Deon Cole is a comedy titan. As soon as he steps foot on that stage, you get a sense immediately of who he is and what he is about before he even has to open his mouth. You forget for a moment you’re even watching a comedian. The energy that he gives off and that is given off by the audience right back to him suggests something more than your traditional comedy. There’s an electricity that oftentimes is lost when you commit a stand up to film. But you sure as hell feel it here, right as that spotlight hits him. And when he finally does open his mouth, he asks “White people. Is there anything you hate about black people? Go!”
Deon Cole is someone that’s been in the game for about 30 years now. He is at a peak moment right now, a long overdue one at that, coming fresh off his success on Black-ish and Angie Tribeca. Anyone that seeks him out based solely off of his work on television should be warned that what they’re getting is watching a guy who is masterful at his craft that he’s honed for 30 years now, not the character you’ve watched for the past 5. This is where Deon Cole truly lives and breathes.
Deon Cole’s new Netflix special, Cole Hearted, is as great an example as there can be about what he does best. Above all else, he is playful with the audience. He might test them, catch them off guard, and push them to limits past were they were prepared to go, but it all comes from a good natured place sans any malice. He just wants to make you laugh. That’s all. And not compromise what he wants to truly do in the process.
We recently spoke to Deon Cole about his famous notes, filming in Charolette, changing his opening on a whim, feeding off the audience’s energy, what you can’t say in Virginia, and his favorite memories from being a writer on Conan.
You’ve done specials with so many different places. Tell me about working with Netflix and your experience you’ve had both with this and The Stand Ups. Is it a different approach?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. I just got off the phone with my agents and my manager and we were talking and they were like “Hey man, this is great. Netflix is on forever. You can always promote it.” They were just telling me that. [Laughs]. So yeah, that’s what it is. Eight months later from the time my special comes out, I can still promote my special. It isn’t like it goes out of style or anything. It’s up forever.
Exactly. Unlike a network where you have to catch it at that specific time on that specific date. And everything they’ve been doing for stand up seems pretty positive. There’s so many coming out this month alone. Do you think there is too many specials ever?
I think it’s three or four maybe coming out this month. But this is the thing, though. Right now, right now is like prime f*cking central right now man. It’s like right now is like a moment, man. And to be dropping in the midst of some of the greats where the buzz is still flowing like Chapelle just dropped, Bill Burr just dropped, to come on the heals of these guys it is like prime time central, man. So I’m just happy I’m blessed with the opportunity to come on in and shine and show my show off. Show my perspective.
Your entrance that you make with the special is probably one of the most badass entrances I’ve ever seen. Where the light just hits you.
(Laughs). Wow, man. We was playing with it, a bunch of different intros. I was like “This might be ‘aight. Let’s try this.”
Tell me about why you wanted to do it in Charlotte.
Every time I go to Charlotte, I sell out. It’s always hard-working, blue collar people that’s there. The city is being built. Every second they are building something. There is some cement, grass being put down somewhere in Charlotte every second. It’s just one of those cities, man. Even when I was shooting, when I first said “Let’s do Charlotte”, the people at Netflix and even my team, they was like “Huh? Nah man, you do it in Chicago, your home town.” I was like “No.” And then they was like “We’ll do it in L.A.” I was like “Eh. You’ll see. When we get to Charlotte, you’ll see.” And when we got there, they were like “Oh my God.” So much so, they start thinking of things they might want to do in Charlotte, the people at Netflix.
Right. You’ve done Chicago. Why not try something new?
Yeah man. Chicago’s my home town. I want to do something truly, truly special later on down the line in Chicago. I just want to hit other places, man. Go some places and spread my wings and get that different energy. When I go home, I want it to be something like… I don’t know it yet, but I want it to be something. It’s got to be something else for me to go home and do a special there. Which might happen on my next special. But I just need to figure it out. Maybe I might do my next special in Chicago. Who knows? I’ll know it when I know it.
