‘Black-ish’ star Deon Cole has irons in comedy fire
When I caught up with comedian and “Black-ish” co-star Deon Cole recently, he was in Arlington, Texas, for a stand-up gig. I couldn’t hear him clearly at first. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he explained, “I got you on speaker because I’m trying to iron my clothes.”
Multitasking is what drives his career these days. The South Side Chicago native told me he has tattoos of both the Chicago flag and the Chicago seal, one on each arm. He co-stars on another television show, the TBS police comedy “Angie Tribeca,” which returns for its third season 9:30 p.m. Monday. That, plus occasional appearances on “Conan” (where he was a staff writer for five years) mean his schedule is busy.
But recently, an older project has been on his mind. Over the past few weeks, Cole has been tweeting clips from his short-lived late-night comedy show from 2013 (also on TBS) called “Deon Cole’s Black Box,” which offered commentary on the week’s news — not unlike what John Oliver is doing on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”
“I’m not mad at John at all, that’s just how the progression of television goes,” said Cole.
But it’s not lost on him that right now, Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” is currently the only black person to host a high profile late-night comedy show on a major network. “And it’s crazy how they only want that one perspective,” he told me. “It’s nuts that (the networks) only give that one perspective, too. It makes no sense.”
I asked if he was hoping to generate interest in a reboot, or something like it.
“Yeah! It’s one of those shows that should still be on the air, but I was around some of the whitest execs you ever want to see and that never even believed in me and kind of sabotaged the show. It cost $250,000 per episode, it cost nothing to do. And the numbers were close to what Conan was doing.
“But the execs at the time — and none of them are there anymore — they were basically like, ‘This isn’t white enough for TBS.’ They made a promo that was a clip of a woman smashing watermelon (on her body) and I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I wasn’t doing a show that was about videos of guys getting kicked in the nuts — I was dealing with topical stuff, using clips from CNN and dealing with stories in the news. So I feel like they sabotaged it. And I think that’s why a lot of black people stopped watching TBS.”
There’s a segment from the old show that follows Cole back to Chicago. He’s in search of a haircut from a non-black barber or hair stylist. At each location, they balk. It’s not a new observation, but it does underscore certain microaggressions and just how willing businesses are to write off an entire segment of the population — for reasons that Cole leaves the audience to deduce.
Watching that, I wondered if Cole had considered pitching a new show based in Chicago. The city has become a flash point, from the White House on down, but most people doing the talking do not live here, nor do they have knowledge of the city beyond the headlines. There is also a deep pool of comedy writers based here.
“Somebody call me and we can make it happen!” he said. “A show like that is so needed right now. The old clips that I’m tweeting, they’re just as relevant today as they were four years ago. My partner on that was a big Chicago head named Doug Karo, and Doug’s a white guy. Cool as hell, but me and him are like yin and yang. When it came to issues, there was friction and that’s what made it work.”
I asked Cole about growing up in Chicago. Originally from the Roseland neighborhood, he moved to south suburban Dolton at 14. “My mother moved me there because she didn’t want me to join a gang and have fights. But the crazy thing is that when I moved out there, I ended up fighting more than if I were in a gang because it was all white people out there and we were fighting every day just for racial equality. Just fighting these white kids so I could to go to school. It was crazy.
“But, I wouldn’t have it no other way,” he said, “because I found some cool white kids and they introduced me to stuff I never knew about that’s still in my life today, like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and in return I introduced them to hip-hop and Run-DMC.”
He and Jane Lynch are the two famous people to come out of Dolton, I observed. “Yeah, Jane Lynch! You know who else is from Dolton? (Former NFL quarterback) Donovan McNabb, and (comedian) DeRay Davis — we all used to live in a four-block radius from each other.” He said he hadn’t considered being a comedian until he was out of high school and a friend bet him $50 to go on stage and do a set.
“And 24 years later ...” he said, laughing.
A stand-out role on ABC’s “Black-ish” has raised his profile significantly, playing Charlie, who works alongside Dre (Anthony Anderson) at the ad firm and a guy who tends to arrive at ridiculous conclusions whenever topical issues are debated around the conference room table. The character is supposedly based on show creator Kenya Barris. How is that possible, I asked? There’s no way a buffoon like Charlie could achieve Barris’ level of success.
“OK, so: I’m Kenya Barris on steroids,” Cole said. “Kenya is the awkwardly thinking guy that makes valid points, and that’s who Charlie is — except Charlie is a wreck and his life is in shambles. On that show, when Dre is with his family, he’s the crazy one; when he’s in the office, he’s the sane one — we’re crazy.”
On “Angie Tribeca” Cole’s primary co-star is a German shepherd.
“I actually love that dog,” he said. “When they want the dog to lick on us — this is going to sound weird but (the trainer) puts this, we call it ‘meat juice’ on us. It looks like it comes in a deodorant bottle; you open the cap and rub it on yourself with the roll-on ball and then the dog comes over and licks the skin right off your face, it’s that delicious.”
As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked how the ironing had progressed and he laughed.
“I hope it looks good. Sometimes I can put together some masterpieces and sometimes I just put together disasters. I’ll know when I walk out the door.”