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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Dane Cook is a phenomenon.

One of those rare performer who elevates his craft to new heights, Cook turned the good old-fashioned concept of hard work into an art form that made him the most acclaimed comedian of his era and spawned a generation of immitators who only come up lacking in comparison.

Cook paid the typical dues in the dive bars and the often lonely clubs of the comedy circuit when he kicked off his standup career in 1994 but had the wisdom and foresight to use the technology of the Internet to build a rabid fan base. So when day-late, dollar-short critics and pundits who were out of the loop marveled at the stunning success of Cook's breakout double-platinum(!) album "Retaliation" -- and insiders who had only days before spurned his requests for representation did an immediate 180 -- the "overnight superstar" merely laughed the last laugh.

"I honestly saw this coming," the comedian said in an exclusive interview with The Albany Herald in advance of his tour-opening performance at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center Thursday. "A few weeks before 'Retaliation' came out -- after I'd built my fan base on the Web and talked with every single person who came to one of my meet-and-greets -- I knew I was reaching the top of my game. Feedback just kept doubling and doubling.

"As it got closer -- about two weeks or so before the album came out -- I called all these publicists trying to find one to represent me. I told them everything was about to hit the fan, but I couldn't find any takers. Within 24 hours after the CD dropped, all of them called me back asking if they could reconsider."

IN THE SAME way Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and George Carlin took the humor of Lenny Bruce and reshaped it to fit their own styles and circumstances, Cook has refined the storytelling prowess of those legends and added the physical elements of a Chevy Chase to create a brand of post-fratboy humor that no comedian nears, though many have tried.

"Actually, I find it flattering," Cook said when asked about his many immitators.

With a lightning-quick wit unparalelled among his peers, a work ethic and savvy few can equal and the good looks to draw ladies under his spell, Cook's sphere of influence expanded beyond the boundaries of comedy. Hollywood came calling -- and unlike many of his contemporaries, they weren't just looking for codemic stunt scenes from the latest big name.

In films like "Mystery Men," "Waiting ...," "Employee of the Month," "Good Luck, Chuck," "Dan in Real Life," "Mr. Brooks" and "My Best Friend's Girl," the funnyman found himself starring opposite some of film's biggest names. And suddenly -- thank you, tabloids -- the hard-working comedian -- and self-proclaimed "wallflower" --was drawing as much attention for his personal life, his choice of companions, as he was his film and comedy work.

Now some 16 years into an unlikely career that has made him, well, a phenomenon, Cook is going back to basics, back to the stage that made him a superstar. On the day before his 26-performance tour winds down (on Nov. 23) his "Dane Cook -- I Did My Best -- Greatest Hits" album will drop.

Prepare for Dane-mania ... Part III.

In advance of Thursday's tour-opening performance, Cook took some time to talk via phone from Los Angeles with The Herald.

ALBANY HERALD: You're kicking off this tour in Tallahassee and making four stops in Florida before heading up north. Did you have a say in that, or was that strictly a management call?

DANE COOK: Actually I did have a lot to do with it, and that came about on a couple of levels. There was quite an outpouring for me there during my last tour. Also, during my formulative years when I started playing more than three towns away from my home in Boston, there were two states I visited most often: Florida and Michigan. They were so welcoming during that time when things weren't so easy, and something like that stays with you.

AH: You're getting ready to put out a new album and doing this tour at a time when your career has really taken off. Is this a getting-back-to-the-roots thing for you?

DC: I'm excited about all this happening now, but it was really an accident that the album is actually coinciding with the tour. The album is called 'I Did My Best -- Greatest Hits,' and it includes stuff I know the fans enjoy plus some new stuff that I think will fit alongside that material. It's something for the fans who've always been with me and for the new fans. The (stage show) is an hour or so of fresh material, it's a whole new performance. It's kind of a gift to all those people who have supported me.

AH: You seem to thrive in front of a live audience. Did you miss that part of your career?

DC: Oh, definitely, I missed the immediate thrill that you get from a live audience. I just finished a bunch of films back-to-back, and it was like going to school for me learning from all those great actors. But even then there was this little tiny scratch in the back of my brain that missed the instant reaction of a live crowd. I have an unbelievable, undeniable connection with my audience.

AH: You paid your dues like all comedians, and then there was this all-of-a-sudden rock-star moment. What was that like?

DC: I've been asked that a lot over the last 10 years or so, and I can honestly say it never ceases to amaze me. I saw it coming before everything really took off, and I just knew everything was about to hit the fan. But when 'Retaliation' (which debuted and stayed for several weeks in the Top 5 of the Billboard Pop Charts) dropped, it instantly changed my life. What really dazzles you, though, is to still be relevant 10 years in. That's what keeps me jumping out of bed every morning.

AH: You brought a whole new dimension to comedy; you were an innovator like a Richard Pryor or a Lenny Bruce. Of course, with success, there usually comes the backlash, and people started taking shots at you ...

DC: It's absolutely flattering and humbling when everyone starts talking about you, but as time goes on the detractors start in. Because some of the luster wears off, though, people can be treacherous. But that's never really bothered me. I just put my head down and charge forward. The only thing that's really bothered me is when (criticism) has affected my fans. It frustrates me, and it's confusing for my family. That has taken a little of the fun out of this, but I guess in a strange way it's a compliment. It's all part of the ride.

AH: Comedians are usually 'guy acts.' You, however, have used your charm, wit and good looks to win over the women without the guys being jealous. Is that some kind of magic?

DC: I was not the cool kid in school; I was the wallflower who felt insignificant. I know part of this is the allure of the stage, but I think I've connected with my fans because they understand that with me it's all about pleasing them. It's all about the show.

AH: The appeal of your comedy is the clever wit, but there's a whole other element to what you do live. Is the physical part of your comedy something you work into your act or is it a natural part of what you do?

DC: Actually, one of my greatest strengths is being spontaneous in the moment. As a young comic, I understood my strengths and weaknesses, and one of the first lessons I learned is that I can patch things together -- do segues -- well on the fly. I think I'm pretty good at creating stories out of fragments, and like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy -- I love the storytellers -- I have made this skill one of my most important weapons.

AH: Any fear that you'd ever lose the hunger that drove you to such phenomenal success?

DC: I'm really more hungry now than I've ever been. After having the perspective of seeing (my career) from inception to fruition -- seeing the misses, the incompletes, the foul balls, the moments where I only hit a double instead of a home run -- I know what it's really taken to get to this point. I'm still young in this business, and I'm looking forward to new challeneges, to taking risks. Whether I'm working on some new project like writing books -- which I hope to be doing soon -- a film, some TV stuff I've got in the works or whatever, Dane Cook is still a work in progress.

AH: With the new material coming out -- and new audiences -- do you have any fear that you'll end up competing with yourself, that people will be comparing the 'new Dane' to the 'old Dane?'

DC: I actually like the idea of competing against what I've done in the past. What I've tried to do in my career is steer clear of the reviewers and stay in touch with the fans. I've allowed myself to grow and change; I try not to remain one person. I appreciate what things were like for me 10 years ago, but if someone from that era indicates he doesn't like new material I'm doing I don't say, 'Oh, s---, I lost a fan.' I just assume he's grown in a different way and hope that he'll peak back in at some point and like the new perspective. People grow, people change.

I had an opportunity to talk with Bill Cosby, and he told me, 'Personally, I can't tell what the key to success is. I don't know the key to success, but I do know the key to failure. And that's trying to please everyone.'