NEW YORK – Dane Cook's rise to the pinnacle of standup comedy is undeniable. HBO has handed him the all-important one-man show, plus the "Tourgasm" series. He has sold out stadium shows that harken back to the `70s, when giants like Steve Martin and Richard Pryor roamed arenas. His albums rank with music stars on the sales charts, he's hosted "Saturday Night Live" multiple times, he was the leading man in the recent film "Employee of the Month."
But is he funny?
That might sound like an absurd question for the biggest name in standup — and surely a subjective one. But a number of comics and critics are wondering if Cook might be more of an energetic talent and savvy self-promoter than any kind of comedy great.
"Everyone kills this guy," says Jim Breuer, a standup veteran and former "SNL" cast member who hosts a Sirius Satellite Radio show that often includes comedians as guests. "Not one comedian comes on (my show) and says `I'm so happy for him,' which is weird. ... They can't stand this poor guy."
Breuer acknowledges Cook is a "tremendous performer," but says a lot of comedians "are upset because they really feel this guy has snatched a lot of material" — the ultimate sin among comics.
Cook has been particularly hounded by accusations that some of his material on his second album, "Retaliation," which debuted last year at No. 4 on the Billboard pop chart, bears similarities to earlier jokes by Louis CK. Cook has denied any plagiarism.
Cook generally brushes aside criticism or even welcomes it by soliciting feedback from his fans and altering his material accordingly. Still, the backlash appears to be mounting, with recent slams from Rolling Stone, Slate.com and Salon.com, and a spoof of Cook by the Fox sketch comedy show "Mad TV."
In July, Cook performed a guest spot at the Rhode Island comedy club Yuk Yuk's, where he was to perform a 20 to 30 minute set before headliner Peter Kelamis. Cook continued past his allotted time despite repeated signals to finish the act and eventually had to be cut off.
Cook wanting to extend his set wasn't remarkable, but the biting criticism from Kelamis was. He later called it "the most arrogant thing that I've ever seen in my life."
The Internet-fueled rise of the Boston-bred, 34-year-old comedian is a well-known part of his identity. In 2002, Cook spent his $25,000 savings to build a robust Web site, DaneCook.com — an avenue few if any comics then considered. He also set up a MySpace.com page, where he now has over 1.5 million friends.
"I got my balls busted for a long time when I first started the Web site," Cook recently told The Associated Press. "Those same comics that were busting on me were coming back to me five years later and asking `Hey, how do I set up a MySpace?'"
Stephen Rosenfield, director of the American Comedy Institute, says Cook's influence on standup is "in selling, as opposed to an artistic impact."
"He's been able to make it without going through the same process that a lot of comics go through, in terms of using the clubs and working their material out that way," says Rosenfield. But, he adds, Cook is "kind of like Perrier water. It's brilliantly bottled, but it's still seltzer."
Cook will sign every last autograph after a show and treats his fans with gracious, even unprecedented respect. This is an essential quality in Cook: earnestness. In the liner notes to "Retaliation," he thanks his parents: "Mom — I'm right where you always told me I'd be. Dad — I'm proud to be your son."
The badge of honor among his fans is flashing the "SuFi," or "Superfinger," a hand gesture Cook invented because (as he said in a famous bit) the regular middle finger had lost its impact as an insult. On Cook's MySpace page, there are hundreds of photos of fans with their middle two fingers extended.
This solidarity goes against everything typical of comedy, which generally tries to provoke, criticize, subvert and unsettle — revealing absurd and sometimes frightening truths. Cook's material — like his fondness for Burger King, watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher candies, guilt after cheating on a girlfriend — are predicated on their commonness.
Cook does possess a superior talent for sound effects, which greatly enhance his observations and storytelling. He can deftly impersonate the machine guns in the film "Heat," the creaking sound of a secret passageway opening or the tumble of laundry in the dryer. In one routine, he gives lyrics to a car alarm.
A sometimes overlooked quality in Cook is his boundless energy — even if you're not laughing, he's a very watchable presence with over-the-top facial gestures and stressed enunciation. The always self-aware Cook describes how watching one of his idols, Johnny Carson, influenced his approach.
"I wouldn't sit there and say I understood a lot of the jokes when I was a little kid, but I just loved Johnny," Cook says. "There's just those certain people that give off an energy. As Redd Foxx once said, `If you know what makes you likable, anything can be funny.'"
For some, energy and friendliness aren't enough.
"Where are the ... jokes?" wrote Rolling Stone. "How can any comedian get this famous with no jokes?"
That isn't a criticism the most recent standup stars — Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld — ever received. Some might say Seinfeld's observational schtick became predictable, or others might be rubbed the wrong way by Chappelle or Rock's racial content — but few could question their ability to tell jokes. Like it or not, they have material all their own.
Often performing for collegiate audiences, Cook's appeal is generational. His fan base — the "Dane Train" — skews toward the youthful MySpace set, and he's careful to insert a hip sensibility to his act.
"When I describe my act, I always tell people `If you like youriPod Shuffle on `random,' then you'll like me," Cook says, using the correct MP3 player of choice to describe his standup style.
And right now, with roles in four upcoming films and two shows Sunday at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Dane Train is full steam ahead.