Talking to Deon Cole About Standup, ‘Conan,’ and His New TBS Show ‘Black Box’

Deon Cole saw a need for another perspective amidst the flurry of web clip shows and pop culture comedy on TV. After writing for Conan for four years, the standup comic and Emmy-nominated writer premiered his own show, Black Box, this past Monday on TBS in hopes of putting a new spin on things. While Cole acknowledges that his show is not a new format, he says that it’s his unique voice that makes it stand out. I caught up with the newly-minted TV host to discuss what Black Box is all about, how it all started, and why he won’t let success go to his head.

When did you first know that you wanted to do standup?

Well, a friend bet me $50 that I wouldn’t get up on stage one night in Chicago and I went up there and did it. I was hooked after that.

How old were you?

Hmmm, how old was I? I think I was like 21.

How did you first get involved with Conan?

I went on his show as a guest, I did four and a half minutes of standup and then he hired me a month later.

He just called you out of the blue?

Yeah, he just told me to show up one day, and the rest is history. It was a great day; my mind was blown.

What has working on Conan’s show been like for you?

It’s been great. Words can’t even describe it.  I had no idea the magnitude of how big it was while doing it.

What inspired you to create Black Box?

Me and my partner, Doug Karo, had worked on some things that didn’t make it on to the show (Conan). Doug Karo does the clips for Conan and we decided that we wanted to do something with that material, so we pitched it to TBS. I saw that there was a certain voice that was lacking on similar shows when it comes to pop culture. Everyone else has their opinion, and their opinions aren’t necessarily ones I agree with. I wanted to represent the every man in leyman’s terms.  Obviously, I’m a black man, but more than that, I wanted to give a fair point of view to represent all people. A relevant point of view that we can all agree with.

What’s your writing process like?

It’s all about getting into the right mind frame. Standup is more real. t’s a more personal and intimate voice. For the show, it’s about writing for a demographic of people, how can I reach all people and make them laugh – everyone, all ages, all races, all sizes, all sorts of people. Kids, older people, people that normally wouldn’t come to my show, I want to make everyone laugh. That’s how I approach it for Black Box.

In terms of time and generating material, has it been difficult to balance standup while having a TV show?

Yes, it’s difficult. You really have to focus on the show, you have to make sure it’s on point. You might not have a lot of time, but you can still do both. [In] TV you’re working early. Standup is a late night job. I still do standup, just not as much as I used to. Instead of me going out doing four shows a week, I might do two a week now.

Do you find yourself being more choosy about which shows you’ll do now that your time is more limited?

No, I like to perform anywhere the people want me. If you want me, I want you. I’m not choosy, wherever the people want me I want to be there.

Who are some of the comics that have had an impact on you?

Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Ellen DeGeneres, Steven Wright.

What advice would you give young comics starting out?

Believe in yourself. Go against the grain, look at things from other points of view, and put yourself in situations you wouldn’t normally be in. That’s how you come up with unique material.

Who are some of the people you would like to work with in the future?

There’s a lot of people I would love to work with. I would love to work with Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart. There are a lot of great comics that I haven’t worked with yet. John Oliver, that’s my guy. I would like to do some more stuff with John Oliver.

How do you feel about your success?

I guess it’s great. But you know, I’m still doing exactly what I’ve been doing. I haven’t been other places to experience people’s reactions. I haven’t reached out to see the magnitude of what’s been going on. I go to the same bar. I go home the same way from work every day. I eat the same things. I just show up every day and try to think of great comic skits for everyone to enjoy. Once I get out of my element, or go to a different restaurant, then maybe I will be able to gauge it all. Right now, nothing has changed. I’m still keeping up the same pattern I’ve been doing. Never marvel on your success, just keep moving.

Is there anything else coming up for you that we should know about?

I would love to do more film, definitely. I’m working on an hour special right now that I will be coming out with soon. I just need a few more minutes, like 15 or 20 more quality minutes and then it will be ready. Once I get into a great rhythm with Black Box, then I can start thinking about it. My focus is on Black Box right now.

You can catch Deon Cole’s Black Box on Mondays at 10 ET on TBS.

Blair Socci is a writer and standup comedian living in New York City.

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