It’s kind of weird that Dane Cook isn’t famous anymore. The man has all the accumulated baggage of a superstar: 2.9 million followers on Twitter, an additional 725,000 on Instagram and the reflexive blasé name recognition from anyone who came of age at the turn of the millennium.
But somehow, he still seems completely untethered from pop culture in 2020. It was only 15 years ago that Cook released Retaliation — his double-platinum second album — which occupied the No. 4 slot on the Billboard 200, right above Coldplay’s X&Y and the Black Eyed Peas’ Monkey Business. It isn’t a stretch to say that Cook, for at least a couple of years, was more popular than any standup in American history. In 2006, he sold out Madison Square Garden; the last comic to do so was Andrew Dice Clay, 16 years prior. Cook’s eminence was profound enough to earn a greatest hits compilation — for a comedian. That never happens. It was an empire of one, built with gently moussed hair, designer-distressed Hollister jeans and an enviable jaw line.
And now, more than a decade later, Dane Cook spends his days pulling rookie numbers on Twitter, offering up well-meaning geriatric tweets, like he’s working out loose material deep into a languid set at a sparsely populated Comedy Store show. “It’s unreal how quickly the media goes from being a lap dog to an alley cat,” he wrote on July 23rd. “True beauty comes from within but you can’t just show up with dried clumps of shit in your hair either,” he added a week earlier.
These are the kind of juvenile asides that would be right at home in his oeuvre, but Cook hasn’t released a comedy special since 2014, and his brief turn as a Hollywood leading man came to a stark, damp end following the exceptionally callous 2007 Jessica Alba project Good Luck Chuck. Today, at 48 years old and in the midst of what should be his heroic post-prime, Cook is on even ground with the millions of lunchpail comedians across the country, writing facile jokes for 100 likes and a handful of retweets. Before hosting that viral Fast Times at Ridgemont High celebrity table read, Cook was most newsworthy in the past few years for dating a teenager.
It never seemed like it was going to end this way.
I believe I was first introduced to Dane Cook by some anonymous internet friends in World of Warcraft in 2005. One guy in particular would play some of Cook’s better-known bits over his voice chat in between our many sojourns into Goblin-infested mines or Orcish ramparts. This was always the comic’s most fruitful demographic: teen boy gamers, who wanted to hear their cafeteria humor polished and workshopped by a professional. Cook wrote about Heat, about Tekken, about eccentric blowjob techniques. The cover of Retaliation framed him with one red Terminator-style eye; in his hands was a microphone that served as the hilt of Excalibur. There is an extended Cook monologue about shooting a laser out of his penis, and another about naming his future sons after Transformers characters.
His voice always hovered in a chatty mid-pubescent mewl — a thirtysomething class clown — pathologically horny for any moment he could one-up the teacher. Standup, as a genre, is dominated by eccentrics, misanthropes and manic depressives, but Cook was none of those. He was funny in that older-cousin way — a normie savant — so it’s no surprise how deeply he resonated with the nation’s 16-year-olds. Alt-comedy nerds like David Cross hated him, but they also seemed to lead such miserable lives. Who could blame us for preferring the man whose artistic priorities centered around action movies, video games and getting laid? It was a no-brainer, and we carried him all the way to the promised land.
“He merged being a comedian and a rock star better than anyone I’d ever seen. Who wouldn’t want that?” says Dan White, a Chicago-based comedy writer and performer who tells me he grew up as a huge suburban Cook fan. “For a comedy nerd like me, Justin Timberlake or Nick Lachey was never attainable. But Dane Cook — I think every white guy on the planet thought they could tap into some of what he was spitting.”
Throughout that reign, Cook left an indelible mark on mid-2000s masculinity. Comedians often do. The boorish, aggro-misogynist late 1980s found a ground zero in the mirrored aviators of the aforementioned Diceman, and Aziz Ansari created a mold for millions of id-fueled Kanye West fans during the satiny glitz of the early 2010s, but Cook was never nearly that bellicose. Instead, he specialized in a slightly more reformed man-child chauvinism: a giggling frat boy with a semi-threatening aura, a shameless ham with a heart of gold. And due to his charisma, lifestyle and the many women who echo in the background of Cook’s discography like The Beatles at Shea Stadium, a whole genus of college kids followed his lead.
To be funny and enviable, says the Tao of Cook, one must master a bizarre amalgam of tweeness and chadness. He cutefied schoolyard profanity; he coined “BAMF” (bad ass motherfucker); and invented the “Su-Fi,” or “Super Finger,” in which his fans added in the ring digit when flipping the bird for extra emphasis. His vocabulary consisted of “shenanigans,” “dandy” and “fantastical,” words that would later be integrated into the earliest and cringiest eras of Reddit and 4chan.
Cook famously used Myspace to infiltrate pop culture without needing the blessings of any network TV gatekeepers, and because of that, it’s difficult to think of any single person who has had a larger impact on 2000s male nomenclature than him. All of those vintage memes — the ORLY owl, the I Can Haz cats, those bacon T-shirts — are essentially juvenile attempts to replicate Cook’s spazzy bons mots. “Random humor,” as we used to call it, speckled in Newgrounds cartoons, epic fails and pirates-versus-ninjas debates. His standup was tuned to dudes who believed there was nothing funnier than filling Super Soakers with tequila. The ironic pink polo revolution was here, and Cook was its harbinger.
