I just listened to Marc Maron’s incredibly enlightening Dane Cook interview from this week’s episode of WTF with Marc Maron. It got me thinking about my own experiences getting into comedy under the shadow of Cook.
Shortly after I started doing stand-up, I was talking shit about Dane Cook. It seemed, at the time, a rite of passage for new comics. It seemed that people, who, when they were 14 or 15 had seen his 30-minute Comedy Central special and loved it, had to – with the coming of adulthood – distinguish themselves as having matured, having moved past the high-energy style-over-substance salesmanship epitomized by Dane Cook.
Basically I was taking potshots at a silver-back because a critical part of the development of new authority is the challenging of the old guard. I also talked shit about him because I didn’t know who I was on stage, and it helped me carve out a sense of who I wanted to be, by making clear about who I wasn’t.
Dane was at the forefront when or the early aughts comedy boom. Along with Carlos Mencia, Larry The Cable Guy, and Jeff Dunham, Dane was one of the four horsemen of “Big Comedy,” people who had corporate sponsorships and fanatical devotees, and could fill stadiums.
Mass appeal is a tricky thing. Of course there’s always The Beatles or Steve Martin (one of Cook’s comedy heroes), artists who simultaneously appeal to both committed enthusiasts and the casual consumer. But more often than not, mass appeal equates to Britney Spears or Two and a Half Men—artistic representations that are so broad it’s deemed offensive by so-called artist snobs.
You see, snobs like me prefer doomed indie-esque gems like Arrested Development or tragic heroes like Elliott Smith or Bill Hicks. When someone is really good *and* an underdog it can be easy to get lost in the fanatical devotion of being on the right side of a good cause.
I can still remember the day my attitude changed. I remember because I was talking with Seaton Smith, a comic from the DC area who I respect tremendously and with whom I was performing in an Improv group. Seaton is just a few years my senior and had gotten into stand-up at a younger age than I did. What I remember is that when I first started doing stand-up, Seaton was already well-respected within the that community; by the way, he’s only gotten better since.
He’s also kind of an egotistical asshole, but in a really lovable way.
Seaton and I were in a CVS waiting for rehearsal to begin when I was talking shit about Dane, and saying how much I preferred Mike Birbiglia with whom Seaton had recently worked. What Seaton essentially said was, “Yeah I don’t bother focusing on the negatives. I try to find something I like in anyone I see. That way I can learn from them.”
The broader lesson is this: It’s not so useful to spend your time focusing on what you’re not; in the end it’s better to define yourself positively, by the things you love.
This five-minute conversation, was really kind of a revelation for me. I started paying more attention to things that were said by other people I respected, people like Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan, both of whom in talking about Cook said that while he wasn’t their cup of tea. Louis said “he just aesthetically bums me out.”
That’s not to say I stopped talking shit all at once, or indeed that I never talk shit these days. I still have really strong leanings in terms of my tastes; I’m still a snob. But these days I’m wary of not getting caught up in backlash or underdog fever. If I dislike something, it’s for my own reasons. It’s not to act with or against what the rest of the world is doing. That’s the difference between non-conformity and anti-conformity.
When you define yourself by what you aren’t, you’re not marching to the beat of your own drum, you’re marching to the off-beat of the other guy’s drum, and you’re still letting “them” decide who you turn out to be. These days I try to take Seaton’s advice to heart, to really focus on what it is that I like, what it is that’s working when someone is on stage.
Whether I like a comedian’s style or I don’t, if they’re being authentic and making it work, it’s always a good thing for comedy. And by that measure, Dane certainly is good for comedy.
Author Mike Blejer is a comedian. You can learn more about him at mikeblejer.com.