Why Dane Cook Turned Down SNL and Made Up With Louis C.K.
The comedian opens up to The Last Laugh podcast about “walking away” from superstardom, saying no to Lorne Michaels, playing himself on “Louie,” and more.
Did show business walk away from Dane Cook, or was it the other way around?
That’s just one of the many questions we try to get to the bottom of on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast.
By age 35, Cook became the second stand-up comedian to ever sell out Madison Square Garden—following his spiritual predecessor Andrew Dice Clay. Like that larger-than-life ’80s icon, there is real pathos and pain beneath the surface of an intense on-stage persona that has been known to rub a lot of comedians and comedy fans alike the wrong way. But there have also been a ton of laughs.
From the moment he started blowing up on the college circuit, huge opportunities started coming Cook’s way, including a chance to effectively replace Adam Sandler on Saturday Night Live after his unceremonious firing in the mid-’90s. On the flip side of his popularity peak were comeback attempts like the unaired NBC sitcom Next Caller from You’re the Worst creator Stephen Falk and a high-profile cameo as himself on Louie in which he attempted to put their joke-stealing beef “to bed.”
Through it all, Cook—who is set to tape his first stand-up special in over a decade this month at the Wang Theatre in Boston—has remained unflappably true to himself, shutting out the haters and forcing himself to find humor in increasingly dark places.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including stories about his early days playing colleges around Boston and his latest comeback attempt—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
Did you audition for SNL? Or did they offer you a place in the cast? What exactly happened there?
So Saturday Night Live was scouting for a couple of new cast members, but I knew that after [Adam] Sandler left, they specifically wanted someone young, white, energetic. And I played guitar. And they called me up, with my manager, and they were like, “We love you. We think you bring the right—college, the whole thing, just the right package.” And so all I had to do was go in front of Lorne Michaels. I actually did some impersonations. I never did them on stage, but I could kind of get people down.
Who did you do? Do you remember?
Who did I do? I did Christian Slater. I think I slicked my hair back, kind of held my eyebrows up. But really more than anything, it was just the energy and that unbridled thing that I brought to the stage. Well, I had a huge, huge breakdown outside of Rockefeller Plaza. And I sat on a bench. I couldn’t breathe. I’ve only had in my life, fortunately, a few really bad, catatonic state-level panic attacks—incapacitated—and this was just about there sitting on that bench. The reason I couldn’t do it is because I knew I’d get it. I knew what they were telling me. And I felt like I would be fine as long as there wasn’t what I also understood, which was the politics of working there. And I had a couple of friends that were on the show, so I knew it could be cutthroat. I was not a confrontational person. I was not a person who could fight for my opinion. I was really scared a lot. And I was like, I’m not ready for that. I can’t do that. I can’t fight. And I called my manager and said, “I’m not going in.” And man, I disappointed a lot of people that day. I really disappointed myself. And then there were a lot of years on the road when I’d see [Jimmy] Fallon. Because Fallon got it.
Yeah, he kind of became the Sandler replacement?
He did. And I thought obviously he shined and he was wonderful. And so there was no doubting it. I knew Jimmy a little bit from gigs. So there was a little part of me that was happy that he seemed happy and he’s great, but also a little part of me, that’s like, “Ooh, I don’t have to do that. He can do it.”
No regrets about turning down that huge opportunity?
No, no, none whatsoever. And when I finally came back to host the show [in 2005]—and by the way, I went outside before and I sat on that same bench that I cried at and felt like I failed and told myself, no, that was the beginning of your success right in that moment. And I try, as the old bull, to mentor young people. I say, don’t feel so bad about those moments where everything’s falling apart. Sometimes that just means you’re acknowledging who you are and preparing yourself for something later.
So we’ve been talking about all of the highs of your career and obviously there were many more to come after that, whether it’s playing Madison Square Garden or anything else. But there was also a turning point when opportunities started to go away. Did you feel that? And how did you handle the flip side of your massive skyrocket to fame?
Yeah, it’s funny because I was walking away from opportunities more than opportunities were going away. And I think it was because I acknowledged that I’d hit this upper echelon of stand-up comedy. I took comedy to everywhere I dreamed of taking it. There wasn’t a place left that I wanted to bring stand-up comedy. And so there was a period where, after you play all these shows to massive, massive crowds, then you say, now I’m ready to take these fans and tell new stories in new and interesting ways. But the kicker is: the industry doesn’t want you to do that. The industry wants you to play the same note. And so you’d get a lot of scripts that start to feel pretty derivative. And I was not content to do that.
