There's a line around the block and even if you have a reservation or a ticket or the initials VIP stamped on your forehead, it's the end of the line for you, bub, at the Laugh Factory. Even so, special pleaders and winsome whiners and club regulars keep trying to cut to the front. Got to see Dane. Must have Dane. Need Dane. They're like comedy zombies.
That's stand-up comic Dane Cook, who just accomplished a rare feat: His new CD "Retaliation" debuted last week at the No. 4 spot on the Billboard Top 10 tally (right after Mariah Carey) -- the highest chart debut by a comedian since Steve Martin's "A Wild and Crazy Guy" popped in 1978, back when they had things called albums, children, which were vinyl platters the size of a medium pizza that your grandparents spun on "record players" using "needles."
Friday night's show sold out, and people who had driven from Arizona were turned away. The scout from Jimmy Kimmel had to cool his jets. So did the guy from The Washington Post. (Though we did note that Tobey Maguire was eventually squired in quietly to a nice table in the corner.) Finally, Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada swept through the scrum and gathered us under his wing, perched us on a pleasing bench back by the toilets, and started shuttling over the house red.
If you don't know who Dane Cook is, that's okay. "I've been traveling beneath the radar," Cook, 33, says later. He is a strapping, handsome man, with good teeth and a chummy manner. Fame will surely corrupt him. But for now, Masada, who has seen the best and worst comics of the last two generations pass through his club, says, "He has so much heart, you can feel it." Masada sighs.
Cook does jokes about smashing ice cream cones into the faces of children. ("We all want to leave behind a legacy.") Masada gets all gushy about Dane. "You just want to see him win." The club owner remembers one night when Lorne Michaels, the "Saturday Night Live" creator, executive producer and overlord, came in to test-drive a couple of other comics, and just as he and his entourage were standing to leave, Cook came on. "And it was, like, they just sat back down."
The emcee announces Cook and the audience rises to a standing O.
As any stand-up will tell you, this is the best kind of audience, primed to the gills, the two-drink minimum beginning to course through their bloodstreams, just begging for a good time. (The crowd? Fresh-faced twenty-somethings in pastel camisole/lowrider jeans/paycheck pumps and male dates with one, but not two, tattoos.)
Cook opens. "I talk to you tonight about advances in science." That would be the setup.
To deconstruct a joke, yes, it can kill it, but let's take a look under the hood.
"They can now take your newborn baby and take a microchip and put it in your kid, and if somebody takes your baby, you can do a Google search and find your kid." Beat. "Via satellite." "Online." He starts rushing, in a panic parent mode, around stage. "Where's James? Where's James?
"So you go to Mapquest and there's a beacon of your baby going down the 101." A long pause to let them laugh it out. "But here's where I am worried: What if you go online and there's no James?" This is the setup for the next bit, which plays off the obviously absurd, yet disturbing, yet funny image of a parent tracking on Google the stolen baby on a freeway (as opposed, say, to simply dialing 911 -- making the joke also one about society). "So I have an idea how to upgrade this entire scenario."
Audience momentarily ceases cocktail consumption. "Next to the microchip, you put a detonator." Big laugh, partly from nerves and also the rippling neurons firing in groupthink, whereby an audience asks -- in a microsecond -- can we laugh at this? Is it all right? Then, like a flock, the crowd unloads.
Cook then comes back, sly as a thief. "So if I can't have my kid, neither can you." Beat. "BOOM!" Then he ties it up, quick, so nobody feels too guilty about the toddler implosions. "So nobody will kidnap kids." He exhales. "It'll save lives."
The art, Cook says over a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a glass of water at Greenblatt's Deli next door, is to make it so the audience doesn't see the puppeteer. "You want to feel like you're just hanging out with them, telling stories on the porch." He says he never writes down a joke and never uses a set list of jokes, but threads his way through a routine, using well-oiled segues to keep the flow.
These skills are essential, he explains. But there is something else, and that something else is why Dane Cook thinks he debuted on Billboard at No. 4. "I once heard Redd Foxx say that if the audience likes you, if you're likable, everything is funny, and you can get away with anything, and that clicked."
So his secret is . . . likability?
Yup, Cook says. "Then you get away with the most vile material on the planet." (Cook's CD carries an "explicit lyrics" tag.)
The other reason he hit so big is probably the fact that Cook is huge on college campuses, where he built and nurtured his fan demographic in the 1990s, a base he feeds on his Web site and with constant tending, meeting audiences after shows, answering e-mails, riding the circuit. His first CD, "Harmful if Swallowed," sold 300,000 units. "Retaliation" (which is about the culture's love of violence) did 90,000 its first week.
In a review of "Retaliation" in Penn State's Daily Collegian, critic Mike Kulick explained the appeal: "Much of the humor that Cook dishes out appeals to the dirty-minded college crowd. His take on UFO abduction, the creepy guy at work, risque uses for a cashew and the idea of relieving himself on a pile of coats at a party would probably horrify many older audiences and could even make Howard Stern blush."
Cook's upbringing wasn't that weird: Grew up in Arlington, Mass., a suburb of Boston. Didn't go to college. Wanted to be a comic. Raised on Johnny Carson. His mom was a funny mom. His dad sold two-by-fours at a lumber store. Has five sisters, which is a subject of much of his earlier work, a nostalgic riff on childhood, about the weirdness of kid-teen life, that played well with college students remembering their own shifts working at the Burger King. Cook recalls that his first bit at a Cambridge Square club was about being raped by a snowman.
Young, struggling comic Dane lived in his family's basement until he moved to New York in 1995 to hit the clubs. He now lives three blocks from the Laugh Factory and has a dog and a gorgeous girlfriend, Raquel, who is in a band and waitresses at the comedy club. He also makes a lot of money, is developing a TV pilot and is about to go on tour.
Cook has done the David Letterman show four times. In one, he was in the greenroom backstage with Bill Cosby. He asked Cosby for advice. Cosby, he says, answered, "I don't know. But I do know the key to failure is trying to please everybody."
Dane Cook's fans printed up T-shirts with some of Cook's lines, which confirm that he is surely not pleasing everybody. One reads: "It makes me want to punch a baby."