For Deon Cole, the Best Standup Comedy Is Like Magic

Say what you want about magicians, but Deon Cole thinks comedy should be more like magic. “I look at comedy like magic. If I’ve got the ball in this hand and I shake my hand and it’s gone, that’s how punchlines should be. You shouldn’t be able to read that shit. It’s magic. If I keep you engaged by not knowing, I think I’m doing a good job.” Cole was recently one of six comics featured in Netflix’s The Standups and his set was an interesting blend of every style of comedy he’s enjoyed over the course of his career. In addition to standup, his TV resume is blowing up right now as he prepares to transfer from Black-ish to its spinoff College-ish and assume the role of host on BET’s new game show Face Value. I talked to Cole about how his recent half hour was like surgery, his plans for his next hour-long special, and why he thinks one of his new shows might be banned from television.

You had already done an hour for Comedy Central before you released this new half hour. Usually once a comic does their first hour they just keep putting out hours. Why did you make the decision to do a half hour in between your full-length specials?

Robbie [Praw], who works for Netflix, is a good friend of mine. He really, really convinced me. At the beginning I didn’t want to do it, but the more he talked to me about it the more I started thinking about…I like being a part of new things. Whether it does good or bad, I like being involved with new stuff, trying, pushing the envelope. The way he presented it to me, it sounded like something that was going to be groundbreaking. On top of everything else he was telling me was how global Netflix was. This is probably the most people I’ve reached at one time.

Have you performed much outside of the country?

Back in the day I used to do a whole bunch of tours for the troops, Germany, Korea. I used to go all over the place to perform for the troops.

During your Standups half hour you utilized notes. I’ve seen a few specials lately where people have a notepad on the stool or notes on their hand, but you directly stood there with a sheet of paper and a pen, working through premises, bits, and one-liners, checking things off, making notes, almost as if that night of comedy was an experiment.

That’s something I’ve been doing for 25 years. I started my career with that. You can look back to when I was first on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. I did it there. I did it on Def Comedy Jam, ComicView, Jamie Foxx’s Laffapalooza, 1st Amendment with Martin Lawrence. I was doing it before people started doing it for…whatever they’re doing it for. Sometimes when you do it for too long it becomes repetitious. That’s why I didn’t do it on my Cole Blooded Seminar special. I was doing a whole hour and I wanted to do something different, stretch out. I like doing different styles of comedy. But that’s something I’ve been doing forever.

It’s kind of an alt comedy move to have the paper as a prop, to hold the pen, to take those long pauses, look through your list, make little notes. In one way you’re doing this alternative thing of playing with the format of comedy, then you have your clever one-liners, advice, and straight-up storytelling. There was a lot going on, but it seemed like you were pulling it off without it being disjointed.

You set the tone for where you want people to go. My tone is more like an album. A lot of people have their albums where they have their love song, party song, awareness song, song dedicated to their mama, a song for the homies, you know. To have a well-rounded album you have to touch on different situations and topics. That’s how I feel comedy is. It doesn’t have to be all just one way. I like to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I wanted to get everything in. I wanted to show you how clever I was. I wanted to show you where I came from as far as standup, the type of style of comedy that I used to like compared to what I like right now. I wanted to show how I could push you, how I can touch a topic that’s so sensitive and never go over the border with it. I tried to show you every fucking thing within that special. A lot of people probably looked at it like, “It was just a comedy special,” but I surgically put that motherfucker together.

I used the term “experiment” earlier. I feel like you were in the lab with potentially hazardous-if-mixed chemicals. But it all came together. At the very least it kept my attention. A lot of specials I watch – even if the comics are great – can begin to get boring or repetitive once I figure out the comic’s rhythm and can see where they’re going with jokes.

I look at comedy like magic. If I’ve got the ball in this hand and I shake my hand and it’s gone, that’s how punchlines should be. You shouldn’t be able to read that shit. It’s magic. If I keep you engaged by not knowing, I think I’m doing a good job.

What else do you have coming up in terms of standup?

I’m just touring and doing some dates here and there, but I am so ready to drop this hour. I have a special already in the can. It’s ready. I kind of held back a little bit on this Netflix special on purpose to save a lot of stuff for the hour. I really want to get this material out to the people and have them see a full hour uncensored. Comedy Central censored me. Anyway, I don’t even want to go down that path. By being uncensored I’m being allowed to be me. There’s no rhyme or reason. I don’t have to do this or that or shut it up. I’m fine-tuning it, and hopefully Netflix will do it. If not, somebody, HBO, anything.

You definitely want to be somewhere where editing for commercials and content is not an issue?

I’m not doing another special unless that happens. I want the freedom to be me. I don’t want to have to dumb down myself or change the wording on my jokes in order to fit their format. All that bullshit I’m not doing. HBO has that freedom. Netflix has that freedom. I would love to be a part of it.

Let’s shift gears and talk about these TV projects you have going on. You’ve been on Black-ish for a while aa well as Angie Tribeca. You’ve got two new shows coming out. Let’s talk about College-ish first. It’s a spin-off of Black-ish and you’ve already done one episode within Black-ish that served as a kind of pilot. What else can you tell me about the show and your role?

It’s going to be a show similar to A Different World. This is what I wish: that it would inspire black kids to go to college like A Different World did to people that I came up with. It’s inspiring and funny. Shoutout to Kenya Barris, the creator. I can’t wait for everybody to see it.

And then you also are going to be hosting a game show on BET called Face Value.

Shoutout to Wanda Sykes, the producer. Somebody might ban this show from television. This is probably the craziest show I’ve ever done. It’s a game show where you pay people to profile people. We all do it all day long anyway. We sit back and look at somebody and be like, “Oh, he must be rich,” or “She’s pretty. I bet she’s got a bunch of fellas wanting her.”  She’s this, he’s that. Now we’re just paying people to do that. It’s fun to see what people think about people. The stuff that people are saying out here though, it’s crazy. I have to repeatedly tell people, “Don’t sue me.” It’s hilarious, but I’m like, “Oh my God this shit will not be on the air long.”

Photo credit: Joel Bear Studios LLC

For Deon Cole, the Best Standup Comedy Is Like Magic