Back in the noughties, Dane Cook practically ruled the comedy world. The stand-up sold out stadiums, hit the Billboard top five and was all over the burgeoning social media scene. And Hollywood couldn’t get enough of him, either – the comedian made eight films in just four years. All of a sudden, however, the studios stopped calling. And the reasons why may well surprise you.
A Massachusetts native, Cook came into the world in March of 1972. A self-confessed introvert as a child, he finally found his confidence in high school and started performing comedy routines. And in college, though he majored in graphic design, he had already set his sights on a career in stand-up.
After relocating to Los Angeles in 1996, Cook began performing and gaining exposure. But his big break finally came in 1998, when Comedy Central offered him a spot on its comedy showcase series Premium Blend. It was just two years later that Cook landed his own stand-up special.
From there, Cook’s career went from strength to strength. His debut comedy album Harmful If Swallowed, released in 2003, went platinum. And Cook’s next record, 2005’s Retaliation, was so popular that it entered the top five of the Billboard music chart – a feat no comedian had achieved in nearly 30 years.
By 2007, then, Cook was a pretty big deal. He even performed two sell-out concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden in a single day; only one other comedian at the time had ever sold out a gig at the venue. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone magazine named Cook their Hot Comic of the year. The world, it seemed, couldn’t get enough of him.
But then it all started to go wrong. Cook himself has since admitted that he saw his fall from fame coming. “I knew that it was going to happen,” he revealed on AOL series Build in 2015. “I told my family a couple of years earlier. [I said,] ‘I’m about to get my ass whipped in the spanking machine, big time.’” And boy, did his ass get whipped.
Specifically, Cook’s downfall, was threefold. For starters, the comedian had found himself the subject of plagiarism rumors for years. In fact, several comics – the now-disgraced Louis C.K. among them – has accused him of joke theft. There were claims that Cook’s Retaliation album, for instance, contains some extremely similar material to that of C.K.’s Live in Houston set, which had been released four years earlier.
So prevalent were these rumors, in fact, that C.K. even wrote and performed sketch about them, which appeared in the second season of his comedy series Louie. Airing in 2011, the scene featured C.K. making light of the situation – joined by Cook himself. Eventually, though, C.K.’s character admits that he does believe Cook stole his material – but that “it was inadvertent.”
For the comedians concerned, then, it’s perhaps fair to say that the matter was closed. However, thanks to the web, Cook’s reputation as a thief hasn’t vanished entirely. During an interview on Build, Cook said, “When you live on the internet, nothing is ever over. It’s kind of the bathroom wall of our lives.” And so the rumors, it seems, still dog the comic to this day.
In the midst of all of this controversy, meanwhile, Cook suffered two huge personal tragedies. For starters, the comedian lost both of his parents; his mother Donna succumbed to cancer in 2006 and, within a year, his father George had also passed away. And as you can imagine, the losses hit Cook hard. “It’s outlandish the amount of pain I was in,” the comic told The Washington Post in 2011.
However, 2008 brought another bombshell. Cook’s half-brother and business manager, Daryl McCauley, was convicted of fraud. You see, McCauley and his wife Erika had reportedly siphoned money amounting to millions from the comedian. The couple were subsequently given custodial sentences and ordered to make restitution to their victim.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that in 2011 Cook told The Washington Post that he was no longer performing comedy. “I don’t want to say that I’ve retired,” he explained. “But this in an important time to switch my energy into something new.” And, as it happens, Cook had been trying his hand at a new creative career for several years: acting.
Since 1999’s Flypaper, in fact, Cook had landed a string of supporting movie roles. He also tried stepping into the shoes of the leading man, too, starring in rom-coms such as 2008’s My Best Friend’s Girl. Unfortunately, though, many critics didn’t love his new direction. “Can we just finally admit that Dane Cook isn’t funny?”Entertainment Weekly asked upon the release of 2007 comedy Good Luck Chuck.
And Cook’s attempt at drama didn’t fare much better. After appearing alongside Kevin Costner in 2007 serial-killer thriller Mr Brooks, the comedian earned a scathing review from Stereogum. According to the site, Cook playing “a completely serious role” was “abysmal” and “funnier than any of his comedic performances.” Yikes.
If Cook had just received bad reviews, though, Hollywood might not have cared. But he broke the cardinal rule of movie-making: he simply didn’t make enough money. 2006’s Employee of the Month, for example, brought in less than $40 million. And Good Luck Chuck made about the same amount the following year, even though it had had double the budget. So, it seems that his popularity among comedy fans just wasn’t translating to movie tickets.
And sadly, Cook’s post-2011 projects continued that downward trend. Guns, Girls and Gambling, for one, went straight to DVD in 2012 with a 29 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And aside from providing a voice for Cars spin-off Planes in 2013 and its sequel the following year, Cook’s acting work was drying up.
In 2015, then, Cook took matters into his own hands by executive producing and starring in 400 Days, a sci-fi flick examining the effects of long-term galactic travel on the human psyche. Unfortunately for the comedian, though, it was critically panned. For example, The Guardian likened it to “watching Solaris performed by sock puppets.” And as if that weren’t bad enough, in the U.K. the film made just $58.
In more recent years, however, things have started to look up for Cook. In fact, he made a return to comedy, albeit with a much lower-key presence, filling theaters instead of stadiums. And it looks as though Cook’s acting career is even back up and running as well.
After well-received guest roles on two TV shows, Workaholics in 2016 and American Gods a year later, Cook may well be in with a second chance in Hollywood. Indeed, the comedian already has two movies slated for release. One, American Exit, is a drama, while the second is an ensemble comedy titled American Typecast.
But despite Cook’s ups and downs, he seems to be taking it all in stride. As he said on AOL show Build, “The pendulum swings both ways.” After all, rough patches are par for the course in the entertainment industry. And while the comedian has no doubt suffered, his time in the wilderness appears to be over. At least until the pendulum swings back, that is…