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Comedian Deon Cole on Writing for Conan: 'He Picked Me Off Vibes'

Deon Cole has the career most budding comedians dream of.EXPAND
Deon Cole has the career most budding comedians dream of.
Courtesy of Aziza Work Group
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Deon Cole performs at the Arlington Improv Friday-Sunday, March 24-26

Chicago-born comedian Deon Cole has enough dream jobs to satisfy the aspiration of three comedians. He's got a national fanbase and a standup tour. He's a writer and frequent performer on a top-rated late night talk show. He's even a breakout character on a critically acclaimed network sitcom.

It's no wonder he sounded tired in his phone interview with the Observer.

"A friend of mine was watching TV one day and he just was like, 'I bet you want to do comedy,' and he was like, 'You should. I bet you could if you try it,'" Cole says of the first time he tried stand-up. "So I went to a comedy club and went on stage and never looked back. It just became a career when it became more demanding than the job I had."

Cole is on a stand-up tour and will make an appearance at the Arlington Improv for a series of shows starting this Friday.

Cole transitioned to TV in 2009 following his first appearance on The Tonight Show, during the brief period it was hosted by Conan O'Brien. He was already an established name in stand-up comedy thanks to his performances on Martin Lawrence's 1st Amendment Standup specials, Comedy Central Presents and Def Comedy Jam. After his performance The Tonight Show, O'Brien was persuaded to hire Cole for his show's writing staff.

"He came to talk to me in my green room, and that was the end of it," Cole says. "Three weeks later, my manager called and says he wanted me to come write for him in about a week. I didn't have to submit anything. He just wants you there."

Cole not only got to write material for Conan's Tonight Show as well his current Conan show on TBS' late night lineup, but he also became one of the new show's big breakout stars as an occasional on-screen commentator.

"[O'Brien] told me he picked me off of vibes," Cole says. "He said he had a good vibe about me. He thought there was something special that made him just pick me. He did the same thing with Andy Richter too."

Writing for a talk show can feel more like a regular job than stand-up even if it's still writing jokes for a living, he says.

"It's just like a 9-to-5 but it's not 9-to-5," Cole says. "It's 9-to-9. You're there a lot, and you've got to be fully committed and focused on that person and that person only."

The show gives Cole a chance to bring his own unique point-of-view to a very crowded late night field.

"I just bring another perspective," he says. "That's all it is. It's just more perspective, but I think it's funny. Meshing that with what he thinks is funny just becomes cool."

Cole got to add acting to his IMDB page thanks to his roles on two hit sitcoms: the modern cop procedural parody Angie Tribeca, which returns to TBS for a third season on April 10, and the family/workplace sitcom black-ish, which recently wrapped its third season on ABC.

Cole plays LAPD Detective DJ Tanner on Angie Tribeca, a Zucker Brothers-style parody created by Steve and Nancy Carell that does to shows like CSI and Law and Order: SVU what the Leslie Nielsen TV comedy Police Squad! did to shows like Dragnet and M-Squad. Just like the Zucker Brothers projects, all of the non-sequitur jokes and background gags require the cast to play their roles as straight as possible, which Cole says presented him with a unique challenge as a seasoned comedian.

"It's hard doing that kind of comedy because everything's timing," he says. "You have to stick to the script. You can't go off script because the words you say are cues for whatever madness is going on behind you."

His role on black-ish, created by producer and write Kenya Barris, doesn't require as much serious acting because the character is such an over-the-top wild card. Cole's character Charlie Telphy isn't afraid to stage a fake funeral for himself or profess his love for the music of Dave Matthews Band.

Cole was originally just going to write for the show, but Barris decided to give him the role after he talked about how the character should be portrayed and the part became available. Cole says he mostly based Charlie on Barris himself.

"It's him like on steroids," Cole says.

Acting and comedy don't really complement each other in terms of Cole's skill sets — it's almost like living two different lives or having two different careers. But he says they're more than just creative outlets.

"It's two totally different things," Cole says. "Comedy is more therapeutic. Acting is more of an escape."

Deon Cole, 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, March 24; 7, 9:30 and 11 p.m. Saturday, March 25; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26. At the Arlington Improv, 309 Curtis Mathes Way. Tickets are $25-$37 at improvarlington.com.

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