Frankly, time hasn’t been kind to anyone within Cook’s generation. The Jackass lads led by Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and Chris Pontius all angled for the same demographic with elaborate gross-out stunts and rhapsodic physical damage. Ashton Kutcher did the same on Punk’d, as did Bam Margera in his many nihilistic skating shows. Briefly, the universe decided that a white guy in a trucker hat humiliating his friends was primetime material. To “own” someone was to be the funniest guy in the room no matter the ramifications, which fit right alongside Cook’s many bits about cheering for car accidents or punching babies. Nobody can say for sure why that kind of humor went out of style, but if I were to guess, I imagine that eventually we pierced the veil of keg-stand comedy, and some of the narcissism and blatant mean-spiritedness innate to those acts began to outshine their artistic merits. Cook was always funny, but after years of terrorization from the many fauxhawked reprobates in public life who carried water for him, listening to the records just didn’t feel great anymore.
“Cook wasn’t really that bad, but he created a legion of impersonators — both at open mics, and, like, guys you avoided at parties — who were trying to do his thing, and those guys were annoying,” says Nicole Conlan, a standup and writer at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “Overall, I think we hated what we thought it was and not what it actually was.”
For my money, the true ending to the Cook reign happened in early 2012, at a moment when the comedian was likely recalibrating to a slightly diminished spot in the industry. He performed an infamously unhinged set at the Laugh Factory, which was reportedly full of antipathy, conceitedness and the insecure overcompensation of a man who was losing his edge. This was broadcasted out to the rest of the country by the other performers who were there, which then turned into a brief news cycle. As Ali Waller, who then worked as a writer on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, put it on Twitter, “Glad Dane Cook stopped by the Improv tonight, otherwise I’d never hear the story about how he ‘chainsaw-fucked’ a ‘disgusting whore’s cunt.’”
As a fan, this was when the mask was pulled off. The many secret inclinations you feared about Cook were dredged up into the harsh light of day, as the dizzy bliss of his incredible success atrophied away to reveal a bitterness just below the surface. That was another one of the digital impulses that Cook pioneered — the piddling neediness of saying something outlandishly vile in hopes of inciting a reciprocating response. Not for laughs or gasps, necessarily, just the raw energy of attention. By the mid-2010s though, society at large was beginning to understand how much damage we’d done to ourselves by letting that impulse run wild, particularly when it comes from aggrieved, Gamergate-y white guys. There is no longer an identifiable difference between authentic malignancy and sarcastic malignancy, and so, Cook was rendered a man out of time.
Dane Cook could’ve morph into a Clay Travis or Dave Portnoy type. You know, one of those middle-aged vindictive dummies who built second acts by aiming screeds at straw-man Twitter “wokes” — innervating the many men who are fed up with a world that no longer appreciates retrograde comic instincts. I mean, you could make the argument that Cook himself was the progenitor for Barstool’s whole deal. But thankfully, that never happened. Cook doesn’t record 12-minute rants from his Range Rover windshield about the tyranny of college campuses. He seems more than happy to keep his thoughts to himself. To paraphrase Tiffany Pollard, he sat there and ate his food.
That makes sense, really. Cook isn’t a grifter. He’s written some bad jokes, but there’s no way he could shamelessly reform into right-wing media’s welfare state. It’d be too hollow. For better or worse, there has never been a moment onstage where Cook has been anyone but himself. That’s good, because I don’t know if any of us could stomach the joyous heights of Cook’s 2006 peak mutating into the careening paranoia and perpetual bellyaching of the typical Ben Shapiro guest. It’s nice to know that there’s at least one past-his-prime comedian who’s immune to those temptations.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have anything in common with that reactionary coterie. Dane Cook is still dating an Instagram influencer 26 years his junior, which continues to feel pretty gross. There is an argument that he never psychically recovered from the joke-stealing accusations that plagued him at his apex, but as Conlan points out, Amy Schumer was hit with basically the same thing in 2006 and she’s turned out fine. Cook also has a propensity to pose shirtless in Boston Red Sox hats, which is the sort of hallucination I’d expect in a coma.
But those are all outliers; in fact, the bulk of Cook’s digital footprint has him happy and vibing, playing Jack Johnson-lite folk songs on an acoustic guitar with a black-and-white filter or buying a shit ton of Heineken at the grocery store.
He still performs — he concluded a tour of comeback shows in 2019 shortly before quarantine — but generally, Cook lives life like a man who is euphorically washed. Never again will he feel the need to overthink his tweets, reignite his legacy or bleed for his jokes. If he ever had a real urge to claw himself back into relevancy, it has long left his system. When Cook pops up today, it’s usually in the form of an amiable podcast guest — breezy, weightless and elementally satisfied — blessed by the removal of the chip that once weighed on his shoulder. We should all be so lucky.
And maybe that’s the most important thing men can learn from Cook. It’s easy to interpret his fall from grace as a failure. There is probably an alternative timeline out there where he matured as a comic, took some better roles or turned himself into a more adept actor, and firmly left the stratosphere like Kumail Nanjiani or Chris Pratt, orbiting Hollywood forever in search of the next blockbuster remake.
But as far as I’m concerned, we need more people to realize when their time is up, and understand that the heights of their career are best ensconced to the era that birthed it. Cook will let the 2005 version of himself thrive in its rightful context forever, while his 2020 incarnation chills in Hawaii with a whole lot of money and no more wars to win, ceding the spotlight to those who are younger, hungrier and better tuned for the moment. Every anodyne Dane Cook tweet is a triumph. Let us make the world a better place by appreciating the liberty of no longer having anything interesting to say.