What the #*&! Are You Laughing At?

In his Las Vegas hotel room—an inviting suite amid the crush of shops, craps tables, and gamblers at Caesars Palace—Dane Cook appears comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt and his requisite facial stubble. He seems at ease with himself and not at all overwhelmed. Cook's dog, Beast, a miniature something-or-other that looks like a shrunken Doberman, plays at his feet while he answers questions with aplomb.

It's been a crazy year for the 33-year-old from Nowhere (also known as Arlington). He's evolved from a funny, but largely unknown, comedian to one lauded as the genre's newest, biggest personality. In the process, Cook has grown accustomed to stardom and its attendant pageantry. He's everywhere at once now— Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, hosting Saturday Night Live, hailed by such disparate outlets as NPR and Maxim. GQ included him in its “Men of the Year” issue, while People put him on its list of sexiest guys. He's got a sitcom in the works, too. “I can't wake up in the morning without seeing something about him,” one movie publicist remarks. In a few hours, Cook will entertain a considerable crowd as part of HBO's The Comedy Festival, a weekend-long Vegas extravaganza featuring such headliners as Jon Stewart, Ray Romano, and Dennis Miller.

“It's turned into 'The Heroes of Comedy,'” Cook says somewhat softly. (On stage, his act is the opposite—loud, brash, often obscene, often riffing on curious behavior involving animals or small children.) “All the guys I love are here. Seinfeld is here. Rock. Chappelle. Everyone.”

A year ago, Cook might have been included in a show of this size and renown, but probably not. Things are different now. His second CD, Retaliation —yes, they still make comedy albums—was a monster, debuting last summer at an utterly shocking number 4 on the Billboard charts, right below Mariah Carey. It was the first comedy album to hit that high since Steve Martin's A Wild and Crazy Guy in the late '70s, which is pretty much the last time anyone was buying comedy records (or was it eight-tracks back then?). Think about that, and the comics who came in between but couldn't pull it off.

Since then, Cook—who jokes about, among other things, people getting hit by cars and ice cream cones being smashed into little kids' faces—has morphed from a 15-year veteran of standup, part of an itinerant pack that can spend a lifetime on the road without ever breaking through, to sudden fame. Hosting SNL truly underscores how far, and how fast, Cook has come: Only a year ago, the show's execs passed when Cook auditioned for a slot in the cast.

His fans, a rabid bunch of largely 18-to-34-year-old males (though that's beginning to change), boast that it's about time, that he's destined for great things. His critics, meanwhile, aren't laughing, contending he's little more than a momentary fluke, sure to vanish, and that he owes his success to marketing savvy alone. If nothing else, the man, like any accomplished comedian, has a serious understanding of timing. Because when you think about it, he blew up at exactly the right moment, when it's always easiest and there isn't any pressure. He did it when no one was looking.

No one in Hollywood paid attention to Dane Cook. Not until now.

Cook spent years on the East Coast trying to polish his act. He started in Boston when he was 18, before he had much shine at all, eventually becoming a regular at the Comedy Connection. In the mid-'90s, he scored big with a gig at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, a club where legends like Richard Pryor and Jim Carrey were judged supremely funny and others convicted of the opposite and sentenced to obscurity. Pryor and Carrey were plucked from the Factory and sent on to TV and movie stardom. Cook was all but ignored. So how the hell could he be funny, how could he build his confidence and his career, when—as far as anyone who had any real power was concerned—he didn't exist? “A lot of Hollywood never knows what it's found until someone tells them,” laments Jamie Masada, the Laugh Factory's owner.

“When you first start out, there are a few things you could possibly expect to happen,” Cook says. “You'll do shows at local clubs and get your laughs. You'll go home to your wife and kids. Maybe you'll do TV once a year, impress your hometown. That's what you should expect in comedy. Not fame and fortune. But I dreamed just like everyone else dreams.”

Cook's career reached critical mass in 2001. After endlessly crafting new routines and playing regular gigs to little notice, he decided it was time to make a bolder move. He borrowed against his retirement account—cash he'd been saving for years—to launch DaneCook.com, an online spotlight fixed firmly on himself. The website was, and remains, an extension of Cook and his comedy, a place where his fans chat among themselves, and with him, too. He tries to answer all his e-mails, which can number several hundred a day. The site was a marketing masterstroke, one that helped Cook realize the value of self-promotion. (In addition to interacting with fans online, he greets them after shows, shaking hands and signing autographs until everyone is satisfied. It's a process that can last as long as the show itself.)

