Once upon a time, stand-up comics ruled the earth. You remember, back in the '70s, when pioneers like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin played to packed arenas, released best-selling records and seemed to be the voices of a generation. Then Saturday Night Live took over the comedy world, and the iconoclasts were replaced by the satiric ensemble, sketch players, guys who could do a Bill Clinton impression. Enter Dane Cook, who just may swing the pendulum back.
After serving his time in the comedy-club trenches, Cook, 34, broke through with a hot website, offering downloads of routines and chatting with fans. His second album, Retaliation, debuted last year at No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart, the hottest-selling comedy album since Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy in 1978. Now Cook has an HBO deal and a budding movie career and has hosted SNL too. His targets are familiar sex, dating, eating at Burger King. But what makes him stand out is his hyperarticulate exuberance. He greets life's exasperations not with the whine of Seinfeld or the assaultive rant of Chris Rock but with the thrill of a class prankster turned cultural anthropologist. He longs to own a pet monkey, take part in a heist, watch a pedestrian get hit by a car. When a couple in the supermarket line get into a "nothing fight," Cook abandons his cart to go listen. Creeped out by that weird guy in the office? Cook's advice: make friends. Then when he starts shooting up the office, he'll skip you, offering instead a friendly, "Thanks for the candy." Sweet.