Great Dane took a bite out of the Competition in 1995

Dane Cook battled it out with Doug Stanhope in one of the best competitions ever

Dane Cook isn’t everywhere. It just seems that way. The San Francisco International Comedy Competition alumni starred in three movies this year, was included in People magazine’s sexiest man alive issue and appeared in an omnipresent Major League Baseball advertising campaign.

Oh, and his comedy career is doing just fine, too. He released his third album, which quickly joined the other two in the top five comedy albums on iTunes. Rough Around the Edges, the latest CD/DVD, sold 92,000 copies in the first six days and is also the name of the national tour he is wrapping up to end the year. At the end of the 25-city tour, Cook estimates that he will have performed for 350,000 fans at sold out arenas across North America.

Dane Cook

Dane Cook - Off The Wall

Oh, and his comedy career is doing just fine, too. He released his third album, which quickly joined the other two in the top five comedy albums on iTunes. Rough Around the Edges, the latest CD/DVD, sold 92,000 copies in the first six days and is also the name of the national tour he is wrapping up to end the year. At the end of the 25-city tour, Cook estimates that he will have performed for 350,000 fans at sold out arenas across North America.

“Almost every one of these arenas comes up and says to me ‘we can’t believe that a comedian is doing this.’ They might be a little understaffed and maybe not prepared for the juggernaut,’” Cook said in a recorded phone message to his fans on his website, danecook.com. “It’s not always understood that it’s going to be a rock-n-roll atmosphere at a comedy show.”

It’s something that those who watched the 1995 Comedy Competition might have an easier time understanding. In one of the most talent-rich exhibitions in the competition’s 30-year history, Cook stormed into the 1995 finals. Most nights, according to Producer Jon Fox, the stage wasn’t big enough to contain his high-energy act.

“Dane was really milking this Tyrannosaurus Rex bit and jumping up on tables, his major moment in the act each night,” Fox said. “He’s very athletic and he would literally jump on a table in the audience. It might have been inspired by Jurassic Park. He definitely had that pantomime down.”

But Cook didn’t win in a cakewalk. In fact, he didn’t win at all. He took second place behind Doug Stanhope who went on to become one of the most sought after comedians worldwide as evidenced by his glowing reviews at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival.

“Dane Cook is my comedy nemesis and it all started with the San Francisco Comedy Competition,” Stanhope said in a radio interview. “I’d be on one of those lists of top ten comics to watch and he’d be right next to me. For the Man Show it came down to me and him. I got it so I think he won that one.”

Stanhope, who had a high-energy closer of his own that year featuring a shaken beer and foam all over his face, said he’s never had anything against Cook. But he did take issue with Cook’s manager, Barry Katz. The producer of Last Comic Standing as well as Cook’s Tourgasm on HBO and his HBO special Viscious Circle, Katz goaded Stanhope into a bet on the first night of the competition.

Stanhope said that before the competition Katz asked him if he wanted to bet the prize money that Cook would beat him.

“It’s like three weeks, the first night I didn’t come in in the top five…Dane Cook came in second,” Stanhope said.

Just as Stanhope was thinking about packing it in, he said he walked past Barry Katz at the bar.

“He goes, ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t bet prize money,’” Stanhope said. “And I go ‘Fuck you, I’ll bet you a $100 right now that I’ll win this entire thing, regardless of your guy.’”

Stanhope and Cook weren’t the only names competing in a year that Fox said is one the vintage years of the storied competition. No small claim for a contest that has featured Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Louis C.K., and single years that included Sinbad and Ellen DeGeneres (1985) and Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt and Carlos Alazraqui (1993).

Competing against Stanhope and Cook were national headliners Dwight Slade, Robert Hawkins and Arj Barker.

Slade, who later won the Seattle Comedy Competition, took third.

“They were all neck and neck that last week. There was so much buzz that year,” Fox said. “Dwight has always had a really strong act.”

Slade said he was brimming with confidence after dominating his preliminary week. Stanhope even said to him that he heard he was the guy to beat.

“Then I saw the line up from the second week of prelims do their show,” Slade said. “Doug Stanhope, Dane Cook, JR Brow, Paul Nardizzi from Boston. JESUS, what a week. The second week of prelims of 1995 must have been insanely competitive.”

Dane Cook Wildcard

Dane Cook - Wildcard

Slade immediately took a liking to Stanhope’s “irreverent, tavern-act sort of personality,” because he had a strong act but wasn’t afraid to stray from it and take chances on being spontaneous.