Soon, Cook was as good at selling his comedy as he was at creating it. In 2003 he advertised and distributed his first album, Harmful If Swallowed, via the website, ultimately selling more than 250,000 copies. Back home in North Reading, his brother, Darryl, kept boxes of the CD on hand to hawk at local shows. Both took care to mention DaneCook.com to anyone and everyone. The site, and Cook's quasi-guerrilla marketing campaign, paid off. His fans multiplied into a loyal, even cultish, following.

Comedy Central Records noticed, and later that year signed Cook for Harmful's follow-up. “Because the first [album] was mostly self-distributed, we didn't know exactly what to expect with Retaliation, ” says Jack Vaughn, director of Comedy Central Records. “We thought it would do well. Of course, it beat any of our expectations.”

Saying Retaliation beat expectations is like saying France had a small problem with teen rioting. The CD exploded, quickly reaching gold status. The numbers, coupled with the staggering Billboard debut, made it impossible for anyone to overlook Cook any longer.

Hollywood unhooked the velvet rope. Dane Cook was in.

When I was in college, we'd sometimes sniff fumes from what looked like a bottle of nail polish. It was good for a cheap high, but it made me say crazy things. When Bob Saget calls, he sounds like he's on the polish. Because this is not the Saget from my childhood, the doting sitcom dad with the G-rated mouth. This Bob Saget is accommodating and affable, but his thoughts are everywhere at once, and he curses a lot. A lot. He also says something about his ex-wife's vagina that would make the Olsen twins blush.

As I would learn, this is the real Saget—an iconoclast who might be the dirtiest/strangest comedian around. (Saget has appeared as himself on HBO's Entourage and in The Aristocrats, last year's critically acclaimed documentary about the deconstruction of a legendary joke and what makes it funny. He tells by far the raunchiest version.) Cook and Saget are also pals from the comedy circuit.

“I've seen him perform,” Saget says during an interview that's closer to stream of consciousness than conversation. “At Berkeley, 1,400 kids went insane. His standup, it's not an act. It's an event. His standup is a fucking event. Just like a good actor, he's in the moment. He's not reciting anything. Most of the time, even if the audience has already heard the joke, Cook is coming from such a deep place that they can't help but laugh. There's no filter. He's deliberate with his material, but otherwise he's just letting his balls out. The nuttier he goes, the more people love him.”

One of Cook's more popular—and crude—jokes comes wrapped as advice on making an impression. It involves defecating in the coatroom during a big party. “No one will know it was you, but you'll know, and that's all that matters,” he goofs, disarming the crowd for what comes next. “Guaranteed, at some point, someone is going to walk out of that room and say, ' Someone shit on the coats! '” It's ridiculous, warped, puerile stuff. It doesn't translate all that well to print. As with most jokes, the key is in the execution. Cook's delivery is all energy and timing, strange pronunciations and odd gesticulation. Humorous, for sure, but on the whole not exactly shattering. He's not an innovator like Lenny Bruce, or a social and political commentator like George Carlin. Cook's comedy is closer to the absurdist, class-clown variety—something best appreciated with a bong and a bag of Doritos.

“Random,” Cook says, grasping for a definition. He insists there isn't a traditional process that births his comedy, and he doesn't write anything down. Instead, his act evolves from bouncing ideas off friends and family—stuff, he says, that “tickles my brain.”

“My comedy comes from my gut,” he offers. “It's things that make me laugh and make my friends laugh. I can be wry. I can be hard-core. I can be irreverent. I can be corny—I like corny. Sometimes corny is fucking funny. Because that's what we are—sometimes we're corny Americans. Our sense of humor is everything and anything.”

When Cook plays Caesars, the house is packed and gives him a standing ovation the moment he steps onstage. Many in the audience already know his jokes, but they laugh nonetheless. A snapshot of those seated in my immediate vicinity: a sexagenarian in a tailored pinstripe suit; a thirtysomething hottie wearing a slinky dress and hanging on the sleeve of a dude drinking a Heineken as tall as his forearm is long; and, naturally, some of our younger citizens, clad in knit skullies and baggy jeans. One with ink-black hair and myriad piercings looks like the lead singer from Green Day, and when told by security that he can't smoke in the Palace Ballroom, he extinguishes his butt on his tongue. Perhaps one reason people like Cook so much is because he satisfies so many diverse appetites—eventually, nearly everyone will find something he says funny. Because as far as I can tell, the only thing these mishmash groupies have in common is that Cook is their collective star. It is, as Saget describes, “very much rock 'n' roll with that guy.”

