It's five pm on a Tuesday night, and my friend's in town for a visit. We've seen it all: Superman doing Thriller on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Lisa Vanderpump ruling the dining floor at her bedazzled West Hollywood lounge, and some minor celebrities drinking overpriced New Orleans iced coffees at Blue Bottle. We've even tasted the $30 lobster tacos at Paradise Cove (side note: get the pineapple margarita). So, on her last night, it was time for something special: Dane Cook's $5 comedy show at the Hollywood Improv! The only thing I really knew about him was that he was once accused of plagiarism, and my younger brothers loved him.
We showed up at the Improv and were presented with a plastic laminate menu, announcing our expected two-drink minimum. Our first round, a borderline inappropriate concoction made of rum, vodka, gin and tequila, set us back almost as much as the lobster tacos. Then, we settled into the show. The opening performances, spearheaded by young performers and bookended by Nikki Glaser and Brent Morin, brought down the house. But this story isn't about them. Because when Dane Cook came onstage, all bets were off. And not in a good way.
I was immediately struck by how tired he looked. Like one of those aging celebrities who shone only in the fading limelight of a talk show studio. He looked like he had just woken up from a nap, and harried in a way that made it seem like he'd gotten lost on the way to the show. Multiple times. But the worst part of all was that he felt like the punch line of a joke about rich people.
The first words out of his mouth were "I'm loaded." Not loaded like he'd sat down next to me and drank the entire contents of my 100-proof liquor smorgasbord. But loaded as in flush. With cash. After five minutes of making the paying audience feel like we were panhandlers plucked off the corner of Grand Street, he proceeded to yell at the lighting guy, demanding to know how many minutes he had of his set. He groaned at the answer, and then reminded us that he was double platinum. You could feel the air being sucked out of the room, as the primed-to-laugh audience tried to justify a snicker or two. It was like everything we had been setting up for had come crashing down. Kind of like the ending to Signs.
It wasn't so much that the comedy was bad. Which it was. It was lazy and slapped-together, and most of it was stale. But it was the ego of it all that was so off-putting. Grantland writer Bryan Curtis writes, "Cook is what is often called an "observational comic"--someone who points out the absurdities of modern life and heightens them to comic effect." There was no heightening here, no comedy: only one man standing on stage, literally and figuratively looking down upon his audience. He ended the groan-worthy set with one final observation: that he could buy all of the burgers at In-N-Out. The subtext? "How would you like that, you lower-middle-class bunch of slobs? How would you like it if you didn't have any more carbo-loaded Animal Style burgers to shove in your fat mouths?" Then, with an audible laugh at our expense, he ambled offstage. I have to give props to my fellow viewers: they were polite enough to clap. I stared at my friend in horror, feeling like I was somehow responsible for creating it all.
After the show, I received an email from one of the audience members, Sandip Dasgupta, who had been waiting to see Dane Cook perform for over ten years. He wrote: "When he was done, I was sad and really disappointed. His material was crass, egotistical, and simply off point. He failed to make any real connection with the audience and he didn't relate to the personal experiences of anyone." He went on to write "Cook seems to have fallen off of his horse...My admission was paid back by the younger, hungrier comics."
What happened? Comedians make fun of their audience all the time. They tell fart jokes and sex jokes and race jokes, and pick on the woman wearing braces in the front row. They aim to be controversial. And rude. And vulgar. But this was something else. This was a very famous comedian, who had built his platform via Myspace users, treating his audience with malicious condescension. He didn't attempt to understand or connect with the people who were paying upwards of $40 to watch him, but he did make sure to tell us how big his dick was, and how easy it was for him to get laid, unlike mister bald man in the corner. He poked fun at a lady with a matronly body, and a man with large ears. And the kicker? He didn't seem to realize that he was exactly the type of caricature a comedian would jump at the chance to ridicule.
Our generation is a "viewership generation." We can't stop watching people. From the Kardashians, to Beyonce, to Donald Trump (who, yes, fits more squarely into the celebrity camp than the political one) we enjoy taking a peek into other peoples' lives. Yet we also have to be able to connect with them. US Weekly has an entire column dedicated to bringing celebrities down to Earth. (Stars--They're Just Like Us!) And even the Kardashians have those vulnerable moments that let us see ourselves somewhere within that twisted Bentley-driving, couture-wearing mess of a modern day Brady Bunch. Nearly two million people checked out Justin Timberlake's interview with Jimmy Fallon, where he talked about fatherhood for the first time. Comedians, reality stars and performers are successful when they can connect to an audience, no matter how they go about doing it. Dane Cook built himself an ivory tower made of platinum albums and dollar bills, and a wall between himself and his audience. Maybe we want to see a bit of a fantasy world onscreen, but not when it's standing onstage in front of us, laughing at our expense.