And the thing I love about this special is how you turn it into an open forum right off the bat. It is such a great place to start with. When you go out and ask white people what they hate about black people, does that ever lead to trouble in this day and age when people are becoming a bit more and more vocal and not afraid to hold back?
I mean, to be honest with you, I only did that twice. On the special and three days before the special. I was in Chicago, I was at the Laugh Factory. And I was working on material before I went and did the special. And I just came out and said that. And people busted up laughing. And it was the only time I did that. And I was like “You know what? That might be a great opener. I might change my opener.” And they were like “Nah, don’t change your opener.” And I was like “Yeah, I’m keeping the same.” But when I got there and I start feeling the energy, I had never done that ever in my life except for that one time, and I changed it right at that moment. I was like “F*ck it. Just do it.” (Laughs). And I did it, man. And it blew up.
It was great. And it also reminded me of a thing you used to do years ago that I saw you do on the Conan tour back in 2010. You’d go out onstage and ask white people if there was anything they were afraid to do in front of black people.
Oh yeah. (Laughs). I forgot all about that bit, man. I remember I used to do that on the Conan tour. I used to say that. (Laughs). That was an old school bit.
Are you someone that’s always been interested in doing crowd work? Do you think of yourself as that kind of comic that can just hit strong with the crowd work?
I like crowd work, man. It just brings you into the people. It’s just another layer of comedy. Like with my special, one thing that I like to do is an array of different styles of stand up. I like to do rapid fire sh*t, I like to do crowd work, I like to do what some may consider low-hanging fruit, but it ‘aint to everybody. Other people love it. And I like to do real complicated material, I like to do thought provoking material, I like to make people love themselves, I like just dirty jokes. I like to call my set like a mix tape. There’s something for everybody on there. I’ve got my down South music, I’ve got my hip hop music, I’ve got my club songs, I’ve got a song that shouts out my mother, I’ve got a dead homie song on there. An array of different styles. That’s what I tend to go with. And not be one-sided. I believe if you watch it, it doesn’t feel one-sided.
I love when I see a comic go out there and not just hit the same note for an hour, but tries different stuff with their special.
Yeah, because it gets kind of repetitious for me sometimes when you see a comic standing up there and they’re just one exact way all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s funny. And I’ve done it before where I’ve been kind of in one spot and I’m comfortable there. But with this special, it wasn’t about it being comfortable. With this special, it’s about me not really getting people who like me to like me more. It was about people who don’t know me to like me and for them to get to know me and for them to go “Man, I like this guy. This is a cool guy.” And for them to enjoy my stand up. It was a different approach. But I think I pulled it off.
I think you did. And there are a lot of people who know you as an actor as well, on shows like Black-ish and Angie Tribeca. Are you able to tell which sections of the audience know you as a stand up and who comes out wanting to see the guy from Black-ish?
You know what? At the beginning of my sets, there’s always this kind of “Oh. This isn’t the guy I thought it was.” It’s always like that. That’s why at the beginning of my sets, I always have to come out rapid. I have to come out with something rapid fire. Just to give people so they can be laughing and not really give them time to think “Hey, this is the guy from television.” So that’s what I try to do. After a while, I can feel when I’ve got them, and it’s usually probably like 3 minutes in and I go “Okay, cool. They know who I am now.” And there is certain people who are out there. You ‘aint going to make everybody happy. But for the majority of people, it’s like “Okay. I know who this is. I like him.”
I’ve always appreciated when people keep what they do as an actor separate from stand up and you just go out and slay as a stand up. Because there are some comics who go up there and would tell stories about Black-ish and what they do on T.V., which is great as well, but I always liked when the two are separated a bit.
Yeah. I never want to be like bring up Black-ish and then people clap and then still be talking and stop and be like “Oh, well thank you very much.” I don’t want to do that shit. I think it’s two separate, different things and I don’t want to mesh them together like that. I think that’s what that is, and this is what this is. And a lot of people they come to show not wanting that, though. A lot of people do come to the show like “I just want the guy from television.” But they have to understand that that’s a character. But if they don’t know, they will.
