As one would imagine, Deon Cole is trying to make people laugh with his new Netflix comedy special, Cole Hearted (available to stream now). He’s not trying to save the world, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention to it. The veteran comic (who you might know from his role on Black-ish or his many on-screen appearances on Conan, where he’s long worked as a writer) is aware of the comedy culture war that’s brewing and he’s got opinions on it. When we spoke with Cole recently, we touched on some of those opinions, engaging in a healthy back and forth before discussing some of his comedic influences and how they’d fare in the here and now. And if you don’t like those opinions, well, he’s got thoughts on that too.
Tell me about the special, what inspired it, and where are you at comedically right now?
The special’s just about [being] really uplifting. Love yourself. On top of just, you know, being me, showing you who I am, what kind of person I am, and what I believe. That’s basically it, man. Just having fun with the people and bringing some fun back. Laughing, loving, and just bringing that fun, fun energy, man. Making people just laugh again, so that’s where it is. Comedically, man, I’m just trying to be on a page where I can just uplift people, no matter what it is. Just try to give them some type of upliftment and make them laugh. At the same time, make them think about something they wouldn’t normally think about.
Do you think comedy is in a kind of place where people too frequently look to it to solve problems as opposed to just kind of finding that way to laugh?
Yeah, everybody’s looking at us as… Well, they only put us in position as far as holding us accountable when we say something wrong. Other than that, they really don’t care. [Laughs] That’s what I think. If you say something wrong, then they hold you accountable for it. Or [say something] that’s wrong to them, then they hold you accountable for it. But other than that, they there to listen. I told the audience last night, I said, “You all are here to see if I say something that will end my career, aren’t you? That’s the only reason why you’re here, right?” [Laughs] I was like, “Well, hold on tight, it might happen.”
[Laughs] Does that change your approach, though? Does that cause you to be on guard more or do you just throw that out the window?
I mean, yeah, you have to be on guard more. I mean, here’s the deal. First of all, something happens, or something occurs to you that’s hilarious. You laugh at it. Genuinely, you laugh at it and then you go, “This is funny.” Now, you have to write it down and think about how to convey it to an audience. When that happens, it’s not funny. Now, you’re doing work on something that was truly funny. When back in the day, you would just do something that was funny, that you heard was funny. You’d be able to say it back at people, and it became hilarious. What people don’t know right now is everything is staged, man. You have to control what you say. You can’t just… because people can’t handle it, and I don’t understand how we got there. How everybody got so sensitive and timid, but here we are.
But there’s always been a line. It’s not like it’s been completely unchecked and wild. Maybe it’s evolved some from Pryor’s day or Carlin’s day, but it’s always been somewhat in effect, hasn’t it? Am I wrong?
As far as people being timid?
A little sensitive to things, or there being a line where there are things you can say, things you can’t say.
Nah. Nah, not like now. Nuh-uh. Not like now. If you said something just really outlandish, then yeah. I mean, obviously, then yeah, people are going to trip out on that shit, or whatever, you know? But overall, I mean, people are getting in trouble right now for saying words they don’t even… didn’t even think was offensive or not. And see, what people have to do is they have to allow people to go with the times, and that’s what they won’t allow. They won’t allow you to go with the times, and then they want to look in your past and blame you for shit that you said when it was accepted.
I remember being able to be with my friends, and we would walk through the airport, and he would have some nice shoes on. I’d be like, “Yo, them shits is the bomb!” I can’t say that shit now, they’d changed shit up, but I was able to then. So what are you going to do? You’re going to hold that against me because I told my friend his shoes is the bomb back in the day? I go with the times. When I realized that you can’t say that no more, then I went, “Oh, okay, I’m not going to say that no more.” And it’s just more and more of that.
I mean, you look at the LGBTQ community, and they added more letters to that, but you have to sit back and you have to be very cautious of what you say. You don’t want to disrespect nobody. And the more they come out with, “Yo, we’re a group, and this is a group, and this is a group.” I take that all in, and I have to be aware of that. And I go, “Okay, all right. Okay, cool. Let me stay away from this, let me stay away from this. Let me not talk about this, that, and the other.” And then it’s going to get to a point where no one’s going to be talked about. Then it’s just going to be about… [Laughs] Comics are just going to start talking about themselves and not about other people because you’re just going to be scared to. I try to stay away from everything as much as possible unless it happened to me. Just to stay clear. I don’t want no smoke from nobody.
Looking at Dave Chappelle, looking at Bill Burr, comedians who have that thing where maybe it’s like 20% of the stuff pisses people off and 80% of the stuff everybody loves. Do they have an obligation to their message to try and steer in the lane to not piss people off arbitrarily?
Look, look, I studied that shit. I looked at it, I looked at it. And in the midst of them doing the material that they did, I can clearly, clearly, a mile away, see that they sat back, and they crafted their material not to piss people off. And it still pissed people off. They had great intentions, they had great examples with a lot of stuff. Even if you didn’t like it, it still was from their point of view. You cannot knock their point of view. If you knock their point of view, it’s the reason for having several different comedians. That’s still their point of view. You still have to respect their point of view. At the end of the day, we all live different paths, or whatever. You get what I’m saying? I’m trying to tell people that too. Live your normal, goddammit. Live your normal. Trying to live normal is why a lot of motherfuckers is miserable right now. Instead of living the normal that fits their lives. You got to live that, and you got to allow them to live their normal. That comes from their mind, their experience. They’re going to see things differently than everybody else. It don’t mean that they terrible people. And that’s the problem I have. People keep thinking that they terrible, and they’re not.
