Deon Cole on Conan O’Brien’s instincts and being chaperoned at a Prince concert

Deon Cole on Conan O’Brien’s instincts and being chaperoned at a Prince concert

(Photo illustration: Nick Wanserski)
(Photo illustration: Nick Wanserski)

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

Deon Cole has struck up an impressive amount of chemistry with some unlikely scene partners in the last two years. In 2015, his character on Black-ish—Charlie, an eccentric co-worker of protagonist Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson)—developed a rivalry with preternaturally shrewd Johnson twin Diane (Marsai Martin). This year sees Cole joining the cast of the TBS cop-spoof Angie Tribeca, playing the role of Detective DJ Tanner, who never acknowledges a) that he shares his name with a Full House character, or b) that his partner is a dog. An alum of The Tonight Show and Conan, Cole can soon be seen in theaters in Barbershop: The Next Cut; Angie Tribeca airs Mondays at 9 p.m. Eastern on TBS.

1. What question do you wish an interviewer would ask you?

Deon Cole: “Do I like what I do?”

The A.V. Club: Is there a question that you’re sick of answering?

DC: Why did I leave Black-ish?

AVC: And there’s a good answer for that—because of Angie Tribeca?

DC: Well the answer is 1) I didn’t leave Black-ish. 2) I had Tribeca before Black-ish, so it’s just me going back to what I was contracted to do.

AVC: And there’s certainly the opportunity for Charlie to come back on Black-ish, right?

DC: People will have to keep watching. [Laughs.] There’s going to be some surprises going on—we’ll see what happens.

2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what animal would it be? (Note: It doesn’t have to be a real animal.)

DC: A lion. It’d just be badass.

AVC: And if it’s a male lion, the mane gives you something to hold onto.

DC: Yes indeed. It’ll look weird, but it’d be cool.

3. What movie have you seen the most?

DC: Saturday Night Fever.

AVC: Do you remember the first time you saw it? What about it made an impression on you?

DC: It was the fact that [John Travolta] was so cool—and he was white. [Laughs.] I’d never seen anybody that white and that cool.

4. What’s a stupid thing that you incorrectly believed for a long time?

DC: I found out “irregardless” wasn’t a word. [Laughs.] And I was like, “Get the fuck out of here.” I know it’s so simple, but it blew my mind.

5. What’s the most interesting thing about yourself that you’ve ever read that isn’t true?

DC: I heard that I was gay before, and I was like “Really?” And then I started thinking: You haven’t really made it unless somebody says you’re gay. And I was like, “hm.” [Laughs.] “I’m not gay, but thanks for the rumor!”

AVC: It seems like a fairly common occurrence for people in the public eye. John Mulaney brings it up in his new special: When you search his name on Google, one of the first results that pops up is “John Mulaney gay.”

AVC: [Laughs.] That’s real though! At first I was like, “How dare you!” Then I was like, “Thanks for thinking that!” Now it’s becoming a compliment: [Affects macho tone.] “Get your gay ass out of here!” [Affects flattered tone.] “Why thank you. I’m not, but I appreciate that.”

6. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

DC: I don’t think this was too weird, but I had shark. And it tasted like a seasoned belt.

AVC: How was it prepared?

DC: It was grilled, but it tasted like if you put the tip of your leather belt in your mouth, with a little bit of Lawry’s seasoning.

AVC: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever considered eating? Do you have a limit to how weird your cuisine can be?

DC: Nah. I don’t even do anything super crazy when it comes to eating. The most I would ever do is eat some kind of sushi raw. I keep it real light when it comes to food.

7. What’s the first concert you ever went to?

DC: EPMD at Central State University in Ohio.

AVC: Do you remember what year it was?

DC: I think it was ’88. It was weird, because I was like, “Damn, I went to two concerts back to back”—EPMD, and then I went to a Prince concert. This girl liked me, and her mother went to the concert with both of us.

Oh shit! This was when I was like 7 or 8 years old: My father took me to a James Brown concert. And I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. It was cool, but I just knew it was a black dude with real long hair, sliding across the floor and shit. It was real groovy in that motherfucker. I was grooving, and I didn’t even know what I was grooving to. I was just doing what everybody else was doing.

AVC: It must’ve been weird going to that Prince show with parental supervision. If it was ’88, he would’ve been touring on Lovesexy.

DC: Man, it was very odd. I didn’t even want to go. I love Prince, thought he was super dope, I just didn’t want to go. But then my cousin was like, “You better go to that concert—you might never go to another Prince concert again!” [Laughs.] As if I was going to die or something. [Laughs.] So I ended up going. The girl was so nerdy, she was just sitting there the whole time—her momma was all into it more than she was. But it was really odd that she was chaperoning us to this Prince concert when we were in high school or right before high school.