And you can tell who in the audience knows you as a stand up, because as soon as you go “I’ve got some jokes I want to try out,” and bring out the paper, one of your signature bits, it got an applause break. Because people know that about you.
Yeah. Yeah, people know that that’s what I do and people appreciate it. I read something online where somebody is like “Oh, there he goes pulling out his notes again. Oh God. When is that going to end?” And it’s like, well, never bitch. That’s what it is. That’s what it is, that’s what I do. People enjoy it, man. Just because you’re stubborn and your bothered ass wants to sit back and this is what you want, this is something very unique and different that I’ve been doing forever. People know me for that. That’s what I do. And people enjoy it. So why would I take that from me because of people who are like “Aw he’s doing that again.” Well I’ve been doing that shit since I started. You can go back to ’93 on Def Comedy Jam and you will see me out there with that notebook. So just because you came along and you weren’t even born when I was doing the notepad, motherfucker. But the majority of people, I’m saying 95-98%, they f*cking love that sh*t, man. They just feel like they’re apart of something. They’re all writers.
People like a work-in-progress.
They do, man. They love it.
Another thing you talked about in your special was comedy becoming too timid. Do you remember the point where you first realized this starting to happen?
Uh, I remember one time I was onstage and I said something about Trump. I was at a club talking about Trump and people walked out on me. And I was like “What???” And then the next weekend, I did the same joke about Trump, and the club came to me and said to me “Hey, can you not do Trump jokes?” And I was like “Huh??” They were like “Yeah, this is Virginia. Virginia’s a red state, and most of our customers are Republicans and they don’t want that. And that was a moment where I was like… And Trump wasn’t even President. He wasn’t even f*cking President, that’s how crazy this sh*t was. I was like “Oh, okay.” And I knew it was sensitive already a little bit. I knew it was sensitive already, but I just was like “Huh. Okay.” And then I started seeing stuff online where people were outraged with this and that and I just was like “Yo, what the f*ck is going on?” It just started feeling weird.
It’s pretty weird. And it’s interesting how you segued into it by catching the audience on being too timid with one of your jokes.
I did the joke to make them do that. I did a joke to make them come off the way that I complained about. So by me asking them “Should a dude hold a door for a dyke,” I had a legitimate question. Regardless of if you think the word dyke is a bad word or not, because who said that we couldn’t say that? Nobody. So therefore, for you to already shun me out for that, I did a case and point all at once.
After all these years on the road, has that worn out at all or is it still all fun for you?
I still love touring. I’m not in love with the travel, but I love going different places. I just don’t like getting there. That wears on me a lot, but how else am I going to get there? But as far as clubs and people are concerned, I wish people would come a little more open minded. It would make it a little more fun. Rather than me trying to devise a way to tell you something that I think is funny, instead of telling you something that’s funny. It’s different. I wish I could go back to the days of just telling you something that’s funny instead of devising a way to tell you something funny. And it takes away from the joke. It takes away from the joke because I can’t tell you how it exactly happened, because you might be offended. So I have to go roundabout and I’ve got to figure out how to tell you. And the majority of the times I go “You know what? It ‘aint even worth it. F*ck it. I’m not doing it.”
It’s sad that we’ve gotten to that place. Changing things up, the last thing I want to ask is about how I first saw you, which was on Conan. You were there for many years. Do you have a favorite moment that stands out from your time working there?
Man, sh*t. I could not sit here and lie to you and tell you there is one thing at all. I don’t want to lie to you like that. I had so many great moments on that show, man. Me making a black haunted house to me parking my car onstage because they kicked me out of the parking garage in real life on the Warner Brothers lot to me taking Conan to a Soul Food restaurant. I’ve had so many great moments on that show, man. Or when I created a commercial for TBS. I directed and wrote a commercial for TBS to get black viewers. That sh*t was hilarious. Me, Andy, Conan. Also pimp on a treadmill, that was f*cking hilarious. I always loved doing that. January Jones was another great character. I had a lot of great times on that show, man.
Deon Cole: Cole Hearted is streaming on Netflix now.