So I guess the lean years, supposedly, were after all those arena shows and those big, massive shows. But from where I was sitting, it was really like, I’ve lost my parents, I’d had this whole terrible incident with my brother where I had to put my brother—my brother went to jail for theft. And it was really me, both enjoying some life after 20 straight years of road-dogging it and taking it to the highest heights to then doing two things that were probably more important, which was taking care of my health and wellness and allowing myself to start coming up with a new game plan and where I wanted to take my fans next. So while I acknowledge that, yes, the narrative changed, when that shifted, I was OK with that. I was like, perfect, because I’m ready to change it as well. So let’s do that together.
Then I feel like there's been a lot of “comeback” narratives over the years, which a lot of people deal with. And one of them was this show Next Caller, which was a sitcom that you were going to do on NBC. And I was really curious what happened with that, because it seemed like it was a great combination of factors and that you actually shot a bunch of it, but then it never aired.
Well, we got canceled before we even had a chance to go through a pilot season. We did four episodes and we just got a phone call one day that said, that’s it, production’s shut down. And to this day, we never got a response to it. And, you know, at that point, there was no complaining. I remember I had come home for a weekend from New York where we were shooting. And I brought all my stuff, I brought all my bags. I don’t know why, because I was living in New York, but I brought everything and then I got a call and they said, yeah, it’s done. And I was like, “Oh, that’s weird, I had a weird feeling this weekend and I brought all my stuff.” But that’s just the way this business goes. There’s a lot of people making decisions beyond your hopes. And that was it.
I think it was around that same time that you appeared as yourself on Louie, which was a big moment as well. How did that come about?
At the time Louis and I were so tired of that narrative. [For years, Cook had been accused of stealing Louis C.K.’s joke premises.] It was so old hat and it was pretty boring and I know he was as tired of getting asked about it as I was. And so when he called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to put this to bed in an episode of the show?” I was like, “Oh my goodness, yes.” Because I don’t think I’d had anything in my life at that point, which was every once in a while it’s like a needle skip on an old vinyl. It’s just like I’m moving on and we’re all ready to talk about something else. But there was, I guess, an infatuation with the internet at that time of people battling each other, or having a difference of opinion. But it had grown into this thing where we wanted to take back the story. I think that for what it was, it was one of the most compelling moments in television I think in several years. It was pretty wild.
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because you were kind of coming together to put it to bed, but you were doing it on his turf. Because it’s his show. And I saw somewhere you said you maybe would have wanted to tweak some things in the script?
I got two of my tweaks in there because again, I knew it was Louis’ perspective. And I did say to him at one point, “You know, you’re projecting some of these thoughts onto me.” But I remember, I said something like, “It doesn’t matter what’s on the page. It’s all gonna be in the eyes anyway.” But the two notes that I had were, in the script he had me backstage at a comedy club and I think the original script had my name as “Kane Dook.” And I was like, “Louis, if we’re going to do this, I’ll be me and you be you.” And then I said, “You’ve got to put me in an arena, because people know me right now as the arena guy.” And he was like, “No, no, it’s going to be at a comedy club.” And he called me in my hotel a day later and he’s like, “Yeah, you know what? I changed it. You’re right.” I think he wanted that green room idea at first. I understood it, but I still was like, if we’re gonna put us both in an uncomfortable situation, you should be uncomfortable walking into my arena and I should be uncomfortable because it’s your show.
It gives it a little more equality.
Yeah. But that era, man, I look back at that time of my life, it was like a turnstile moment in my life for a number of reasons. But I do remember after that was kind of put to bed, I did a special called ISolated INcident and I called it that because I felt like this moment in my life is an isolated incident. And then after that, it was almost like a new season. It was good to finally do that. I’m very proud of it and glad that we did it, but it was nice to move away from that.
Yeah. I think it did kind of got opened up a little bit again when everything happened with Louis and the #MeToo stuff. What was that like for you? Because you were kind of framed as the villain of that story on his show and then he became a comedy villain in a larger sense. So how did you react to that whole thing?