“I like comics who have a mischievous, good natured attitude about comedy. With Doug, it’s always about the comedy. The business always comes second.” Slade said. “To me, Doug loves comedy and comics and goes through life sort of looking around and saying to every other comic: ‘Can you believe we get to do this for a living.’”

He said he was also impressed with how he didn’t peak with his win in the competition. Stanhope has released four comedy CDs, hosted the Man Show, is a huge draw in clubs and recently grabbed all the headlines at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival with his typical mischievous, dark humor.

Just days after drawing the ire of many for saying that Irish women were too ugly to rape, Stanhope drew a rave review in The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s main paper. It started with the line, “I COULDN’T speak when I left this show and I am still finding it hard to find words to describe to you how jaw-droppingly, breath-takingly, awesomely funny Stanhope is.”

Slade, who was also featured at the Edinburgh Festival this year, said he could tell early on that Stanhope was special.

“He and I co-headlined a show about eight months after the finals,” he said. “I was blown away with how great he had become. Meanwhile I was plugging along with my same tired jokes. He was inspiring.”

Slade also hung out with Cook during the finals and enjoyed riffing with him.

“I love doing characters and Dane is a genius at warping in and out of characters,” Slade said. “We were both sort of the crazy, physical white guys in the competition. We stole each other’s thunder. When I went up ahead of him in the order, I would finish ahead of him. When he went up ahead of me, he would finish ahead of me. Out of the 11 shows we did in the Semis and Finals I went up ahead of him only three times. It was
frustrating.”

Like many comedians, Cook, who started comedy in Boston in 1990, drew on a family life that was turbulent with six siblings but a gold mine for comedy. He cites an incident when he was in junior high and following a domestic dispute his father was asked to leave the house.

“We were just laying in my mom’s bed in supreme silence,” he told People Magazine. “Then she takes this deep breath and goes, ‘I think I’m ready to start dating.’ I will never forget the sound of the laugh that came out of all of us.”

His energy combined with a shrewd business sense has turned Cook into one of the most successful comedians ever. In 2002 he spent $25,000 on a website that draws more than 500,000 hits a month and fed a MySpace.com surge that has built a fan base of more than 2 million fans. Retaliation, his second album, is in the double platinum range. HBO will soon air his concert Vicious Circle and Employee of the Month with Jessica Simpson will hit theaters this month.

Fox said Cook had the foresight to know that talent alone wasn’t enough.

Dane Cook in a box

Dane Cook - in a box

“His impact on MySpace is unbelievable. He’s the Daniel Boone of MySpace,” Fox said.
“He’s a deserving comic but the success wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the marketing that he continues to demonstrate.”

Cook continues to use the Internet to connect with his fans. His recent tour has had webisodes including footage of women getting tattoos honoring him and phone calls to fans where he thanks them, apologizes for shows starting late and tells them what a great time he’s having.

Not all of the attention on the Internet has been positive. Accusations that Cook stole material from other comics have burned up many an online chat room. Some have joked that he couldn’t even spell his own last name without borrowing heavily from Louis C.K., another one-time San Francisco Comedy Competition finalist. Several websites have played Cook’s bits next to the nearly identical and previously published bits of C.K. On a recent DaneCast on his website, Cook addressed those concerns.

“I’ve also had stuff pilfered from me and what are you going to do. I’ve never done it,” he said. “It’s sour grapes…jealousy…they keep talking and it says more about them than it does about me.”

Cook quickly moves on in the ten-minute phone call to his fans, thanking them over and over again and urging them to keep buying his DVD, so it will go gold and allow them to share in his success. Turning fans into team members seems to be part of the successful marketing campaign.

But for three weeks in the Fall of 1995 it had nothing to do with marketing but talent, talent that drew a huge spread in San Francisco Chronicle. Ultimately it came down to Stanhope and Cook and Stanhope’s $100 bet with Barry Katz.

“The whole three weeks it was me and him, neck and neck the whole way,” Stanhope said. “I won, he came in second and it took me a year of busting (Katz’s) balls to get my money. I sent my mother up to him at the Improv. She said ‘you owe my son $60,’ and he said ‘I only got $20.’ She said, ‘I’ll take it.’”

Luckily he didn’t have to wait for the prize money, which was enough of a boon that he gave away the car he’d been living in on the road for the past few years, Fox said.

“He gave it to a worthy recipient, local prankster Wavy Gravy,” Fox said. “Typically, the transfer turned out to be pretty sticky though so it never went through.”

But for everyone who was there in 1995, it was just the start of a helluva ride.

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