Deon Cole, one of the strongest voices in the comedy community, lends his cultural perspective to the burgeoning Netflix stand-up family as he takes part in a new original series called The Standups. This series of specials gives each comic only a half-hour to entertain a crowd and leave a lasting impression, and during his episode Cole shows us how it’s all done with surgeon-like precision.
In his episode Cole walks on stage with a piece of paper in hand, as if he’s a beginner trying to work out material for a later act. But he’s anything but a beginner, and that persona he puts out there is all intentional. “That’s something I’ve been doing for my whole career, even on The Tonight Show with Conan when he first hired me,” Cole told me. “It just shows the rawness and realness of it all and invites people to come into our world.” While comedians will often times play a character or show off a larger than life personality on stage, Cole is taking off that mask and just being himself.
Very aware of his role in show business, Cole admits that a majority of people know him more as an actor. “A lot people don’t know that I’m a stand-up,” explained Cole. “They look at that now and they think ‘wow that’s crazy,’ but it’s something that I’ve been doing for over twenty years.” Fans of Cole know him best from his work as DJ Tanner on Angie Tribeca or his breakout role in Black-ish as Charlie Telphy, who became an unexpected fan favorite for viewers of the show. When I asked about how he sees the separation between acting and stand-up he told me they really aren’t related at all. “Acting is more of an escape for me, while me doing stand-up is just me up there as a person. So I don’t mix the two at all.”
A wish of Cole’s, in doing this short episode for Netflix, is that people finish it feeling refreshed and getting a little taste of the cultural envelope being pushed. The Standups is a great way to showcase a variety of comedic voices all under the same umbrella, but each performer needs to give their audience a reason to pay attention to them specifically using their own voice and point of view. For Cole, he’s thinking globally. “That’s all that I’m about,” Cole said. “I’m a big cultural pusher when it comes to hip-hop, disco music, comedy, all that stuff that I love.”
All this ambition could be hard to contain in a special, especially one that’s a little under thirty minutes in length. Cole does this by treating comedy like something everybody can enjoy, no matter your race or background. “It’s very important to do that because comedy is comedy,” Cole explained to me. “It shouldn’t be funny culturally funny, it should just be funny.” He went on to tell me a story about a comedian he once knew who told him that black comedians do “black jokes this or white jokes that, and it’s corny and it’s not thinking.” Cole didn’t agree with that at all. “That’s just our experience we’re sharing up there,” Cole said. “Just because you can’t think that way doesn’t make that joke less than funny. But if you can do that, then why not? No reason to cheat the people out of it.”
Even with this being an important part of his act, Cole knows that you have to have a little bit of everything to entertain a wide range of audience. Having variety in his act means that not every joke will hit the way he’d like it to, but that doesn’t stop him from being able to explore certain areas that others are afraid to touch. This is something he picked up on from touring the country and working with Conan O’Brien.
“When we toured the country after that whole NBC thing went down, Conan taught me something that I still use to this day. You can’t always have these magical moments,” explained Cole. “If everything is always magical, then you’ll never have a magical moment. So you have to understand that when it comes to comedy there’s going to be a lot of letdowns, but when that magical moment happens it’s going to be worth all the letdowns. You’ll appreciate the greatness more than you were expecting.” In the special, Cole finds those magical moments in the simple act of just being himself.
As far as the audience reactions go, it would seem that Cole’s magical moments come from the very self-aware elements that others might have thought of as a weakness. How self-aware does he get? He opens by literally explaining to the crowd that he’s there to try out some jokes, “and if they don’t work out then you’ll never see me again.” His closer is him just leaving the stage, purposefully skipping the “big finale” that other comics like to end on. Experimenting with these beats gave Cole those magical moments he was hoping for.
Ultimately, Cole wants his audience to experience something other than what they’re used to, even if that means toning down the theatrics of the comedy specials we’re so used to seeing all over the place. Other comedians push boundaries by going big, but Deon Cole’s approach is to go small, and somehow, it’s just as effective. “I just want people to go away for a minute and see something refreshing and have them go ‘wow I wasn’t expecting that. That was something unique, something different.’”
Christian Becker is a writer and improv comedy performer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @TheAmazingBeck.