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Dane Cook, pain-free comedian

Ever wonder what would happen if comedy lost its angst? Just take a look at its new smiley face.

September 03, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

COMEDIANS aren't supposed to be happy, just the opposite, but Dane Cook is the Disneyland of comics: He's the happiest, most uncomplicated place on Earth.

He's Seacrest-psyched, boy voted most likely. Cutest. Funniest. Coolest. For Cook, this is no ironic pose a la Andy Kaufman; it's a whole insufferable ethos, integral to the rise of his career. He's become huge by asserting that the comic mind does not come from alienation and restlessness but from adoration and social connection -- the comic as your instant-messaging best pal.

To watch his HBO special "Vicious Circle," which airs Monday night, is to be both disappointed in Cook for foisting his surface act on people with such energetic impunity and in audiences for drinking the stuff in as if it were vanguard.

You could also, for variety's sake, be disappointed in HBO for giving the wrong comedian the right kind of platform -- a 90-minute concert act recorded recently at the FleetCenter arena in Cook's native Boston, apparently in front of some 18,000 people.

To the question, "What happened to stand-up?" Cook might very well be the depressing answer: It put product in its hair, dumbed itself down and became as eager to please as a trainee at a TGI Friday's. And still it got itself a series, "Tourgasm," which ended its run on HBO last month.

"Tourgasm" was a conspicuously slight and infomercial-like ad to boost Cook's rabid popularity among college-age fans; the rest was filler, Cook and his three comedian underlings in various states of homoerotic, roughhousing repose.

Now HBO, as part of a multiplatform deal, presents Cook in a stand-up special. These were once upon a time the province of active minds and voices (Robert Klein, George Carlin, Roseanne, Chris Rock). But having long watched the brand slacken, HBO has now lent it to the boy most likely to help them succeed wooing younger subscribers.

It makes sense, business sense, anyway: Cook might very well be the next Rob Schneider, or Tom Green, or Ashton Kutcher, or some three-headed beast incorporating some of each. ("Employee of the Month," a comedy in which he costars with rumored girlfriend Jessica Simpson, opens next month. Others are on the assembly line.)

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An online connection, the payoff

COOK, then, is a comic-on-the-verge, but with the twist of the new -- he's huge among the kids who download his bits off iTunes and onto their cell-phones.

It was on the Internet that Cook, who'd been kicking around in clubs and TV series for years, launched himself anew, advertising his cute-boy looks and general availability for human-to-comedian contact.

Single White Comic Seeks Fan Base for Meaningful Relationship. Reportedly on a $25,000 gamble, Cook launched his own website, and his dogged use of the popular networking site MySpace (where he supposedly has over 1 million "friends") is seen as a model for building one's career, with the Improv chain signing up with MySpace this summer to offer their acts as chat friends.

"Treat the Web like your house," Cook advised comics in Wired magazine of the importance of Internet politicking. "When people knock, answer."

And yet there's something perverse about this. Comics, the best of them, are uniquely antisocial beings offstage, unreachable and idiosyncratic, the audience a kind of natural enemy to be won over with raw need and biting truth. Even multimillionaire Jerry Seinfeld refused to cash in on his popularity post-"Seinfeld," instead forcing himself as an artist to win over audiences through the crafting of a new act, as chronicled in his documentary "Comedian."

But Seinfeld is of the generation raised on Lenny Bruce and Klein. Cook, it seems, is looking to take the audience to lunch.

"There's so many things that I want to let you guys into my world about," is the ungrammatical sentence with which Cook greets his fans at the FleetCenter.

They're screaming like he's Justin Timberlake, and maybe he is. For what is demoralizing is the swagger in the face of such vanilla material, the total absence -- like Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch -- of self-loathing.

In Cook's act there is no war, no class divide, no crime, no fear, no news, no world. There is only solicitation, the "so many things that I want to let you guys into my world about."

"I'll say this, man," goes one set-up, "the thing I love, even more than the movie itself, I love -- we all love -- the previews.

"And I'll tell you why." Pause. "Because it doesn't matter what anybody here does for a living, whatever your occupation is, the reason you love the previews, it's because it's the one time, in all our lives, that we get to be a critic. Because you know as soon as that preview ends you're gonna turn to the person next to you, and you're gonna review that film."

At this point I experienced several strange feelings -- deja vu that I was back at the Improv and it was actually 1987 mixed with a sense that I'd misplaced the punch line. Fortunately, Cook proceeded to illustrate the joke he'd just taken too many words to say.

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