Every success story has its detractors, and comedian Dane Cook is no exception.
For those of us old enough to remember when MySpace was the only social media network of note, Cook created a template of fan engagement that other entertainers have attempted to replicate. He fostered a list of friends numbering in the millions to appeal to his massive college-aged collection of followers.
Cook then successfully converted those followers into paying audience members, racking up No. 1 albums and ticket sales that rivaled those of the biggest music acts on the road at the time, a feat unheard of (and maybe even unimagined) at the time.
For all of that success, Cook has found himself on the outside looking in, when it comes to his position within the alt-comedy scene. From the outset, the comedian’s act was panned by his contemporaries, with many finding some of Cook’s material a little too familiar to his Boston-based peers. Even when the accusations of plagiarism didn’t stick, the comedian’s onstage persona — think “funny frat bro” — didn’t always connect.
Cook will bring his “Tell It Like It is” tour to the Durham Performing Arts Center April 26 and the Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte April 27.
He spoke to The News & Observer during a rare break from the road to discuss his move from arena stages to theaters; performing for millennials; and the evolution of new material onstage.
Q: After being synonymous with sold-out arena tours for the better part of this century, you’re playing theaters and performing arts centers this time out. What was behind the decision to book smaller venues for this tour?
A: For me it’s all the same. I never thought of myself as only an arena comic, you know, I played literally in every state and pretty much any venue of any size. Sadly, it’s not the most dynamic answer — “a show is a show” — but it’s the creation of art. That art is taking something that I know is funny because I’ve crafted it, but can I be real with it? It’s not just a joke or routine for me, and it’s not just a venue, it’s a conversation.
It’s a chance to create something as an artist that provokes laughter, and has me walk off the stage knowing that I made something that I probably will never make again in that exact same way. It’s the equivalent of when you buy a plant and you put it in a little pot, it grows a couple of feet maybe, but if you put a little plant in a bathtub it will grow to the ceiling. I always looked at myself as a person that could play big or small venues, if and only if I could connect with people, so that’s been really my journey. It’s fantastic, especially for the kind of material that I’ve metamorphosized into over 29 years of comedy. It’s the right fit for right now.
My whole mentality, since I was a kid, was to be like the Rolling Stones of comedy. The Rolling Stones will play a little shack around the corner, a little 200-seat theater, then go and play [London’s] 02 Arena. It’s not about the venue as much as it is about how you can create something different and unique in said venue.
Q: A host of older comedians, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock among them, have said it is difficult to perform standup comedy for younger generations, as they take offense to material that wouldn’t have even received a raised eyebrow a decade ago. Have you received pushback on any of your older material?
A: Good for me that I got into a system where I don’t have to recalibrate something that’s passe, to make it more contemporary and digestible. I couldn’t do that, and I don’t do that. I grew up as a human, I evolved as a man, and my act is going to reflect all those different aspects.
I started to really break through in my late 20s, so I was basically a college kid; I could hang with college kids, and we were in the same kind of head space. Of course, there was a generation ahead of me that put me to task and didn’t necessarily like my brand or style. What I learned over time was that you can go all the way back to “I Love Lucy,” where they wanted to tackle pregnancy — something really edgy for that time, because they weren’t even allowed to say pregnant on television at that time — and they would have to say “with child” or something, because generationally they thought they would ruffle the feathers of [older fans].
What eventually happens is that we all grow up and realize, OK, we can talk about quote-unquote tough subject matter. [Millennials] are going through some of the same strife in their evolution as I did, just in a new way; they’re reacting to social media posts, ideas that they put out there and suddenly everybody has some some kind of opinion, and want to opine on that.
I wouldn’t say that I agree that it’s harder to perform for millennials. I don’t know what maybe motivated those guys to say those things. Chris Rock’s [standup material] is so caustic, but at the same time so prolific; it might shake you up a little bit, but only to get to a deeper meaning, so maybe he finds it a little bit harder to find that connection. I just know that I’ve got 15-year-old kids I see at shows during this year’s tour with their parents, and the parents saw me when they were in college, and sometimes those parents who took their kid originally went with their parents to see me. So I’ve got three generations of people that are coming in, seemingly not having any problem with anything I’m delivering.
Q: With a new tour comes new material. Do you find yourself playing around with the new set while you’re performing, editing a little bit here and there?
A: Absolutely. In my formative years I did a lot of sketch comedy; for about four years I was in a sketch and improv group, so I learned the value of being present on stage with a solid performance piece, coupled with the excitement of something happening right now organically in front of you.
I always wanted to build my stand-up — and this is a little deep — like there’s a sandbox, and in that sandbox there’s four quadrants that I can go to, four corners where I really know my laughs are at. I set it up like a sandbox so that I can hit you with the first corner, then I can just play a little, and I can sit in it. Maybe I’ll hear somebody yell something out from the crowd because they agree with it, and then suddenly I’m pulling that person in there, bringing what’s happening in their life into it.
I just want to be able to look at that same piece of material and know that — if you saw me five nights in a row — you could say that I said things some nights that I didn’t say others, and then one night that middle part got gigantic where I went off on a tangent. I just want to always be able to take new material and know that it could stand on its own, and know that I was able to maintain some kind of realness as opposed to just feeling like I’m only performing the material.
Q: One of the last films that you starred in was 2015’s “400 Days.” You’re also listed as an executive producer on that, and unless I’m mistaken, it’s one of the only films that you are listed as a producer on. Since that movie was almost 10 years removed from your first starring vehicles, was there something about those earlier film making experiences that made you want to have more of a hand in the decision-making off-camera?
A: It was absolutely a part of it. I hoped to evolve inside my brand, with the idea being that I want to be able to help other artists to get their ideas onto the screen, or broadcast their ideas in whatever format it could be. I started hanging and learning the producing ropes, probably all the way back to “My Best Friend’s Girl” [released in 2008], which I think that was the first movie I produced with Lionsgate. When “400 Days” came along, and they offered me an executive producer position I said, “I don’t want this to just be some fancy credit. I want to be a part of the casting process; I want to be able to see locations; I want to be able to tweak the script, to help evolve the material.” They were completely cool with that, so I ended up working with them.
It’s great to create and be in front of the camera, but there’s something about helping other actors and artists make their ideas come to fruition that’s different, but equally as interesting to me.
Who: Dane Cook
When: 8 p.m. April 26
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Info: DPACNC.com or 919-680-2787