RISE OF THE SuFi NATION
By Andrew Vontz
Ten minutes into Dane Cook’s headlining gig at the Laugh Factory, a heckler who keeps yelling, “Yo!” at the top of his lungs suddenly screams, “Tokens!” Cook puts his act on pause and stares the dude down. Silence falls over the boisterous crowd and the heckler shuts up, too. “You obviously want to talk, so what have you got to say?” The heckler, a chubby, drunkass college young guy with a buzz cut, squirms in his bench seat in the middle of the room for a beat then screams, “Tokens!” The lean, handsome Cook crosses his toned biceps across his tight black t-shirt and towers more than six feet above the stage in his motorcycle boots and distressed jeans scowling at the kid. “Listen, brother. If you continue to talk I’m going to kick this woman in the face,” he says nodding at a woman snapping digital pics in the front row.
The crowd erupts in laughter and Cook launches back into his trademark blend of word play, observational humor, physical comedy, elastic facial expressions, and outright silliness. “Here let me pretend I’m doing something really funny,” he says to the woman with the camera, pausing for her to take a photo. “Put it on MySpace.” She probably will—Cook has more than 294,000 friends on the site that he addresses regularly via IM and bulletin board posts. In the course of the next few minutes, Cook seamlessly segues from one-night stands to blogs to cheating to Tetris to a cyborg impersonation replete with robotic sound effects to a bit from his latest CD, Retaliation, where he compares a woman masturbating to a DJ scratching records.
After fifteen years of nonstop work as a standup comedian, the pause to deal his heckler a fatal blow might be the last moment of free time Cook, 32, will enjoy for a while. His second comedy album, the double CD and DVD Retaliation, debuted at number four on the Billboard chart. It’s the highest a comedy album has climbed since Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy hit number two more than a quarter of a century ago. With a reality show, comedy pilot, and film projects in the works, Cook will be busy dishing up yucks for the foreseeable future.
Cook’s first album sold more than 300,000 copies and the comedian has appeared numerous times on the David Letterman Show, the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Comedy Central, and Craig Kilborn. But he owes his success to the loyal fan base he built up Dave Matthews Band style during a decade of gigging at colleges. “My dad said, let me tell you something. Whatever you discover in your college years you’ll hold onto for the rest of your life, whether it’s a comic or a band. No matter where your career goes those people will always support you and you’ll always be able to make a living because you are part of their life from those four years. It’s fucking true, man,” he said earlier in the night. If the makeup of the house at the Laugh Factory is any indicator—a mélange of college and post-college punks, goths, frat guys, sorority girls, and young professionals—then papa Cook was right.
A loyal fan base wasn’t the only benefit of Cook’s protracted college exposure. “I’ve been with a girl for a couple of years but before that—it was nutty dude. I’m not trying to say I was Motley Crue, but it was good times. Not big gang bangs, but I had a couple of great threesomes—or maybe a dozen.”
Cook’s set concludes with his signature salute, the Super Finger—a raised hand with the middle two fingers extended—and he jogs off the stage and makes a quick escape through the Laugh Factory’s kitchen. So what’s next, Dane Cook—speedballs at the Chateau Marmont a la John Belushi? Rails ‘til dawn a la Sam Kinison? A drive down Santa Monica Boulevard to pick up a tranny hooker a la Eddie Murphy? Nope, nope, nope, and nope. “I’ve never drank or done a drug in my life. I had an epiphany early on. I’m a competitive person. If I drank I’d have to be the best drinker in the world. I’d have to out-drink everybody in Barney’s fuckin’ Beanery. I like to feel emotions. When I’m happy I want to feel it. When I’m bummed I don’t want to drink and put something over it. I don’t drink motor oil and I don’t care about doing drugs or alcohol.”
Many comedians are as legendary for their sexual gymnastics, tortured emotional lives, and drug and booze-fueled bacchanalia as they are for their jokes. Some even set their hair on fire while freebasing cocaine. At the very least they’re bad dressers like Jerry Seinfeld. But outside the club a short while later, the handsome Cook blends in with the crowd of hip 20-somethings pouring out of the Factory to meet their hero. Cook’s live-in girlfriend of two years, Raquel Houghton, a ridiculously hot piece of curvalicious action who sings in the band The Valley Girls and serves drinks at the Factory, comes outside to give Cook a hug. He hands her a rose and while the two are talking a fan interrupts them.
“Dane, can I have your autograph?”
“Martin Lawrence comes in with ten people, security,” says Jamie Masada, the Laugh Factory’s owner. “Some comics make it and have security behind them and security and in front of them. He’s not like that. Dane feeds the homeless on Thanksgiving. He stands here and shakes their hands. It’s not something too many people do. The mayor of Los Angeles would do the same thing at a fundraiser.”
Cook signs the autograph and shakes the fan’s hand with a smile. “Thanks for coming out, brother,” he says. For the next twenty minutes he shakes hands, signs autographs, and poses for pictures of fans flashing the Super Finger, a.k.a. the SuFi, one of Cook’s many ingenious branding devices. He invented the SuFi as part of a bit six years ago where he proposed that fans use it in lieu of the international rock-on sign and has done everything in his power to blow it up. “That’s my brand, that’s my logo. How great is it to have a Nike swoosh that’s yours?”
He meets and greets so enthusiastically that he looks like an underdog politician campaigning for an incumbent’s office while Masada watches from a few feet away near a poster of the Retaliation CD cover—Cook clutching a mike that’s a handle for a shining sword. “I’ve been seeing comedians for 26 years. I haven’t seen anything like this except for Richard Prior or Steve Martin,” Masada says. “People slept outside last night to get in. I’ve got people coming in from Arizona, San Diego, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Santa Barbara.”