This is a great conversation, but I do want to get a chance to talk about some of your inspirations. Steven Wright is one. Talk to me about his level of craft. Because he makes it look so easy. Effortless. But there’s so much craft there.
So much craft, man. I mean, to tap into the obvious like that and then make it funny like that, is pure genius. To take something so small and blow it out of proportion like that, is genius, and I love that. That’s a style that is his vibe. Bar none, one of the greatest styles of comedy that I’ve ever witnessed, and I try to incorporate that. I try to incorporate that subtlety. There’s subtlety in my bits, and that’s why I have it in there. It’s like it’s just less is more, and I try to get a rapid-fire of that. And so, man, he’s just one of the greatest that ever did it. I mean, ever.
Yeah, there’s like a joke of his that I’ve never been able to get out of my head. He was talking about staying at a hotel where the pool was on the 17th floor. “Maaaan, was it deep.” Such an easy joke, but it’s so goddamn good.
One of his other shits that he said… He said he spilled spot remover on his dog. Now, his dog is gone. Like, what the fuck, man? [Laughs]
[Laughs] It’s perfect. Yeah, it’s perfect, definitely. So, I see in the special it looks like you’re rocking the leather pants. Is that a kind of tribute to Eddie Murphy?
It always is. I will forever do that. Until I meet him.
Are you excited to see him come back to stand-up?
Very excited. I keep looking at his old stuff and I keep going, “Man, I wish they’d allow him to say that shit.” Because the shit he’s saying on here… Oh, my God. This is back in the day. Back in the day where you could talk, where you could be free. So I wish he could, but he can’t, so I’m very intrigued to see what Eddie does when he comes back.
I think that’s the big question is how he’s going to adapt to the now. And also, I wonder how much a comedian is impacted by where they are in their life in terms of success. I don’t think it’s changed Chappelle too much, but other comedians, you could argue that when they get that success, they kind of lose their fastball. Their perspective changes. It’s kind of similar to music. Somebody comes up, the first couple of albums are all about the struggle, and then they don’t have to struggle anymore.
Any concern about that with Eddie Murphy or do you think he’s going to be able to rise above?
I think Eddie’s going to surround himself with the right guys that are going to come around and give him what’s what. But Eddie seems like a grounded guy, as well, so he seems like the type of guy that… He’s going to keep his ear to the street. He’s going to come with it, man. He doesn’t seem like everyone else who had success, left stand-up, and then came back, and all that. He’s too clever, and he’s just great. He’s too great, man. You gotta understand, man, this motherfucker did Delirious when he was 23 years old, goddammit. What the fuck was you doing when you was 23? To have that kind of knowledge, to talk about these characters like that, to do these impressions of people? You know that motherfucker was talking about Elvis Presley and all these motherfuckers. At 23, I was nowhere near that kind of shit. He was 23 when he did Delirious, man. So, shit, we’re talking about Eddie Murphy, goddammit.
George Carlin is another obvious comic genius. It did not appear that he lost anything off of his stuff even in the later years. Even the later specials are still amazing. Talk to me a little about his influence on you.
George is that guy who’s going to give you truth, truth, truth. He’s another guy that would not exist in today’s time. He is a guy that dealt with truth all the way around, did it in a clever way, and made you look inside yourself. You were looking inside yourself when he talked. And that was something that I always wanted to do. I always wanted to add that in my show, always. I want you to look inside yourself when you come to my show. Like, one of my jokes on my special, I ask people, “Who’s in their 40s?” And people tell me. And then I go, “You only got 30 summers left.” Like I say that, and people look in their souls when I say that shit, because it’s the realest shit ever, man. [Laughs] You got 30 fucking summers to eat all the sodium and hot sauce you want, motherfucker. Then it’s a wrap!
That’s fucking depressing.
It’s depressing as fuck. Got you looking inside your soul. [Laughs]
So, you talk about truth, and obviously that’s a hugely important thing for comedy’s cultural value. But do you worry that some people are using that and the notion of having that creative license on a stage and going too far? There are certain comics who do speak from a bad place with this stuff. It’s not about truth, it’s about kind of dividing people.
Yeah, it’s dividing people and also they want to be shocking. The shock value of it. All that kind of bullshit. Yeah, I’ve seen that. But I’m a big person on vibes, you know? You should be able to have a type of vibe about yourself. And if I don’t feel that vibe, then I’m not going to be mad at you, because somebody else might like that shit. All I’m going to do is turn the channel. I’m not going to watch it, I’m not going to look at it. Right? It’s just that simple. It’s going to exist, but that just ain’t for me and shit, that’s all. And I wish other people would do that. If it’s not for you, then, yo, you ain’t got to condemn it. It’s just not for me. You know?
Isn’t the criticism… especially now, where there’s so much stuff out there, isn’t the criticism somewhat warranted to help people kind of navigate and figure out what’s for them and what’s not for them?
I mean, yeah, but, again, you got to have a vibe, man. You got to be able to feel, man. Feel what’s for you. The same way it is with whatever spouse you got. You don’t just jump in a relationship to be in a relationship, even though there are some people that are in love with love and not the person. There’s a lot of people that are in love with being in love, but they don’t love the person. They want to be in love. That’s why they go from relationship to relationship and shit. You should be able to feel that. It’s a vibe that you get. And when you see somebody that’s into some shit like that, or they all about that, then fuck it, be out. Don’t be sticking around with the motherfuckers. Keep moving.
‘Cole Hearted’ is available to stream on Netflix right now.