"Today I realize that I misunderstood what my last year of stand-up was about. I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making. If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn't. I still thought I was doing comedy." For those who assume the worst for him, these words could be Cook's 20 years from now. But they were actually written by Steve Martin in his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up. The passage describes his decision to walk away from stand-up.
Every artist feels the friction between the art he wants to perfect and the commercial realities of the business, and comedy is no different. The industry needs a constantly producing yet ultimately static product to market, while the artist needs to advance along a trajectory and develop. Cook — and this is all I'm saying, comedy snobs — seems on the right side of the divide, capable of being more artist than product. His latest DVD, Isolated Incident, is an acknowledgment that something in his career was a little off. Filmed at a comedy club, partially in front of just 30 people, it is a scenario much closer to the small Boston crowds where Cook cut his teeth. His bits are toned down — still Dane-Cooky but more insightful. The laughs on the DVD are proportional to his delivery, more natural than the screams on Rough Around the Edges, that "celebratory bash" of a DVD. Isolated Incident has the feel of an acoustic album, where your reaction is likely to be, "Okay, these songs can stand on their own."
Of course, when Cook appears this New Year's Eve at the TD Garden, it will not be in front of 30 people. It will be in front of thousands of expectant fans. They might be there to celebrate, but, in that this is the city that the comedian himself has said will never let you mail it in, my guess is that Cook will be there to work. As fans usher in a new year, Cook will be looking to usher in a new phase of his career. I don't envy him. He will have to balance the large venue with the new expectations and less animated material. But I think he's up to the challenge.
And I argue that we as a city should hope he does well. There is something uniquely Bostonian about Cook, about the storytelling and the in-your-face element of his act. An overconfident, astute Dane Cook almost had to come from Boston, the cocky Athens of America. Sure, his hyper-enunciated style might have no trace of Boston accent. But the first time I saw Cook, at the Comedy Connection in Faneuil Hall, my initial thought was that his act captured something very specific.
It's that moment when you are at a party — a pretty good party — and someone's telling a story with the whole of themselves and people gather to listen, and the speaker feels the energy and takes little creative asides and doesn't just offer punch lines, but you, the listener, know where to laugh anyway. Soon, it becomes about more than the story, the teller so completely confident in its conclusion that he will take you on rewarding detours, spitting out truths of the human heart while talking about what happened last weekend.