With success, though, comes criticism. There are those on the flip who have little love for Cook. They're not amused when Cook talks about naming one of his future children Optimus Prime (from the cartoon Transformers ). They don't find his atheist rant funny, either. (The joke: Cook, a Catholic, meets an atheist who believes that when he dies, his body will fertilize the ground and grow into a beautiful tree. The punch line: Cook imagines the reincarnated atheist getting cut down by an ax-wielding maniac, put through a wood chipper, made into paper, and then . . . wait for it . . . having the Bible printed on him .) One comic puts Cook's talent closer to David Spade than Larry David, grumbling, “I just don't fucking get [him].”

But right now, despite the hecklers, Cook's standup is flourishing and Hollywood offers its embrace. In addition to the pending sitcom, he appeared in the late-fall comedy Waiting and signed on for the upcoming Employee of the Month, which, depending on whether you believe the gossip, might also star newly single strumpet Jessica Simpson.

“I talk to guys I haven't seen in 20 years and they ask me, 'Hey, who's this Dane Cook?'” says Boston comedian and actor Lenny Clarke. “He's the hottest act in America right now. I think he'll be the next big thing.”

The next big thing is late. The students inside the University of New Hampshire Field House, where Cook is set to perform tonight, are already in their seats. The venue is as far removed from Caesars Palace in geography as it is in glamour. This place looks like a 1950s high school gymnasium—wooden bleachers, a small scoreboard, and banners on either end identifying UNH's conference foes. Up on the balcony—or what passes for one—rows of aging workout bikes and free weights idle beneath a thin film of dust. I keep waiting for Jack LaLanne to appear.

This is where the hottest act in comedy has chosen to showcase his talent? Among the stink of gym socks and hyperhormonal college kids? Hardly rock 'n' roll.

And yet Cook makes sure to play several campuses each year. More than any other group, these kids are hugely responsible for moving Cook from warmup act to headliner, from local performer to national star, from comic to Comic. They're the ones who've bought Retaliation in ridiculous numbers and who've been to Cook's website so often that other comics have stopped busting his balls and started asking who designed it. These fans told Hollywood, as the Laugh Factory's Masada says, what it was looking at. And Cook knows it.

“My dad said something years ago that really made an impact,” Cook says after the show, after the smiling and the signing, after his minions have dispersed and headed off to their frat parties and drinking games. Laid-back in a camo hat and worn jacket, Cook, who never went to college, looks young enough to go with them. (He's also wearing a Superman T-shirt, a sartorial nod to irony: He does a bit about people in these same shirts. “Don't you just want to go up and shoot them? And then say, 'Guess not, Super bleeder. '”) “My dad said, 'You know, Dane, the things people experience in college—the bands, the comics, the places—they'll take with them the rest of their life. They'll be the most important memories. If you give 100 percent toward playing those colleges and earning that fan base, whatever happens later on, you'll always have a solid foundation of people who will help you pay your rent.' And he was right, because I'll get e-mails from people who I performed for years ago saying, 'I have a family now.'”

Still, it's hard to imagine Rock or Seinfeld coming back to play the Field House after hitting number 4. Cook could be schmoozing A-listers or railing lines of blow with buxom strippers. (He says he doesn't drink or do drugs, and he has a steady—stunning—girlfriend.) He could be exploiting his fame like any other self-disrespecting celebrity. Instead, he's here entertaining the kiddie corps. At some point, despite the fact that these students helped make him, won't Cook graduate and leave the colleges (and the flesh pressing) behind? Who needs to shake hands and pose for pictures when you could just funnel everything through your PR people and retreat to the VIP room? Steve Martin got big by being a Wild and Crazy Guy, but after a while, when the plaid pants didn't fit anymore, he updated his wardrobe.

“I've never come from that angle,” Cook insists. “The deal is this, man: I've always wanted to make my mark. Comedy is the only thing I've ever felt I've been good at, that I've cared about or that cared about me. I can't put in PVC piping. I can't build a house. There are many things I suck at. This isn't a hobby. It's not something that I want to do for a few years and then get another job. When you love something like I love comedy, you have to be a politician. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.”