The comedian returns to the stage with heavier material and refreshed earnestness

By Adam B. Vary
May 15, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

By all rights, Dane Cook should find it pretty hard to be funny right now. His film career (My Best Friend’s Girl, Good Luck Chuck) hasn’t gained any traction. His name has become a proxy for every stand-up comic d-bag. His half brother and business manager was indicted in March for allegedly stealing millions from him. And in the summer of 2006, his mother passed away from cancer; nine months later, his father did too.

But the last thing Cook wants to do is wallow. ”My mom and dad were all about: You work,” the 37-year-old Boston native says quietly while waiting his turn at an L.A. batting cage — a tribute to his baseball-fanatic father. ”Even sitting with them when they were sick, it was like, ‘Why are you here? Go to work. Get out of this room.”’

So Cook went to work, putting together a brand-new stand-up routine, which debuts on Comedy Central as a one-hour special on May 17 (10 p.m. ET). Although it features typically Dane Cook-ian riffs on Hilary Duff, ”c–k-blockers,” and dropping his cell phone into a public toilet, it’s decidedly not a light and jaunty affair. Filmed in one unbroken take at an intimate L.A. nightclub, Cook jumps from talking about deleting his late mother’s name from his phone to daring to Google himself (”Google was like, ‘Are you sure?”’).

”It was therapy for me,” Cook says. ”It came from a very dark place, and I flipped it on its side.” Cook took particular satisfaction from reading the audience one nasty anonymous e-mail: ”Your parents got cancer and died to get away from your s—ty comedy.” It’s typical, he says, of ”the bathroom wall of the Internet,” but getting his audience to laugh at that hostility ”is empowering.” The one topic Cook won’t touch is his half brother Darryl McCauley, awaiting trial on charges of absconding with Cook’s millions: ”Story for another day.”

On this particular day Cook is laid-back and thoughtful. He doesn’t possess the self-deprecating anxiety that most stand-ups wear as a badge of honor. With 2.5 million MySpace friends and counting, Cook speaks earnestly of taking his ongoing U.S. arena tour overseas by the end of the year. ”See the world,” he says. ”Make people laugh. Broaden the international base [of fans]. I used to go into a town, do a show, and ask ‘Where are we going next?’ Now it’s like, ‘Hold on. We’re in Italy? Let’s take a few days and just enjoy life.”’

Yup, Those Are Dane Cook’s Abs

Dane Cook is looking seriously buff. His fitness kick began while he was making the 2007 rom-com Good Luck Chuck. But aren’t comics supposed to be schlubby? ”I always looked at it the other way,” Cook laughs. ”Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin — they can be goofy, but they take care of themselves.”