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NO JOKE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After 15 years of stand-up, Dane Cook has stepped out.

He's the latest comic stud, a wild and crazy guy himself, a fixture on Comedy Central who is booked for three nights at Madison Square Garden next month. The Internet-friendly Cook is also shooting a TV pilot (a Curb Your Enthusiasm-like show) and plans to be a presenter at MTV's Video Music Awards tonight in Miami.

"My manager's cell went off and I said, wait, don't tell me. Someone wants me to throw out the first pitch," says Cook. "Anything I ever wanted or dreamed of is happening. The floodgates have opened."

The call wasn't about throwing out a first pitch. Just some movie guys.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit frazzled."

And to what can Cook owe his frazzled fortune? A popular comedy album.

No joke.

Cook's rocking and ribald Retaliation (Comedy Central Records) made its debut this month at No. 4 on The Billboard 200 chart. This apparently happens every 27 years in humor nature. Not since Steve Martin's A Wild and Crazy Guy spent six weeks at No. 2 in 1978 has a comedy album cracked Billboard's Top 5. Like some rock star, Cook crashed the charts with his energetic, universal humor.

There was one person in every group of friends that nobody likes. You basically keep them there to hate their guts. When that person is not around the rest of your little base camp, your hobby is cutting that person down ...

I'm looking out and some of you guys are saying, "Umm, I disagree." Well, you're the person -- you're the person nobody likes ...

People like Dane Cook. High school people. College people. The Comedy Central crowd. Cook isn't that young (33) but he plays young. The comic earned his chops on college campuses in the 1990s before his first record,

Harmful if Swallowed, made noise in 2003. Harmful never cracked The Billboard 200, but did go on to sell 260,000 copies. Retaliation could do better.

"It may be that audio albums had been an overlooked port of entry for a comic," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine.

Well, the port has reopened, for Cook at least -- thanks to a couple of little things called cable and the Internet.

"Dane's success does say something about the outreach of Comedy Central, and you do have the Internet as a tool," Mayfield says.

Comedy Central -- home of Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle -- wields its considerable broadcast and online powers to market its comedians. In Cook's case, audio and video clips, album and individual track downloads, banner advertising and promotion on the cable channel helped Cook's two-CD / one-DVD Retaliation peak at No. 4. Comedy Central's online store, Cook's own hyperactive Web site and his home page on myspace.com haven't hurt, either. He's "Comedy's Marketing Master," says the new issue of Rolling Stone.

When Cook was signed to Comedy Central Records in 2003, comedy albums were considered more promotional tools, he says. Records were expected to sell maybe 30,000 copies. The comedy record business appeared to be mired in a 20-year slump.

"Not a lot of care was put into these albums. They were poorly produced. Bad sound. Covers had the same murky guy in some dimly lit room. There was no pop or life," Cook says. "My approach was: Let's care about every aspect of the album."

Cool cover art. Cool stuff inside. Throw in a DVD. More bang for your buck. Promote, promote, promote on the Internet.

Then, Retaliation hits No. 4. More than 190,000 copies sold. Don't know about the movie guys, but Cook's record guys must be smiling.

"Our goal was to revive comedy albums as a category," says Jack Vaughn, director of Comedy Central Records. "I grew up listening to Bob Newhart's Button-Down Mind albums. You'd share them with your friends and memorize them. I loved that part of my childhood.

"I wanted to bring that back."

Button-down Bob Newhart and in-your-face Dane Cook. Maybe these guys should meet. They could talk about the good old and new days when people listened to something called a comedy album.

Hi Bob.

"Hi," says Bob Newhart, 75, still touring (35 dates a year), still appearing on television (a recurring role on Desperate Housewives) and still doing the occasional movie (Elf). In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Newhart talked to The Sun about his record career.

A phone call was so fitting, this being the man who built his fame on imagined phone conversations. Newhart's voice is still halting, as if he's going to launch into his Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue or Sir Walter Raleigh routines. We wanted to ask him to do a little "Driving Instructor" for us, but no guts on this end of the phone.

In 1960, well before his two successful TV series, Newhart scored the No. 1 album in the country. The former accountant from Chicago then won the Grammy for Best Album over a guy named Elvis. At best, Newhart thought The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart might sell maybe 25,000 copies -- something to complement a stand-up career building on his Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar appearances.

Recorded in February 1960, Newhart's album was expected to be released in April. But he didn't hear a word. "Friends kept saying, 'Whatever happened to that record thing you were doing?' " Newhart says.

He didn't know a DJ in Minneapolis was playing "Driving Instructor" and other routines on his radio program. Warner Brothers told Newhart they couldn't ship enough of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart to Minnesota. Then, word spread about this Midwestern comic who told stories -- not jokes.

