I confess to being hooked on internet video sites. You know, quality stuff, the kind of thing that could be edited into the hit TV series OW! MY BALLS! (as seen in the film IDIOCRACY, which you really should see if you haven't -- it's not as good a film as OFFICE SPACE, but it's quite good). One thing that's neat is that you can see what other people like, so you get a chance to see performers you might have missed otherwise -- piracy as promotion, if you will. And it seems as if all of these people like Dane Cook, because I keep running across clips from him. I like good comedy, so I watched a whole bunch of these clips to see what other folks liked so much. And I was absolutely baffled, because *Dane Cook isn't funny.*
It's not that his material is innately terrible. It's not all that good, but even the best of it would be funnier in the hands of another comic. Dane Cook is a bad performer. His body language is sloppy. He runs around the stage too much, so he's hard to get a bead on; his movement interferes with, rather than complements, your visualization of the situation he's describing. This is particularly obvious in his lengthier bits.
For example, Cook has one ten-minute sequence about men and women having arguments that involves a complicated display of body language: ie, "men, you know you're in trouble if your woman does THIS." (I'm referring to the "Brain Ninjas" bit from VICIOUS CIRCLE (be warned that particular excerpt is about ten minutes long.) The movements themselves are pretty good, but Cook doesn't hold them -- he throws one out, repeats it a couple of times, and then moves about more between the following steps. It makes the sequence harder to follow, and his motion distracts you from the story he's creating.
This is especially notable when you compare Cook with other comedians who use body language: Eddie Murphy's concert films, for example. One reason Murphy is so superior to Cook is that he understands how body language works, and he accentuates his motion with moments of stillness. When Murphy does a physical action as one character, and then performs another character's reaction, he'll make the distinction very clear. Either he performs the comic action, freezes in place, looks down at his own body, and then looks up, with his face showing the reaction of the second character (often himself), or he performs the comic action, freezes, holds it, then quickly moves just a bit aside and changes his entire body language to clearly indicate the new character. (See, for example, Murphy's portrayal of different kids in the immortal "Ice Cream" bit.) It keeps the characters separate, but, more importantly, in keeps the audience in the story. Cook doesn't do that, and the bit suffers for it.
Also, he's reported to be a joke thief.
And yet he's quite rich and amazingly popular.
This got me thinking about what is and what isn't funny. And joke swiping, and the success thereof.
Denis Leary, for example, owes several bits from NO CURE FOR CANCER to the late Bill Hicks. To put it absolutely baldly, Leary stole Hicks's jokes, added onto them, wove around them, and made them more famous than Hicks, who sadly died young, ever did. The bit with the family with electronic voice boxes, for example? That's Bill Hicks. The crowning bit, with the electronic voice dog? Leary's addition, and the perfect capper.
The interesting thing about this is that, to me, Leary's versions are funnier. Some of this is because Leary had the advantage of coming to the joke as a rewrite man, but I think the main reason Leary plays better with the swiped material is because of his skill as a vocalist. He uses his voice remarkably well, much better than Hicks, particularly in the portrayal of characters. There was a style choice involved, as well. For all Leary's asshole shtick, he was kinder than Hicks with the characters he briefly played onstage. For example, Hicks's tribute to the show COPS includes an impression of a trailer-park denizen that's whining and repulsive; you can tell he hates and looks down on the person, and he's inviting you to do it too. By contrast, Leary's drug material -- much of it swiped from Hicks -- includes a frantic portrayal of a cokehead that makes the guy appear ridiculous, but doesn't make you hate him.
Bill Hicks is often described as "a comic's comic." I see that as both high praise and a slightly backhanded compliment. His work was often brilliant, but it wasn't always the kind of thing a mainstream audience would find funny. While Hicks was capable of being astoundingly funny, a lot of his act revolved around the delight of shared contempt (cf. the COPS bit). Like Lenny Bruce, Hicks wasn't so much a pure comic as a hybrid of comic and spoken-word radical. This was an obstacle to his success, because the degree to which you find him funny often depends on how much you agree with what he's saying. If your politics and Hicks's overlap, you can laugh your guts out; if not, you're left feeling a little like a gay black Jew at a Pat Buchanan rally. Leary was smart enough to swipe selectively; he didn't use material that could alienate an audience, which Hicks would and did. Good for being a legend; not so good when you're going for widespread popularity.
Carlos Mencia, recently in the news, is another case in point. He was confronted for stealing jokes by Joe Rogan onstage at the Comedy Store, and it's turned into a pretty brutal public confrontation. Mencia, whose skill as a performer Rogan freely acknowledges, apparently uses a lot of other people's jokes. As Rogan notes, comic George Lopez alleged that one of Mencia's HBO specials contained approximately 13 minutes worth of Lopez's material.
Everybody's going gaga about Anna Nicole and Britney, but this is the news entertainment story that should be getting coverage. Because Rogan videotaped his confrontation with Mencia, added some supplementary material, and put it out online. Then Mencia started playing hardball. According to Rogan, Mencia told the agency they share that he wanted an apology. If he didn't get it, Mencia said, he wanted the agency to drop Rogan, unless they wanted to lose Mencia, who currently is very hot, as a client. So Rogan is now looking for new representation. It's a story about Hollywood, but it's also a story about the power of the internet.
My theory had been that superior performers can steal effectively (the Leary Principle). And Mencia fits the bill there. But that doesn't explain Dane Cook, whose success perplexes me. I really don't know why he's so popular: he's got the chops of a mid-level comic, and he delivers some chuckles once in a while, but 1) his material isn't that good, 2) he doesn't do anything to elevate it, 3) his dialogue flow is clumsy, and 4) his body language is sloppy. He looks like a guy who hasn't been performing very long, because his skill set just isn't up there.
My bet: in a couple of years, Dane Cook will have *vanished.* I mean, utterly, totally vanished. Like Vaughn Meader.
Maybe that's harsh. At least Meader had skills, and a shtick.