Some 18,000 pumped fans crowd into Boston's TD Banknorth Garden on a recent evening, hoarse and sweaty and impatient. For half an hour they chant, over and over, "We want Dane!" Some have paid brokers $500 to be here. When Dane Cook finally takes the stage, the place erupts in a deafening roar.
It is a rock star's welcome — for a stand-up comic. Cook is 34, trim, hot-looking and one of the hottest new comedians around. Retaliation, his latest (and second) album, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard music charts, the highest any comic has hit since Steve Martin in 1978.
Cook also has landed a deal with Time Warner's HBO channel. HBO filmed his show at the Garden, usually home to the Boston Celtics, for a one-hour special to air in September. HBO also wants Cook to produce a new series. And it plans to run "Tourgasm," a nine-part documentary series he shot on tour last year. Elsewhere, he landed $1 million to costar in "Employee of the Month," a film due this fall. He is shooting "Mr. Brooks," a murky thriller with Kevin Costner and Demi Moore, and will soon start a comedy with Steve Carell, the 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Oh, and Time magazine just named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world; "Saturday Night Live" had him host; and he has had to deny tabloid reports that he bedded Jessica Simpson.
So where did this guy come from? Dane Cook arguably is the first Internet-made stand-up comedy star. Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and others played club dates, grabbed a few TV gigs and later got their own sitcoms. Cook started in the clubs, too, but he has forged an alternate route to stardom that barely requires leaving the bedroom. He has plugged himself and his humor online for six years. "I've never thought I was an 8:30 kind of guy," he says (8:30 p.m. being a popular sitcom time slot).
Cook is a superstar in the teeming, cliquish world of MySpace, the let's-be-pals site that News Corp. paid $600 million to acquire last year. Millions of people post personal profiles on MySpace, inviting others to link to their pages as "friends."
Cook erected his page in late 2003, filling it with daily tidbits and links to a separate personal Web site, DaneCook.com, where fans can hear his raunchy jokes and see video clips of his latest gigs. Since then a startling 1.2 million MySpace "friends" have linked to his MySpace page, an adoring audience ripe for his personal plugs.
"Dane has used the Internet to create and maintain a unique relationship with his audience," says Chris Albrecht, chief of HBO. "It's a way for people to spread the word about Dane among themselves, as opposed to someone trying to advertise their way into a fan base."
His humor is ideal for MySpace, known for an abundance of come-hither mug shots and ribald flirting. Cook is an R-rated Seinfeld, musing on the mundane but spicing it up with graphic yarns of sexual encounters and furious pantomime.
Cook grew up with a brother and five sisters in Arlington, Mass., graduating from high school in 1990, skipping college to do six nights a week of stand-up in local clubs. Soon he was earning $100 a night. In 1995 his manager secretly invited ABC network execs to a New York gig, which led to a pilot for a hidden-camera reality show. It wasn't picked up, but Cook got $75,000.
In 1999 came two pivotal moves: Cook spent $50 to put up an early Web site, an online billboard, and signed on with Comedy Central for a half-hour special. It aired in 2000 and was so popular that the cable channel reran it three times a week for a while. Cook was paid only $15,000, a one-time fee. The real payoff came online: His crude Web page, which got only 50 or so visitors each week, suddenly jumped to 4,000 hits a week.
Finding his audience
That inspired him to spend $30,000 — everything he had in the bank — to hire a slick Web-design firm to upgrade his site to play his comic bits, handle online sales of CDs and T shirts and offer updates. He trolled teen-oriented chatrooms to learn what kids do on the Web: "I want you to know I'm not a pedophile, I'm 29 years old, I just want to know what's cool."
Soon he made his way to MySpace, putting up his page in December 2003, three weeks before the site officially opened. To promote his HBO gig at the Garden in Boston last month, he began touting it on his MySpace page in January, revealing details of a password-only advance ticket sale for die-hard fans. His two shows sold out in less than a week; the show's promoters didn't have to spend $125,000 they had budgeted for ads.
Barry Katz, Cook's manager, says he takes pride in being out ahead of his clients on new entertainment trends, "but in this case, Dane was one step ahead of me and the rest of the comedy community — and the world."
Cook saw stand-up as a back door to his real aim of acting, writing and producing, he says, and he always wanted to build his own brand. "I wanted a Bat signal, my Nike swoosh. I wanted to be a mogul, but in the coolest possible way." Today his would-be logo is an oddball symbol he calls the SuFi ("SOO-fye"), for "SuperFinger," a variation on the obscene hand gesture of a single extended middle finger. In his case he doubles up to use the middle and ring fingers together, as if he is twice as ticked off.
Fans love it. And on MySpace, they feel responsible for his success. "It's fantastical!" one MySpace "friend" wrote in a post to Cook's page the other day. "I'm so happy you are finally getting the recognition you deserve … Su-Fi for life!"