I just remember feeling like there’s nothing good coming out of this moment right now. For me, maybe at that point in my life I’d had enough therapy that it was like, that’s not my experience to understand first-hand, because I wasn’t there on either side of it. I think that people expected [me to have a reaction], because I had a moment with Louis, but it’s not comparable to whatever else that was. That has nothing to do with two comics arguing over a bit. So, how I felt about it was, I didn’t really feel anything either way for it. Somebody asked me, did I feel good about it? I said, no, not at all. Especially since I had a camaraderie at that point with Louis and a friendship. We’d shared space after all that other stuff was put to rest. So yeah, it didn’t make me feel very good in any regard.
I’m curious, too, what you learned from your own early “cancel culture” moment. I’m thinking of the Aurora shooting joke, which was another unfortunate low point. What did you take out of that experience?
Well, I was filmed without my knowledge at a comedy club a week after [the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting]. So I felt like somebody had snuck into my home and recorded something privately and shared it. I didn’t think it was anybody’s business except for the crowd that was there that understood—and people who know me know that I am not nefarious and there’s not a malicious bone in my body. So I don’t know, how you interpreted it probably means more to you than the feeling I felt when somebody had secretly taken my performance and tried to weaponize it and hurt me with it. It was very weird.
In a larger sense, how do you feel like you’ve seen the culture around comedy change in the decades since you started?
In every single decade that I’ve been doing it there’s always been the decade before saying, “You can’t say that” and “Why would you do that?” I think that it’s more turbulent because we live in the internet times and we’re quick to jump on, pig-pile and then we’re quick to click onto something else. It’s like something shiny is over there now, something worse is happening. “Forget this, let’s look at that!” So I’ve been doing it long enough to know that you don’t really pay any attention to that stuff. It’s really meaningless. It only means something to the people that need to feel embroiled in controversy. So with “cancel culture,” I tell comics now, what you really need to focus on doing, more than anything else, is being true to who you are and tell stories that you’ve experienced and observe and report from where you sit. Because if you’re coming from the truth, people can’t fuck with that. If you’re trying to put yourself in somebody’s shoes and then you’re staggering toward an ill-advised tale, then you’re going to be in trouble. And that is the reality of the world we live in today. So, I think it’s incumbent upon artists to be truth-tellers, but tell your truth.
Do you regret apologizing in any way for it? Because if it is something that was just kind of taken out of context or you had to be there...
I don’t really know how to answer that question except to say, every single performer, every single person that’s ever been out there in front of a camera, in front of a mic, in the public eye, is going to have said or done something that they probably look back and say, “That was uncouth, that was off-kilter, that won’t age well.” I’m a stand-up comic, man. If you’re asking me to go back and look throughout my whole history, I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff that we could delve into and say, “Oh, that’s embarrassing.” The same way I look at old haircuts and jeans, I could look at pieces of material and go, look, this is where I made a misstep. So when you fuck up, if you just put yourself in a dark room and beat yourself up forever, then that’s your story. But if you can grow from it and impart and create from it, then I think it almost makes the moment more critical that it happened in the first place.
Yeah. I mean, the worst thing about “cancel culture” is that it prevents people from changing and growing and learning from things and basically says, you made this mistake, therefore that’s it for you.
Right. And listen, I’ve seen a lot of comics go through it even earlier in their career. We want our comedians to be going into the dark corners and coming back and observing. But if we’re not allowing them to figure out how to find that moment and we’re canceling them before they even really discover it, then it’s such a disservice to the laughs we all need down the line when it’s time to finally heal through humor.
Did it make you change your approach at all, knowing that it’s almost impossible to stop cameras from being in a lot of these rooms?
No. What it made me do is realize I always have to come from a truthful place and I have to talk about things from the deepest part of my gut, how I see the world and how I believe or interpret things. And if you do that, I really believe that even if somebody goes, that’s not my thing, then at least they know, or they sense you’re coming from a place of truth. That’s the only thing that we can do as we’re developing as performers, is try to bring it back to something that shows people, I lived this story, I’m in the story, this story impacts me. And I think that’s what makes good comics great comics.
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Oscar-nominated Borat Subsequent Moviefilm writer and host of the new true crime comedy series Indefensible Jena Friedman.