Early in the premiere episode of Dane Cook’s Tourgasm on HBO, the series makes a point to mention that Dane Cook’s comedy album, Retaliation, sold 86,000 copies in its first week and landed fourth on the Billboard chart, the best since Steve Martin’s 1978 Wild and Crazy Guy. When all my friends went gaga over Cook’s CD last year, I boasted that I remembered when the comedian was still ripping off his shirt on Comedy Central. Very little has changed about Cook’s act since then—he’s still a moderately clever writer, and a delightfully aggressive stage presence—but now the world is different. At the start of the 21st century, Cook was just another goofy Comedy Central Presents supporting player, but between then and 2005 his confrontational, sexually-charged wisecracking connected with confused teenagers; much like Hostel’s vengeful third act restored American confidence in light of overseas horrors, Cook broaches ribald, sometimes violent material then deflates it with a comfortable smirk. He lays bare the audience’s ugliest impulses by twisting them into strangely cathartic punchlines: “You ever turn around in my driveway again, I’m gonna cut your fucking head off. I’m gonna put your head on my antenna,” Cook fantasizes telling a driver in one set from Retaliation; his rage, over someone using his driveway as a turnaround point, expresses a uniquely American frustration—loss of control—and Cook’s genius is in finding a uniquely American remedy to our problems.
Sadly, though, little of Cook’s comedy finds its way into Tourgasm, a reality-show-cum-stand-up-special that attempts to unearth the fears, hopes and obsessions of not one but four different comics (least of which may be Cook’s), who travel together for a 30-day tour of 20 college campuses. HBO, still reeling from The Sapranos’ ratings slump and the failure of Michael Patrick King’s derivative The Comeback, must see Cook as an opportunity to bring in a whole new set of viewers, and Cook benefits from the cachet of a network that has hosted specials by several of the most important comedians of the last 25 years. And Tourgasm, in concept, is a better pitch than a special, because it stretches the ratings across nine episodes and enters the network into a juicy mainstream category it has since shied away from: the bitchfest reality show.
But all this adds up to what may be the most pointless series HBO has ever produced. Not only are clips of the stand-up shows slim—one joke per comic, ostensibly just to let the viewer know each one is still alive—but it turns out Cook’s friends are disastrously unfunny (the portly Robert Kelly predictably jokes that appetizers must have been invented by a fat guy), and they kill Cook’s electrifying energy. Most time is spent off the stage, where the comics add nothing unique to the regular bickering seen on The Real World: one starts talking about porn, the sensitive guy (Jay Davis) becomes offended, later starts crying, they make up. They also prove the myth that comics are significantly less funny in person; each one desperately vies for the attention of a good crack but usually lands of his face, as when one, saying he’s the glue that holds the bus together, suggests everyone will call him “Elmer” by the end of the trip. Paul Brownfield of the LA Times argues that this is “steeped in VH1,” but at least VH1 can manufacture exciting trash; Tourgasm reeks of a money-grubbing network handing over a camera crew to Cook (who is credited as director) and saying “have fun.” For Cook and his friends, this may be fun, indeed, but for the rest of the country it’s just some guy’s tedious travelogue.