Newhart's timing, as usual, was very good.

"There was a sea change in comedy in the late 1950s and '60s. We were dealing with vignettes as opposed to jokes. We were more socially aware," Newhart says. With young people, he says, the comedy album replaced their father's nightclub scene of cover charges and "Take my wife, please" comedians.

"College kids would buy beer and pizza and sit around listening to comedy albums. That was their nightclub," he says.

But Newhart saw the comedy album lose its commercial appeal with the growing popularity of television. For the comic, "it wasn't worth the effort any more. I was giving away the material -- but I had no other choice in the beginning." He stopped recording albums in 1965, but still remembers how people heard his telephone routines.

"They weren't just sitting back and listening passively. They become involved," Newhart says. "I was merely supplying the Abe Lincoln or submarine commander. The audience was supplying the humor."

Newhart says he was surprised to see a comedy album chart so high these days.

"What's his name again?"

Dane Cook.

"I need to look for him."

He might not to have look far. Newhart's friend, comedian David Steinberg, is directing Cook's TV pilot in Los Angeles. Steinberg told Cook he might have Newhart "come up" to see the comic. That would be very cool, Cook says.

Growing up in Boston with his five sisters and one brother, the family would listen to Newhart and Bill Cosby comedy albums. The Cook clan loved watching comedians, too, "but there's something about listening to comedy and creating visuals in your mind," Cook says.

When he started working comedy clubs and college campuses in 1990, Cook's act was manic. He was physical. He was a wild and crazy guy. "Certainly a lot of my adrenaline and energy overshadowed my ideas."

He wanted to slow down his act -- but just a bit. Cook is still intense, still in-your-face. But like Newhart and others before him, Cook wanted to involve the audience by engaging their imagination. More language skills, less physical skills. He wanted to make albums where the audience does some of the work. As a result, "I might be funnier."

But the fact is people do want to see Cook. "I hate this saying, but it is the MTV generation. People want visuals." His album's success can't be separated from his Internet and cable popularity.

Five years ago, he decided to devote several hours a day to building a Web site. "I was going to use the Internet like punk bands used corners to pass out fliers." His comedy peers thought he was crazy. Cook would play video games online using the site name, www.danecook.com. He still spends hours a day responding to e-mails and updating his fans.

Cook's site is a comedy act unto itself: streams of audio samples with video downloads of his late-night appearances with Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno and Carson Daly. The site's mascot, if you will, is a sort of secret handshake among Cook's fans: the superfinger or "SuFi." The photo gallery shows the cover sleeve to Retaliation with Cook wielding a sort of Jedi knight sword. There's nothing murky about this comic.

We all want to be remembered for something. ... For example, the other day I saw a young boy and he was eating an ice cream cone. I smashed it in his face. You know that kid is going to remember me when he's 50.

This is not comedy for everyone, but no comedy can or should be for everyone. There's an aggressive -- occasionally violent -- tone to Cook's routines.

We laugh, but we love violence in this country. When you see someone walking down the street with a Superman T-shirt, don't you just want to shoot them in the chest? When they start to bleed, you say, "I guess not."

And don't get him started on teeth -- crooked, yellow or bucked. The man actually does a unicorn impression, too. In another routine, Cook remembers his parents buying him a Speak & Spell toy.

They should have called it Speak Like The Devil. ... That thing was evil. That thing would wake me in the middle of the night. "PLAY WITH ME! Get up! I want to spell right now!"

He remembers his dad buying the family a Slip 'N Slide -- but dad never checked for rocks underneath: Slip N' Bleed they should have called this ride.

And continuing with the theme of childhood toys, Cook riffs on what everyone knows but never admitted: Monopoly is a truly horrible game.

Even if you think you liked it, you didn't. It's 4 in the morning, Grandma! You win!!! I'm sitting on Baltic with crack!"

"My approach is to keep it real. Keep it like your life," says Cook from his office in Los Angeles, where he answers e-mails from his SuFi fans and fields calls from movie guys. Maybe his TV pilot will get picked up. Maybe he will meet Bob Newhart.

What would be really cool is if his Red Sox return to the World Series. Of course, they will need someone to throw out the first pitch. Dane Cook just needs a call.

"I'm there."

Dane Cook

Age: 33

Birthplace: Cambridge, Mass.

Residence: Los Angeles

Online: danecook.com

Recordings: Harmful if Swallowed (Comedy Central Records, 2003); Retaliation (Comedy Central Records, 2005).

In performance: Cook is scheduled to perform tonight at MTV's Video Music Awards (8 o'clock); Sept. 15-16, Cook performs three shows at Madison Square Garden (details at thegarden.com).

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