Dane Cook surprises no one with Aurora theater shooting joke at L.A. Laugh Factory

Dane Cook is once again grasping for material in strange, un-funny places.
Dane Cook is once again grasping for material in strange, un-funny places.

Dane Cook went and did something that should surprise exactly no one who’s familiar with his abrasive form of humor: he was one of the first high-profile comedians to tell a joke using the Aurora theater shooting as a backdrop. And, lucky us, someone who was at his L.A. Laugh Factory set last night recorded it and put it online (see below).

We knew this was going to happen eventually — and that the outrage directed toward it would be predictable and widespread, judging by the number of articles on the topic currently clogging the Interwebs.

But is it justified?

Hearing the joke (and the audience’s tepid, nervous reaction, in which groans turn to applause a little too quickly) brings up a few considerations, especially in light of the recent Daniel Tosh rape-joke controversy and Cook’s own apparently harsh, unraveling set at the L.A. Laugh Factory in January (against which Denver-bred comic T.J. Miller took a public stand).

Few would argue over Cook’s right to say whatever he wants. But as with rape jokes, or 9/11 jokes in the early days after that national tragedy, the question shouldn’t ultimately be, “Is it appropriate?” but “Is it funny?” That’s the bottom line in comedy.

9/11 jokes, for example, have taken many forms over the years. And just like that event or any number of historical atrocities and tragedies, the Aurora theater shooting will eventually find its way into more comedians’ routines as we get more distance from the event — just think about the number of Holocaust jokes you hear in the average year.

Since comedy is subjective, it’s impossible to say whether or not something is funny to everyone in all contexts (Charlie Chaplin notwithstanding). But comedians draw a clear line when deciding who the butt of the joke is and what the joke ultimately says. Yes, a rape joke can be funny if the butt of the joke isn’t victim, but our attitudes about rape. But it’s also true that rape jokes have become the lazy crutch of far too many comedians who would rather shock us than provide insight into our attitudes.

Cook said that “The Dark Knight Rises'”was such a crappy film that “…if none of that (shooting) would have happened, I’m pretty sure that somebody in that theater, about 25 minutes in, realizing it was a piece of crap, was probably like, ‘Ugh, fucking shoot me.'”

Clearly, the butt of the joke here is not the shooting victims. But like many entertainers, Cook is jumping on a raw subject knowing full well our sensitivity to it, and he’s not granting any insight, adding any sort of twists or otherwise bringing the discussion to a different place. He’s just picking at a wound and watching us wince.

Cook can say whatever he wants, but as he’s proven lately, it’s increasingly just a barrage of lazy harshness instead of the idea-based currency that the best stand-ups trade in during their sets.

Our grade: fail.

Update: A few minutes ago Cook posted an apology on his Twitter page, presumably to address the online criticism he’s gotten over the joke. Read the full text of it here.

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John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and blogs editor for The Denver Post and the author of “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” (Speck Press/Fulcrum). Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.