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Interview Sun Aug 29 2010
From local Chicago comedy clubs one minute to joining Conan O'Brien's writing team the next--impossible, right? Not really--especially if you're Deon Cole. Here, the edgy, Emmy-nominated comedian talks about his Chicago roots, working with O'Brien and what it means to be "super black."
Tell us how you got started. Where in Chicago did you hone your skills?
I got my start years ago on the South Side, where I did a lot of my first stand-up performances. I performed at All Jokes Aside and the Comedy Act Theatre and at different schools and clubs.
Would you say your Chicago roots have an influence on your style?
Absolutely, especially since Chicago is a very diverse place. You can go on any side of the city and it can feel like you're in another state. All of that is why I'm so well-rounded with my material.
You were in the Windy City earlier this summer for Martin Lawrence's "1st Amendment Stand-Up", TBS's "Just for Laughs" and for the Conan O'Brien Tour. What was it like being onstage in front of your hometown again?
It was phenomenal. To host "1st Amendment Stand-Up" and the TBS special with all of Conan's writers was great. Andy Richter also has Chicago roots, so it was really a homecoming for both of us.
Speaking of "1st Amendment Stand-Up," we spoke with Doug Williams earlier this year who said that today, you can't mention "Chicago" and "comedy" without mentioning Deon Cole.
Wow. That's great. I have nothing but love for Doug. It's great to see how he evolved, hooked up with Martin Lawrence and the Starz Network and took things to another level.
Your TV appearances paved the way for your guest appearances on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" and the rest, as they say, is "history." What is being a member of "Team CoCo" like?
Absolute insanity! At its fullest!
I can tell you're having a ball.
Absolutely! There are no words that really describe the feeling. But what happened to us [at NBC] is sad, though. What he worked 17 years for--it's like they dangled keys in front of him and then took them away. But things happen for a reason and everything has worked out.
You are the first African-American writer on "The Tonight Show"--that's got to be quite a coup in the comedy world.
Actually, about 20 years or so ago, there was a black writer at "The Tonight Show," but I think the story is that he was sort of in and out; as far as Conan goes though, I am the first African-American writer to ever write for him.
Any pressure there?
I didn't really understand my situation; I was simply trying to prove myself as a writer. I didn't realize that I was "doing it for a whole race of people." But when you're the "only one," you feel like you've got to go above and beyond. It's been a great learning experience, though. The other writers fully embraced me and took me in. I couldn't ask for a greater group of guys to work with.
Your style of comedy has been categorized as "urban comedy," but you really do appeal to a broader audience. Not everyone is successful at that--has that been challenging?
The challenge is basically talking about something that everyone can relate to without it appearing "threatening." My comedy is a mixture of my background, having moved from the South Side of Chicago to the suburbs when I was a kid. I met some white kids who turned me on to different music and things, and I liked it, so with my comedy, I just stay in the middle. I like both sides of things and I learned how to bring that to my comedy.
You, along with the rest of O'Brien's writing staff, were nominated for an Emmy this year for "Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music or Comedy Series." What was it like when you found out you had been nominated?
Again, insanity at its fullest! It just blew me away! We lost to the team at "The Colbert Report," but if we were gonna lose to anyone, I would have wanted to have lost to them.
So then is it really true when they say, "It was just an honor being nominated?"
It really is, especially for me. No one can take that title from me. I'll always be "Emmy-nominated writer Deon Cole."
Speaking of the Emmy nomination, you caught a little flak earlier this summer over some of your "tweets" regarding your category not being televised with the broader Emmy telecast. How did that work out?
I didn't know the folks at The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and People even read my tweets! I was like, "Wow, why isn't our category being aired this year?" But there were new rules about which categories would be aired and all that. I spoke with Conan about it though and it was squashed. It wasn't a big deal to him at all.
You're gearing up for Conan O'Brien's not-yet-named talk show, which debuts this fall on TBS--what can we expect?
You can expect fire! We're going to go ten times harder than we did before! And Conan's gonna keep his beard and not wear suits and ties so much--he's going to relax. It's a great move. We feel TBS is the future of comedy and for them to embrace Conan and his staff is great. We're ready to roll with the first show on November 8th.
Are you working on any other projects?
I have a pilot for my own show on Comedy Central called "Super Black," which is part reality, part scripted, man-on-the-street sketches, etc. It's about my point of view of being black in America and reminding the world that black people are not one-dimensional. We're hoping the show gets picked up.
Anything on the big screen?
I was just cast in Ice Age 4: Continental Drift with Ray Romano. My character's name is "Mr. Fungus..." It's uh, a very fun character, you know.
Hey, being called "Mr. Fungus" isn't so bad; after all, fungi need love, too!
[Laughs] Hey I don't care what you call me--just give me the residuals!