What I want to posit in this article is that there is the entire difference between an objectively good comedian and an objectively bad comedian is not strictly dependent on who makes the audience laugh more. See, there are a large number of variables that go into laughter – “willingness” to laugh, intoxication, that sort of thing. But there’s another distinction that matters much more in terms of genuine quality (that which will be remembered and celebrated, that which will really influence people). Namely, the question that first must be asked when determining the value of a comedian is whether that comic strives to be a clown or a true comedian.
A clown is one who looks at stand-up comedy in the following way: a) there’s a stage; b) there’s me; c) I go up there and do/say whatever it takes to make them laugh in the moment. See, a clown’s whole thought process begins and ends with doing anything that they think will make their audience laugh, and they almost always underestimate the intelligence of their audience. A clown’s whole modus operandi, be it the circus variety or the modern-day comic equivalent, is to behave like an idiot, rehash the same juvenille material, and make the same people laugh until they grow out of it. A clown is much like a Happy Meal. They look awesome and great…to young children who are susceptible to marketing.
See, that’s the value of a clown. A clown is a great way to market to juvenille minded people, both in the ol’ Barnum & Bailey circus and the modern media world of today. This is where Dane Cook comes in, and why Dane Cook’s rise to being the most well-known stand-up in the country is troubling. Dane Cook is a clown. His work is marketed specifically to the coveted teenager and underdeveloped college student market. HIs rise to fame has been fueled solely by marketing bravado. His only reason for being famous is because of his antics and his face and his image, not the comic substance of his material. It’s like children going grocery shopping and buying cereal for the package and the toy instead of the cereal.
Don’t understand what I mean? Consider this: On his current wikipedia page, there are no jokes or humorous quotes from Dane Cook directly. There is significant criticism, but nothing funny by Dane himself. Last time I caught one of his specials, his opening “joke” was “I like to play a game called ‘guess who’s in my mouth!'” Yeah, I had to pause writing the article to laugh. Consider by comparison that Mitch Hedberg has jokes on his wikipedia entry despite never coming close to the status of Cook. They’re also funny. “This guy came up to me and said, ‘You’re gonna have to move. You’re blocking a fire exit.’ As though if there was a fire, I wasn’t gonna run. If you’re flammable and have legs, you are never blocking a fire exit. Unless you’re a table.” That’s funny on paper. Dane Cook is not.
In previous decades, the most well-known comedians and even comic actors had wide appeal, and they developed their own material. They weren’t clowns. Though they certainly acted and spoke for laughs, their actions had merit independent of the setting, and more than just a bunch of internet-numbed teenagers found them funny. There were a lot of white people who disagreed with Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, but those guys were genuine comedians. Tons of people hate George Carlin’s skepticism towards religion and capitalism, but damn it, they know he’s funny. Carlin never skewed his product to market towards a specific demographic. No good comedian does. Good comedians have an identity and a self that goes beyond being a mass-marketing tool designed to reel in puerile morons. Part of the point of comics like Lewis Black or Bill Hicks is to directly go after the people who are watching the show. That’s what a genuine comedian can do. A genuine comedian can hit a nerve with his audience and earn their respect with the humor.
But not Cook. Everything Cook does is synthesized into marketing. Every joke he has is designed to directly relate with his target audience, as if he were the funny guy in the fraternity, you know, the goofy drunken oversexed storyteller that ever frat worth its Greek letters has. And they aren’t even that funny. If Rolling Stone calls you out for not having any jokes, you know you’re not very good. His whole act is built upon being the 34-year-old guy who thinks he’s cool because he hangs out with 19-year olds and “speaks their language.”
In reality, most of his fanbase will probably grow up and realize that Dane Cook is just a clown who exists for marketing purposes, that his act was never really that funny, and that he’s sort-of a loser for being the MTV/Seventeen of stand-up comics.
But that, in a nutshell, is troubling. There have been clowns in the past, but none of them have shot to fame the way Dane Cook has. His rise is fueled by the Leviathan known as the internet and myspace. The worrying effect is certainly that more comics will find success by appealing through similar package-without-substance marketing techniques, and that true comedians who understand the craft and art of comedy will be passed over for deals, and that mainstream comedy will become as vacuous and historically forgettable as modern pop music. That’s a story for another day, but it’s concerning that comics like Jim Gaffigan or Demetri Martin may be relegated to the backburner more than the comics of the 80s and 90s (would Jerry Seinfeld get a sitcom deal today, or would they slap Dane Cook on the airwaves?)
The point remains, however, that Cook is qualitatively different from Bill Cosby or Steve Martin or even Roseanne Barr. Cook blasphemously compares himself to Carlin and others, but frankly, he has no idea what makes a memorable comedian. Without the slick marketing package, he is nothing. What’s sad is that comedy fans and major publications treat him as if he were a real comic.
Read the writing on the wall, folks: other comedians don’t like him at all, Lewis CK and Joe Rogan have noted he’s stolen their bits (and if you ask me, he’s just a more hyper redo of Rogan’s whole schtick), and few of his fans can actually recite their jokes the next day. He’s just the frat-boy clown who’s selling beer to 19-year olds. They love him. They’ll grow up. Hopefully society will, too, and embrace genuine comedy isntead of mass-marketed clowns.