8. What’s the most interesting opportunity you’ve gotten through your work?

DC: Writing for Conan O’Brien.

AVC: How did that come about?

DC: Man, you got to ask Conan. He just told me he had a feeling, and he bases everything he does on how he feels. I did four-and-half minutes of stand-up on The Tonight Show when he had The Tonight Show. He hired me right after that—I didn’t have to submit nothing, he was just like, “Come on and be one of my writers.” He didn’t know I wrote—none of that. He just went on a feeling.

But it was the same thing he did with Andy [Richter] when he was looking for a sidekick. They sent all these people they wanted [Conan] to audition. One day, he was just out one day, and a friend of his was going to get coffee and introduced him to Andy, and him and Andy just talked and laughed and joked it up. Without even auditioning, he was like, “I want Andy,” and they were like “What?” He makes decision on vibes that he feels.

He’s such a complex individual, man. He’s one of the most interesting guys I ever met in my life. He changed my life. He truly did. I always admired him and always loved his work, but then working for him and being with him—I didn’t expect him to be the way he is.

AVC: Knowing that those instincts are so sharp, is Conan the type of person whose recommendations you can trust? If you hear Conan thought another stand-up was funny, do you think you’ll find them funny as well?

AVC: Hands down. If he thinks it’s funny, that shit’s funny. I’d take his word all day long. He’s a master at dissecting jokes, and what’s funny and what’s not. He knows what’s funny, and has no color barrier—nothing to do with that. If it’s funny, it’s funny. One of the greatest writers we’ve ever had, one of the greatest talk show hosts we’ve ever had. Guy went to Harvard, plays three instruments and knows a couple languages. Dude’s serious.

9. What embarrassing phase did you go through?

DC: One of my favorite eras is the ’80s. I’m an ’80s baby to the world, love everything about the ’80s. But my fashion was not the best in the ’80s. I looked crazy as hell. I used to wear my pants tucked into my socks and karate handkerchiefs around my wrist. It was ridiculous, how I used to dress in the ’80s.

AVC: Who were your style icons at the time? Whose look did you try to emulate?

DC: I used to want to be the black dude in The Last Dragon. I wanted to be Ralph Tresvant from New Edition—I thought he was super cool. J.T. from Kool & The Gang—I used to always think he was the coolest dude in the world. However he dressed, that’s how I was. And then it led to hip-hop. However they dressed in hip-hop, that’s how it was. Das EFX, Redman, Wu-Tang—anything hip-hop, I was down with.

10. Have you ever stolen anything and, if so, what?

DC: Hell yeah I stole stuff. I stole clothes, bread. This truck that dropped off bread in front of the store right by my house—at 5 in the morning, I used to go steal the bread. [Laughs.] I used to have so much bread at my house. It used to go bad before I ate it. My mother used to be like, “Why does this boy keep bringing bread home? Where’s he getting bread from? Who just gives him bread?” It was just the stupidest thing, that I would have bread all the time. [Laughs.]

AVC: Would you make sandwiches with it? Did you eat it plain?

DC: I did! I buttered it. I made syrup sandwiches: I used to just put syrup on bread and then just close it. I even made sugar sandwiches. Grilled cheeses. I did everything you can think of with bread.

AVC: Was there a particular bread you’d go for?

DC: It was those big-ass roll breads. The breads that, like, back in the 1820s, they’d sit down to eat and they’d just rip open some bread. [Laughs.]

AVC: Like a baguette?

DC: Yeah, like a baguette. It wasn’t cut or nothing. I used to steal a bunch of those. Me and my cousin, we used to play baseball with one. We were really poor.

11. Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?

DC: I was just talking about this yesterday! That’s crazy. Somebody was asking me who was the one person that I met that I was speechless over, and I told them it was a couple people that I was speechless over. One: John Travolta, because I love Saturday Night Fever. [Laughs.]

AVC: Bringing it back to that earlier question!

DC: That’s a callback! I went crazy when I met him.

Another callback: [When I met] Prince, I didn’t know what to do with myself. When George Lopez had his show on TBS, it was on the same lot as Conan, and he had Prince perform and we went over and ended up kicking it with Prince. Went to his concert—were just with Prince. That shit was wild. I met Clint Eastwood on the lot, too. That shit blew my mind.

Bonus 12th question from Rob Huebel: What is your phone number?

DC: Hilarious! [Laughs.] What’s my phone number. Really? I can’t give my phone number out. My phone number would be everywhere—everybody and their mom would be calling me. But that’s a funny question to ask.

AVC: And what question would you like to ask the next person?

DC: What turns you on?