This is a long one. Newcomers may want to step back and read this post, on an ever-developing approach to comic criticism.
I don’t know anything of Dane Cook the person, but Dane Cook’s persona on stage is easy enough to read. “So this girl and I were having sex,” he says at one point in his act. Then: “I was pretty good.” The emphasis here is on good, not pretty, and thus we’re made to understand: he’s a lothario. Cook acts the part of a man who through the force of his fame and lifestyle (and, I need to assume, his looks/game) beds beautiful women who are grateful for the experience. He is for the male libido what Derek Jeter is for athleticism or Bear Gryllis is for high adventure.
In other words, he’s a hero. Or, if this makes you uncomfortable, an alpha (a term with which I’m uncomfortable). Whether he’s an attractive hero or a repellant one depends far more on the beholder than on the beheld.
There’s a problem here, though, in that Cook doesn’t just get on stage and tell stories about fucking. Steve-O, the short and buzzcut one from MTV’s Jackass who was billed as last Friday’s “special guest”, did this as his act and was way less entertaining than Cook was, despite having a near-equal level of fame and recognition. So Cook is not just a lothario, he’s a jokester. He appeals to both the male libido and the strong male desire—as demonstrated recently in a study commissioned by Comedy Central—to be perceived by others as funny.
This creates yet another problem, one best illustrated in Apatow’s Funny People, where Adam Sandler’s character (like Sandler himself) is not traditionally good-looking, or even fit, and yet claims he can sleep with any woman he wants any night he wants because of the fact that he’s famous and funny. We happily allow this. We like ugly comics who get laid because their comedy’s good. As one comic said to me the other day, there are evolutionary issues of sexual selection at play here. If you cannot woo a member of the opposite sex from your looks, woo that person with your sense of humor. The majority of us, who are TV ugly, learn from comics that we have other tactics to fall back on.
Cook has humor and looks. His biceps and triceps are swelled and toned. Facial symmetry? In spades. What I’m getting at here is that what might explain the revulsion much of America has for Dane Cook (search him on Twitter right now if you need a refresher) is based on the fact that he’s good looking enough not to need humor to bed women. I’m not saying that to hate Dane Cook to be jealous of Dane Cook (though certainly Cook himself likes to present this as the central source of his haters’ hate), but rather to suggest that hating him is a reaction against a perceived fraudulence or redundancy to his humor, so much of which is frustratingly about his successes in bedding women or bending them to his will.
This also might explain the amount of vitriol his misogyny attracts compared to other frequently misogynistic comics. Here’s a steady bit from last night’s show:
I remember I got a girl in some trouble. I was in high school. We were just a couple of kids, and we weren’t being smart. We weren’t practicing safe sexual activity. In fact, most guys—I’m sure guys know this. Like when we’re younger we don’t use condoms. We use something that we call the Pull and Pray method. Right? That’s when you’re going [mimes sex-thrusts] and you feel it. You get a little tingly, and then you pull [stops mime], and then, you know, you do [mimes a jerkoff] all over the belly. I wasn’t even doing that. I was doing my own technique that I was calling the Push and Pray method. I was just trying to go past all the important stuff and bust it right into your heart.
Anyway, I remember this girl called me up and she was like, “We need to have a conversation,” and I was like “Oh, god.” I knew the second she called and in that moment I just felt like my future and everything died. I was like, “WHAT, WHAT IS IT?!” And she was like, “Can we talk tonight? I’m in trouble.” I remember she said that. And I was like, “With the Mafia?” I was hoping that was it. She said, “I’m pregnant.” I’ll never forget that. Oh, my god. Just in that moment it just really hit me. And that I got really mature and some kind of thing came over me. I was like “Okay, all right. We’re going to handle this the best way that I know how.” And she was like “What should we do? What’s the plan?” And I said, “We need to talk tonight. Right away.” And she was like, “Okay. Where and what time? What do you want to do?” And I said, “Why don’t you meet me at the top of this flight of stairs at eight?”
Cook did this same material at the Laugh Factory in January and bombed, and comics and Tweeters in the audience got very vocally angry. Last night it killed. There wasn’t a single boo. There was one heckler, but he only vocally entered this role after Cook called him out for looking grumpy and unamused.
This can mean anything: that in January Cook had a bad night, say, a bad room. Or that in January the material was new and Cook hadn’t found a way to make it funny yet, whereas Friday night he found a structure and deployed the necessary timing to get the laughs he intended. Or that in January, and today, and forever, Cook is a misogynist who hates women.
My overall point here is that this last claim is an invalid (and perhaps even unfair) assessment of Dane Cook’s comedy, in that we tread dangerous ground when we equate a comic with his persona on stage, just as we do when we conflate an author with his or her narrator.
We also allow (if not enjoy) misogyny in plenty of other comics. I feel safe in assuming that every night in America an aggressive male comic calls a woman—either as character in a bit or a member of his audience—a cunt. Lenny Bruce told women in his act he was going to piss on them, and the whole audience ate it up. Louis CK has had all kinds of things to say about Sarah Palin’s cunt, and everyone in the universe other than Greta Van Susteren rushed to his defense. Misogyny, then, like Jerry Sandusky, isn’t something that when joked about makes a comic disgusting. Why, then, the disgust directed at Cook?
It goes back to the ease with which we conflate the man himself with the man on stage, the encouragement we’re perhaps given to do so. Cook’s physical image is too slick, and—more importantly—too similar (despite the fact that the guy turned 40 in March) to a certain brand of repellant young man. In other words, he looks the part he plays. Was Cook wearing a ballcap last night? Absolutely. Was it on backward? Yes.
This is one problem with his act. The other is that, regardless of whether you’re looking at Dane Cook or “Dane Cook”, his comedy so often succeeds to the detriment of women. I find it a shame that he can and does go to misogynistic material to get laughs, but mostly because I worry about its overall effect on his audience—which is, on the whole, younger than I am. But it’s a bad habit to start making presumptions about the abilities of younger people to discern between jokes and reality, just as it is to make presumptions about their abilities to discern between video-game violence and actual human violence.
What makes comedy so hard to write about, particularly when one works and was bred in academic environments, is that the above bit is solid material. Inviting a woman to the top of a staircase so as to push her down the steps hard enough for her to miscarry her developing fetus is as much a groundwork for comedy as are airplane food or road-crossing chickens. Ditto stabbing your gay son to death. Ditto the Fresh Prince dancing on the imploding World Trade Center. If you don’t believe me, here are two things the untouchable Louis CK has said:
- “A great thing about comedy is taking people to places [where] they have fear and foreboding and making them laugh in that place. I think you help them.” – from the HBO special Talking Funny
- “He’s a good guy and not capable of maleficence.” – on Dane Cook, from an interview with Deadline Hollywood
- At one point Friday night, Cook asked his grumpy heckler why the kid hated him so much. “Because his girlfriend wants to fuck you,” offered another woman (!!!) in the audience, and it was like gasoline on a grillfire.↵