliation and his debut CD, Harmful If Swallowed (2003)—you'll hear a man who sounds very much like a small boy regaling stories to his friends. Cook's repertoire includes self-generated sound effects like primate shrieks; tales of pre-adolescent terror, like glimpsing your father's genitals; and pure nerd fantasies, like being abducted by a UFO. The audience, a mixture of men and women, shrieks with self-congratulatory delight.
Cook is what is often called an "observational comic"—someone who points out the absurdities of modern life and heightens them to comic effect. In his case, all the observations concern the plight of twentysomethings. In describing fights he has with women, for example, Cook will call them "mental terrorists" and "brain ninjas" who are unwilling to lose. Then he'll strike the pose of the aggrieved female—legs locked, head turned to the left—and in a singsongy voice begin to recreate the woman's rant. In another bit, Cook describes the difference between crying in front of your mother and your father. For Cook (again posing and doing cartoonish voices), Mom is all warmth and assurance, while Dad is reminding you of his experiences in Korea.
Perhaps because of his album covers, which feature Cook looking smug and cocksure, he has been incorrectly labeled a "frat boy" comedian. But frat boys, at least the ones I have had the pleasure of knowing, do not practice observational comedy. They tend more toward the savage put-down and the menacing attitude regarding friendship and sexuality. (Think David Spade or maybe Vince Vaughn.) If we're to stick with collegiate metaphors, Cook is more like the harmlessly affected guy who lives in the dorm room next door, the one obsessed with UFO abduction, killer-bee attacks, sexual humiliation, clubbing, hot chicks, and the other predilections of youth. (He's like the guy who's always trying to show you something he found on the Internet.) Cook's jokes often begin with "this is what everybody does when …"; he's a generalizer rather than an advocate of a particular (or particularly crude) worldview.
What explains Cook's rise? Partly it's his relentless salesmanship. In 2002, he spent more than $25,000 to erect an eponymous Web site full of interactive features, including regular "Danecasts." His shaggy legions grew, and now his MySpace page has tallied more than 1.5 million "friends." ("yo Dane, it's Red... i know you've been pissed bout people callin ur phone and stuff, but if you get a call from a 420 number you should pick up. i'm cool man, no BS or anything.") Instead of affecting an air of detachment like some comedians (or even outright disdain for the audience), Cook is legendary for being a mensch: signing endless autographs at shows and returning his fans' e-mail. Other comedians "went out and partied when the show was over; I went home and updated my Web site and e-mailed people," Cook boasted to the New York Times last year. "A lot of people thought I was wasting a lot of time and energy, but I saw results immediately."
There's an inherent problem with Cook's act, however: There's doesn't seem to be anything at stake. Not every comedian needs to be explicating a high-minded moral code (like, say, Bill Hicks) or a blessedly mundane one (like Jerry Seinfeld). But every great comic must use his act to create friction—some value must be rubbing up against another value. When Cook begins to crack wise, he seems merely to be describing the benign hang-ups of the college/post-college set rather than actually weighing in on them. In Retaliation, for example, Cook confesses that he desperately wants to own a pet monkey. He would give the monkey a sword and dress him in a suit of armor, he says. "How pumped would you be driving home from work knowing that some place in your house that there's a monkey you would battle?"
Give Cook points for giving voice to the secret dream of 22-year-olds across the land. (It's like Dane knows me and my friends!) But once you've passed the age where you're charmed by the comedy of recognition, you realize that Cook doesn't add very much value. There's no philosophy underlying the joke, even a goofy dorm-room philosophy. So, why do we want monkeys, exactly? Why not some equally exotic creature? Is this why we constantly fail with girls? Dude, hello?
As someone who styles himself as a voice of a generation (he likes to speak in the first-person plural), there's little sense that Cook sees himself operating in opposition to anything or anyone. (He hates topical humor and doesn't mention current events.) And even if we accept Cook as a chronicler of post-adolescent males, Cook often misses the mark. It's true, as Cook jokes, that at the end of every movie trailer we must weigh in on whether we think the movie will be any good or not. Cook also says that whenever another car cuts us off on the road, we always say, "Um, hello…" We do?
Cook is an undangerous comedian posing as a dangerous one. In fact, the only time he betrays angst, generational or otherwise, is a semigrammatical mission statement he printed on his Web site. "I will make it with pride and without being a f****** asshole or a side stepping cheating douche bag," Cook wrote. "I won't take cheap shots at others that have earned more than me and I won't judge those with less. Who gives a fruit flies balls about what anyone else is saying about my path and me. I'm on it and you know this is leading me somewhere that's why you nip at my heels."
Spoken like a true comedian! Sadly, Cook's act bulges only with self-satisfaction. The secret of Dane Cook's outsized success is that he's not really a niche comedian at all. He's a comedian your mother could love.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.