Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dane! Dane! Dane! Dane! Pain.

Stand-up comedians spend their entire lives navigating their version of “making it”: auditions, rehearsals, open calls, rejection, odd time slots, hirings, firings, applause, boos, glory, and failure. Above all, fidelity to the joke is the comic’s most diligent pursuit, and whether alone in front of the mirror or on Comedy Central, a comedian lives and dies with punch lines. They transmogrify our listless reality into irony and satire, and while elements like delivery certainly count for a lot, substantial material counts for a lot more.

Throughout the years, stand-up comics have developed a give-and-take with audiences that is essential to making comedy function properly. Just like a crowd wouldn't applaud a musician simply for holding an instrument, so too it wouldn't (or shouldn't) cheer a comic merely for setting up a joke. A joke must have direction, purpose, and a climax—the punch line. No audience should be illogically obsequious; make the comic earn it.

Herein lies the Dane Cook Dilemma—for short, the DCD. Cook is a fine comedian, if a bit over-extroverted, and his is a problem that must be an anomaly in the comedy universe: he is too well-received. In an HBO special taped in his hometown of Boston, Cook’s crowd clapped at everything he did. They clapped when he set up a joke, and they roared when he snorted. He asked a rhetorical question, something like, “And you know how much glitter sticks, right?” and they rained down applause.

When Cook wove his way to a punchline, he delivered the money shot, put down the microphone, and marauded around the stage, reveling in an elongated, enthralled standing applause. His face beaming with egocentrism, he absorbed the reception unashamedly and without pause. He less resembled a comedian than he did a triumphant porn star, surveying the seminal damage he’d inflicted.

The DCD, then, is that the audience, for all its enthusiasm, detracts from the comic experience. Try watching a Dane Cook special and thinking any differently—it’s difficult to appreciate Cook’s material when you’re fantasizing about subjecting his audience to a mass castration (girls and guys included). The sickening chants of “Dane! Dane! Dane! Dane!” that precede his appearance on stage kill any organic excitement I’d harbored for the show. It would be difficult to convince Cook of this, since his career is virtually unparalleled in the annals of comedy. Sure, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock are legitimate celebrities, but Cook’s combination of youth, energy, and media attention have made him the first comic rock star. Not even Dave Chappelle has the same cachet—Cook does stadium tours, dresses like a pop star, and spikes his hair like that dude who played Angel on the WB. (Actually, the two of them look eerily similar. Are we sure Angel never did comedy?)

The DCD will never be solved, at least not while he is vastly popular and at the peak of his powers. Despite my issues with him, he’d be an idiot to change anything, and while somehow taming his audience would serve the greater comedic good, it would diminish his teenybopper appeal. The first rule of business is to never alienate your core demographic, yet that’s precisely what he must do to restore his hardcore legitimacy.

The vicious circle continues.

Stay Sycophantic, Dane Cook’s Audience

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