A gorgeous goth chick with a pierced lip, an eyebrow ring, and blunt-cut black bangs saunters up and asks for a picture. Then another. And another. Who knew so many hot girls went to comedy shows? Cook obliges her then drifts over to Masada and looks at the Retaliation poster. “It’s so over the top. I wanted this to be my Empire Strikes Back.”
“Today tourist buses were stopping in front of here to take their picture with the poster,” Masada says. “We had to bolt it down so no one would steal it.”
“Really?” Cook asks and Masada points at steel bolts drilled into the poster’s plexiglass cover. “Cool.” And then Cook jumps back into the fray until he has shaken the hands and fulfilled the requests of every last fan who has lined up to meet him.
As he rolls back to his apartment a few blocks away in West Hollywood, he reflects on his transformation into a comedy superstar from a shy kid who got his start at an open mike in Boston just after he graduated high school. “I was a different entity when I got into standup. I was extremely introverted and extremely shy. I used to get panic attacks in school if I knew I had to speak. I’d rather have to learn brain surgery than have to go back and start standup again. Those first five years were just fucking brutal. No money, no benefits. I got a toothache in 92 and I got it fixed in 95,” he says.
The hallway outside his apartment is painted a vampirish crimson. “They used real blood to paint the walls,” Cook says. “This is the last place Belushi lived before he died.” Cook steps inside and Beast, his miniature Doberman, runs up to lick his hand. Raquel comes downstairs and gives him a hug then Cook heads into a room at the back of the apartment that serves as his office.
“I want to get one of those glass Star Trek doors that moves when it senses you. I’m working on that,” he says as he crosses the threshold from the sparsely decorated main room with two-story ceilings into his lair. The centerpiece of the office is a tech command center with a Mac G-5, a 32-inch High Definition monitor, a separate flat panel TV, and a power book. A nearly complete collection of Star Wars and G.I. Joe characters line the shelf above his desk. “Gotta have the Ewok. I couldn’t do vehicles in here. I was going to hang them from strings but my girl started getting a little freaked out.”
While Darth Vader and friends stand watch, Cook eases into a high-backed leather chair in front of the desk and logs on to MySpace. “I live on MySpace, advertising, talking to people.” As he taps a mouse the surround sound speakers emit cartoonish squeaks. “New friend requests—3,562 people who would love to be part of this cavalcade of friendship. In the inbox, 21,916 comments.” When Napster blew up in the mid-90’s, Cook realized he could use it to promote himself. He posted some of his bits with a plug for his web site, www.danecook.com. “My web site goes from a hundred hits a week to a couple of thousand. Then I knew that this right here,” he taps the computer, “Is where I’m going to make it. I’m going to build a fan base the same way bands did back in the day. I’m going to use the internet the same way. I spent about twenty grand on the first web site. I had a couple of deals at the time but it put me really in debt. I wanted people coming back to visit it daily. People at work want to have that laugh, they add you to the favorites and visit every day. My friends were saying, what are you doing spending all this money on your web site? Those same comics who gave me a lot of shit five years ago are calling me today asking me who my web guy is.”
At last count Cook's web site was drawing between 350,000 and 500,000 visitors a month. With a tap of the mouse he launches Adium X, an instant messenger program. “Fans can reach me 24/7. Sometimes I’ll put my webcam on and people can watch me do nothing. Whatever I can do to entertain the kids. I’m up all night anyway so I just start talking to everybody. Let me turn it on right now and I’ll show you what happens.” He logs in with a handle that he publishes on his web site and MySpace page. Within seconds dozens of messages pop up from fans. One says, Hey, Dane. Is this really Dane Cook? You’re my favorite comedian ever. Another says, Dane you fucking rule! Another says, Your cd is awesome. Cook takes a second to type back a personalized thank you to each fan.
Cool, but the action on Cook’s MySpace page is way cooler. Fans send Cook pictures of themselves flashing the SuFi with their friends all over the world. Then there are the ladies. Gorgeous women of all sorts send in photos of themselves topless flashing the SuFi over their nipples. Cook clicks on one of the messages in his inbox to reveal a gorgeous Asian goth in a plunging top rocking the SuFi. Looks promising but Cook’s gaze drifts to an xBox sitting on the floor next to his G5. “I started online gaming a few years ago with Halo and Ghost Recon, but I’m working and playing at the same time. My screen name when you pull your crosshairs is DaneCook.com. Everyone starts e-mailing me, dude, is that you on there? Then people start looking for me on the games and I’m hanging out and they’re getting into my comedy. They’re like, I’m listening to your shit, I laughed. Okay, I got your vote.”
A pile of scripts sits on the floor waiting to be read. Cook’s TV comedy pilot begins shooting in a few weeks. He’s close to closing a deal to do a reality show about Tourgasm, a month-long college tour he headlined earlier in the year. He has a role in the movie Waiting which hits theaters in September. But still Cook stays up late into the night to stoke his fan base.
Another IM pops up. I’ve heard the cd. I was dying to hear it the day it came out. Keep kicking ass, Dane. Dane Cook might be as talented at marketing as he is at standup comedy. “The last four or five years on the road, I’m doing 10,000 seaters and selling them out. I’m not on TV, I’m not in movies. But I knew that I had this underground thing happening. When Retaliation hit number 4, as much as I was blown away by it, my fans knew it was coming. My fans were like, yeah, your turn.”
He’s alone as he enjoys his turn and works, but at least he has the Ewoks to keep him company. It seems highly unlikely he’ll be fleeing to South Africa for a sabbatical any time soon.