In 1992, Deon Cole took his first stab at stand-up comedy because of a friend’s dare and figured his jokes could potentially make any audience feel good and laugh hysterically.
Now three decades later, Cole’s unapologetic sense of humor has taken him far beyond comedy clubs and the $50 his friend originally offered him. The two-time NAACP Image Award winner has a recurring role as offbeat marketing executive Charlie Telphy on the hit ABC series “Black-ish” and reprises that same character, as an adjunct professor, on its Freeform spinoff “Grown-ish.”
Spending eight years as a writer for Conan O’Brien, Cole was set to join “Black-ish” as a writer in 2014 but landed the part after the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, suggested he take it after late comic Charlie Murphy turned it down. “Black-ish” is ending after its current eighth season, and it’s a gig that Cole considers one of his career highlights.
Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Credit: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
“Kenya Barris is a visionary,” said Cole, who also produced his 2019 Netflix stand-up special, “Cole Hearted,” along with Barris. “It’s been great to be under his umbrella and make history.”
The raspy-voiced, deadpan funnyman who appeared in the “Barbershop” franchise, the premiere of Netflix’s “The Standups” and the TBS police satire “Angie Tribeca” is bringing his Coleology Tour to The Tabernacle on Jan. 15. Cole’s live performances are far removed from his early performing days, when he would be stoned or drunk, reading his premises verbatim from a notepad, and checking them off after the crowds caught each punchline.
These days, the laid-back, Emmy-nominated Chicago native no longer performs inebriated but continues to offer his unflinching takes on sex, relationships, race, everyday life and pop culture. Cole — who’s written for entertainers such as Rickey Smiley, Nick Cannon, Katt Williams and Tracee Ellis Ross — prefers to workshop his material for at least a year in front of intimate audiences, preferably at improv theaters.
“When it comes to writing, I don’t want to cheat the people,” the Webby and Writer’s Guild Award nominee said. “I don’t wanna rush that. I want it to always be an experience that they can leave with. I was extremely high and drunk back in those days when people thought it was a joke. I really don’t even remember the ‘90s.”
The Coleology Tour was delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic forcing tours to cancel and live venues to close. Bringing his show to Atlanta reminds Cole of when he shared stages with local Atlanta comics like Shawty Shawty, Bruce Bruce and Sean Larkins. Along with working behind the scenes with venue personnel to ensure as much safety as possible, Cole wholeheartedly promises to deliver “funny, funny, funny material.”
“Atlanta has always been one of my favorite places to come and get down,” said Cole, who had his own half-hour, short-lived TBS sketch comedy series, “Deon Cole’s Black Box,” in 2013. “I don’t come through a lot because I’m always filming and doing stuff, so when I come through, I come through. I used to perform with all of the greats down here and gettin’ it in constantly.”
“We’re back on the road making it happen,” Cole added, “and everybody already knows the atmosphere when I come through. We’re just having a good time, thinking of others, and bringing the funny to each and every state.”
Cole departed from comedy to appear in the Netflix western, “The Harder They Fall,” as Wiley Escoe in 2021. Costarring in a period piece with an ensemble cast including Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield seemed like a challenge in the beginning but quickly became easy to Cole because of the cast’s support.
“Having the project come along to show Black people in a period piece where we ain’t slaves was amazing,” Cole said. “It’s the greatness that Jeymes Samuel has as a writer and director to come to me thinking I could pull it off. I was intimidated, but it was amazing working with all of those great talents that I love and admire.”
Not being able to travel or perform during the pandemic inspired Cole to pursue another passion: music. The audiophile started Disco Sunday Fellowship, his weekend online DJ sets featuring disco and house music. Cole’s repertoire grew from bringing pulsating rhythms to his social media from his home to being sought out to spin rare grooves and infectious tunes at festivals and for Questlove, Terry Hunter, Louie Vega and Magic Johnson.
Cole admits his song transitions could use some improvements but takes pride in bringing good vibes to his followers with the music he loves and grew up to. “I’ve always been fond of music but never had the time to learn it,” he said. “That’s all we listen to, and it’s just a way of life. When the pandemic hit, I just pulled that stuff out.”
Credit: AP/Business Wire
Credit: AP/Business Wire
“I started playing, just messing around online, and actually tried to imitate D-Nice,” said Cole, who has also been the global brand ambassador for Old Spice since 2019. “People started telling me don’t quit my day job, which really made me wanna learn how to do this to shut them up. My blends weren’t all that good, but ain’t nobody dancin’ to the blends anyway (laughs). It just shows that music will never die.”
Cole is joining comic legends Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes and Jerry Seinfeld for the Netflix Is A Joke Comedy Festival this spring. Cole Blooded, the production company he founded in 2008, is set to drop more original projects across all platforms. Cole also signed on to join the ensemble cast of Barris’s upcoming Netflix project.
What’s important to Cole, along with bringing laughter to his audience, is making sure that he keeps himself fresh and relevant. Exploring other avenues outside of comedy allows him the chance to connect with people and ensure his longevity.
“My audience has been growing every year because it’s a lot of comedians that come out and do that same material, and people show up,” Cole says. “For me, I always want people to come see more of me.”
7:30 p.m. Jan. 15. $49.50-$60. The Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta 404-659-9022, tabernacleatl.com.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com