About 25 minutes into his new stand-up special Cole Hearted, which starts streaming today on Netflix, comedian Deon Cole glances down at the piece of paper he’s removed from his pocket and asks the audience this question: “Should a dude hold a door for a dyke?”
When the immediate reaction is a mix of loud laughs and uncomfortable groans, Cole proceeds to explain that he told that joke not because he thinks it’s all that funny—objectively, it’s not—but rather “to see what kind of audience this is.” He adds, “That’s America right now when it comes to comedy, everybody’s so timid about everything.”
Ultimately, Cole gets an applause break when he declares, “Comedy is the last raw form of expression and if you take that away, everything’s fucking gone to shit.”
When I ask Cole about that moment during this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, he says, “I said that word on purpose in order to see the reaction of people, to show them right in that moment how timid you are, to show you how you can’t handle dialogue, how now you want to tear my head off.”
As he explains on stage, Cole tells me that he got “permission” to use the word from one of his co-stars on Black-ish who also happens to be a lesbian. “You think I’m going to risk it all over a motherfucking joke? No, I do research, goddammit,” he tells the crowd. “I asked Wanda Sykes.”
The bit is meant to be a comment on “cancel culture,” which Cole, who has been performing stand-up for 26 years, says he worries about “all the time.”
“In this new era, man, everyone wants to take you down,” he adds, pointing to Kevin Hart, who stepped down as host of the Oscars after years-old homophobic jokes and tweets came to light. He has somewhat less sympathy for comedian Shane Gillis, who was hired and then quickly fired by Saturday Night Live last month after much more recent racist commentary emerged.
“If that’s the case, then he has to be held accountable for that,” Cole says of Gillis. “He should know better.” But with Hart, he says, they “went back eight years for something,” adding, “That’s sad when they are searching and fishing for something like that.”
We talk about all of this and a lot more on this week’s episode, including how Cole started doing stand-up on a $50 bet in his hometown of Chicago, how he ended up getting hired as a writer for Conan O’Brien after performing stand-up on The Tonight Show and what it has meant for him to break out as an actor, first on ABC’s Black-ish and now on the spinoff Grown-ish.
“For us to have that platform, to not only be a black face, but to be a black voice, is very important,” he says.
On moving from Comedy Central to Netflix for his new special
“The way Comedy Central handled my special, I wasn’t extremely happy with it, but it was the powers that be at the time, so I was like, OK, whatever. I loved the special, the special was great to me, I just didn’t like the way it was promoted. They told me one thing and it was another. It just fell by the wayside. It was exactly what I was scared it was going to be. I was like, if it’s going to be a special, let’s make it special. I don’t want to do it if it’s not special. I had a few billboards and that was cool, but when it aired, it aired that one time and that was it. I mean, it aired a few times after that, but I don’t think it got the love it deserved. So I was bummed about that.”
Why he can’t stand ‘cancel culture’
“Cancel culture is horrendous. For you to pinpoint something like that, you want to crush me, you want to cancel me, you want to ruin me. And it’s really fucked up that we live in this era where you cannot make mistakes. Because I know that growing up, that’s how I learned. I learned from mistakes. If I ride my bike and I don’t hold the handlebars and I fall, I know to hold them next time. So I should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, but this culture nowadays, they’re like, man, if you mess up it’s off with your head. And it’s sad because I don’t trust that you really know what you’re doing, if you’re that perfect and you don’t make no mistakes. You have to allow someone to grow with the times. The way things were then aren’t the way they are now. And the way things are now won’t be the way they are in the future.”
On performing stand-up on college campuses
“If I decide to do a college, which is very, very, very rare, I just stay as P.C. as possible. My point of view really isn’t important. Let me just make them laugh the best way I can, but I’m not trying to change the world. I’m not trying to give my point of view on anything at any college at all. I’m in and out. I just don’t know about that generation being able to handle what I have to say. It’s about me protecting their feelings and protecting myself.”
On working at ‘The Tonight Show’ during the Conan O’Brien-Jay Leno drama
“It was crazy. I didn’t even really realize at the moment how monumental this was. Because I had just come on board so I was still learning the lay of the land. And we were rocking and rolling too. He had me coming out, doing bits on the show. It happened overnight, right after I got there. It was [O’Brien’s] decision [to leave NBC] and we were behind him 100 percent. Everybody was getting their affairs in order depending on what he wanted to do. But he took care of everybody. He took me on tour with him. It was insane. We were like true bonafide rock stars going from city to city and I was like, ‘What is going on?’”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Creator and star of ABC’s Bless This Mess, Lake Bell.