He’s been with Conan O’Brien since the talk show host’s ill-fated Tonight Show run and now Chicago-bred comedy veteran and Emmy-nominated writer, Deon Cole has his own series. It’s called Deon Cole’s Black Box and it premieres tonight at 10 pm ET on TBS. The clip show will find one of Coco’s favorite writers — and frequent onscreen contributors — giving his own spin on the most outrageous viral videos while commenting on pop culture and current events. I had a chat with Deon about point of view and how Black Box, and everything else on television, is just like every other show out there– but really isn’t. Check it out below.
Those who know about you know that you started doing stand-up in Chicago. But how did you link up with Conan for his Tonight Show?
I went on the show as a guest, did four-and-half minutes of stand-up and I ended up getting hired like a month later.
Just like that.
Yeah, he just wanted me on board. Just like that. It was that simple. It was just, ‘Come work with me.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’
That’s awesome. Not a lot of the writers on these shows are stand-ups. Some of them are just writers. How do you differentiate between the jokes you write in a day that you pitch for the show and jokes you write for your own act? Do you ever feel conflicted?
Well, you see I have my voice and Conan has his voice. So when I’m writing for him you have to write for his voice and think the way he thinks. And if something comes out that you go, ‘Oh! He could do that. He’d love to do this,’ and you give it to him. Then something comes up where I think, ‘Yeah, but I could do that. That’s something I could do,’ you figure out whatever goes with what.
Has there ever been a joke where you felt torn because you could have written it in either voice?
Hell yeah! There’s a lot of times where I’ll write something and think, ‘Yeah, I’m keeping that!’ I’ll be like, ‘Man…he’d do really well with this.’ Then I’d write it up. That happens all the time.
So you think having your own show you might come across jokes that you like for the show and then afterwards decide to use live in your stand-up?
Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff that I pitch and it don’t make it. A lot of stuff. It’s too over-packed on Conan or it doesn’t fit in the news stories that day. But I never forget it. I just believe in it that much. Now I have a new freedom to release all those things that I fucking kept all this time. On top of current topical stuff, we’re also going to have some evergreen pieces that I’ve wrote a long, long time ago.
Evergreen is something that is good for any moment at any time. Like, you can always bring up an OJ Simpson joke. No matter what. Or you can talk about relationships. Or you can talk about women. Or you can talk about cars. That’s evergreen stuff that doesn’t have a timetable on it. Racist stuff that happens: like a black man can’t catch a cab. Evergreen. You can use at any time.
So you’ve had some of these ideas stored away for a long time and now you see Black Box as a way to put it out there?
Yeah, I’m not saying that I stored it away. I just kept it. It wasn’t right for when I wrote it for whatever apparent reason. It just wasn’t good at that moment. I never thought it wasn’t a good piece. So I kept it. What I’m saying is that I have a lot of great stuff that’s never been used and is ready to be used. On top of current material. On top of Conan material. On top of my stand-up. On top of my book. I’m always writing, writing, writing, writing, and writing.
Did TBS come to you with hosting Black Box or was this an idea you pitched to them?
I pitched it to them. Me and my partner, Doug Karo. It just came from us feeling like we should collaborate. Doug Karo is a clip guy at Conan. He’s a great clip guy. He’s worked on many different shows. We thought we should link up. It’s a funny story how we thought about it but I don’t think I should tell it…but we came together and thought we should put it together, my strengths and his strengths together: my little rants and him having some of the most hilarious clips you’ve ever seen and putting them together. We’re taking that to make a show as well as trending topics and pop culture and just coming from my point of view on it.
When I read the press release about you tackling topics of race along with ridiculous Internet clips, I thought, ‘Okay. So does this mean we have someone else joining the fight against World Star Hip-Hop?
Nah, not gonna do that. Shout out to World Star Hip-Hop and my boy Q and everybody over there. Nah, the show is just my point of view, man. That’s all it is. You give me a topic, you give everybody else a topic, you’re gonna hear variations of different comedy styles. That’s all it is. This is just my version of what’s going on. I’m not gonna take away from nobody else’s version, but I’ve got something to say about it, too.
I wanted to ask what makes this show different from other clip shows that are out there right now with the same format, such as Tosh 2.0 or Ridiculousness.
Every great comic has a unique perspective about whatever it is. And that’s what I think I have in my stand-up. That’s the difference between all of this stuff. You gotta understand: all these shows and everything that goes on television is the same wheel. It’s just a different rim. That’s how you have to look at it. It’s a different rim on the same damn wheel. I’m not doing nothing different than what anybody else is doing but giving my opinion. That’s what makes me totally different from anybody else. That’s it. That’s the difference. That’s the key. My approach, my delivery, all of that is the key thing. You could watch Sports Center or you could watch Fox Sports. It’s the same thing. It’s just what your preference is. You got Leno, Conan, Letterman knocking at the same topics.
I couldn’t agree more. Everything that’s being done has probably been done many times before a person comes across it. The point of view makes it different when you do it but as many comics know, and young comics struggling with this crucial part of comedy, finding your point of view is so difficult for many. How and when did you find your comedic voice?
I think it was just from how I’ve been, from the get go. Back in the day, before I ever did comedy, if somebody tripped and fell in front of me and my friends, my friends would say, ‘That’s dumb.’ I’d be the one wondering why they tripped. Like, ‘Why didn’t they see that fire hydrant? It’s a fire hydrant. It’s red. It’s right there. How could you trip over it? What was on your mind that you couldn’t pay attention to what was going on on the ground that you tripped over it? What is so important…?’ I would just go on and on and on about. I just always did that.
Plus I was an only child so I used to question a lot of stuff and it just bled over into a lot of other areas. I just always tried to think out situations and make them make sense. I always tried to save time and make sense of things. That was my whole thing. I think a voice is the most important thing in comedy. A lot of comics are comedians. The great comics become more than comedians. They’re like characters or people. They’re like real people. They’re believable. You’ve got to feel their pain. You’ve got to believe them. And they’ve got to be funny. And there’s gotta be a real thing. Like Ellen DeGeneres, who’s like one of my mentors, one of my top three comics of all-time— you’ve got Richard Pryor, her, and George Carlin. She’s unique in the way that she talked. It was believable. She just happened to be that way.
Even the things that you talk about, even if you talk about different things, that’ll come across as innovative and original. Even when I write material, I tend to put myself in situations that I wouldn’t normally be in just to get material. That’s a good tip to any young comic out there. Put yourself in situations you wouldn’t normally be in and you’ll find all the material in the world. Like, I’ll go to a dog show and sit up in the back of the dog show on a Saturday morning and that ain’t my shit. But I’m gonna sit up there and I bet I walk out of there with at least 15 minutes.
What was something an older comic who gave you a piece of advice, in the way you just did, that resonated with you?
Steve Harvey one time told me if I could make an audience quiet, that it’s just as good as laughter. He was like, ‘You should test your audience to see where you got them and where they at.’ I do that to this day. I’ll do a joke, like I’ll do a joke where I ask a question and then I’ll wait…and that to me lets me know that they’re with me. So that was a very good piece of advice. Quiet is just as good as making a whole room laugh.
Like being confident in your pauses?
Yeah, yeah. Just to test the audience where they’re at. I usually do this in the first five minutes of my set. I’ll be on stage and be like, ‘Out of everybody in the world….’ (Deon pauses a few seconds) and then I’ll say something else. But with me saying that, I know where I got the audience. Then I know what direction to go in.