No Joke

Seriously, folks -- for the first time in a generation, a comedy album is back on the charts

Cover Story

August 28, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

After 15 years of stand-up, Dane Cook has stepped out.

He's the latest comic stud, a wild and crazy guy himself, a fixture on Comedy Central who is booked for three nights at Madison Square Garden next month. The Internet-friendly Cook is also shooting a TV pilot (a Curb Your Enthusiasm-like show) and plans to be a presenter at MTV's Video Music Awards tonight in Miami.

"My manager's cell went off and I said, wait, don't tell me. Someone wants me to throw out the first pitch," says Cook. "Anything I ever wanted or dreamed of is happening. The floodgates have opened."

The call wasn't about throwing out a first pitch. Just some movie guys.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit frazzled."

And to what can Cook owe his frazzled fortune? A popular comedy album.

No joke.

Cook's rocking and ribald Retaliation (Comedy Central Records) made its debut this month at No. 4 on The Billboard 200 chart. This apparently happens every 27 years in humor nature. Not since Steve Martin's A Wild and Crazy Guy spent six weeks at No. 2 in 1978 has a comedy album cracked Billboard's Top 5. Like some rock star, Cook crashed the charts with his energetic, universal humor.

There was one person in every group of friends that nobody likes. You basically keep them there to hate their guts. When that person is not around the rest of your little base camp, your hobby is cutting that person down ...

I'm looking out and some of you guys are saying, "Umm, I disagree." Well, you're the person -- you're the person nobody likes ...

People like Dane Cook. High school people. College people. The Comedy Central crowd. Cook isn't that young (33) but he plays young. The comic earned his chops on college campuses in the 1990s before his first record,

Harmful if Swallowed, made noise in 2003. Harmful never cracked The Billboard 200, but did go on to sell 260,000 copies. Retaliation could do better.

"It may be that audio albums had been an overlooked port of entry for a comic," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine.

Well, the port has reopened, for Cook at least -- thanks to a couple of little things called cable and the Internet.

"Dane's success does say something about the outreach of Comedy Central, and you do have the Internet as a tool," Mayfield says.

Comedy Central -- home of Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle -- wields its considerable broadcast and online powers to market its comedians. In Cook's case, audio and video clips, album and individual track downloads, banner advertising and promotion on the cable channel helped Cook's two-CD / one-DVD Retaliation peak at No. 4. Comedy Central's online store, Cook's own hyperactive Web site and his home page on myspace.com haven't hurt, either. He's "Comedy's Marketing Master," says the new issue of Rolling Stone.

When Cook was signed to Comedy Central Records in 2003, comedy albums were considered more promotional tools, he says. Records were expected to sell maybe 30,000 copies. The comedy record business appeared to be mired in a 20-year slump.

"Not a lot of care was put into these albums. They were poorly produced. Bad sound. Covers had the same murky guy in some dimly lit room. There was no pop or life," Cook says. "My approach was: Let's care about every aspect of the album."

Cool cover art. Cool stuff inside. Throw in a DVD. More bang for your buck. Promote, promote, promote on the Internet.

Then, Retaliation hits No. 4. More than 190,000 copies sold. Don't know about the movie guys, but Cook's record guys must be smiling.

"Our goal was to revive comedy albums as a category," says Jack Vaughn, director of Comedy Central Records. "I grew up listening to Bob Newhart's Button-Down Mind albums. You'd share them with your friends and memorize them. I loved that part of my childhood.

"I wanted to bring that back."

Button-down Bob Newhart and in-your-face Dane Cook. Maybe these guys should meet. They could talk about the good old and new days when people listened to something called a comedy album.

Hi Bob.

"Hi," says Bob Newhart, 75, still touring (35 dates a year), still appearing on television (a recurring role on Desperate Housewives) and still doing the occasional movie (Elf). In a phone interview from Los Angeles, Newhart talked to The Sun about his record career.

A phone call was so fitting, this being the man who built his fame on imagined phone conversations. Newhart's voice is still halting, as if he's going to launch into his Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue or Sir Walter Raleigh routines. We wanted to ask him to do a little "Driving Instructor" for us, but no guts on this end of the phone.

In 1960, well before his two successful TV series, Newhart scored the No. 1 album in the country. The former accountant from Chicago then won the Grammy for Best Album over a guy named Elvis. At best, Newhart thought The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart might sell maybe 25,000 copies -- something to complement a stand-up career building on his Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar appearances.

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