Deon Cole’s a scene-stealer. Whether as Dre’s weirdo co-worker on Black-ish or a loose cannon cop on equal footing with his dog partner on Angie Tribeca, Cole’s got comic authority born of undeniable charisma. He’s loose but confrontational, defiantly silly but passionate. As a performer, Cole is effortlessly engaging—which only makes you wish the material in his first hour-long stand-up special were stronger. Honestly, if it were, Cole’s stage presence would make it truly memorable, instead of just, unquestionably, a lot of fun to watch.
“Thank you for coming to my seminar this evening,” Cole begins, addressing his appreciative Washington, D.C. audience. Considering the special’s title, location, and opening line, that sounds like the start of a more focused set than Cole delivers. As a correspondent and writer on Conan, and on his short-lived series Deon Cole’s Black Box, Cole’s comically angry, wide-eyed, blustery incredulity has its own unique power to it. But, Cole Blooded Seminar isn’t so much a seminar as a showcase for Cole the charismatic performer.
“You’re not gonna laugh at everything I say tonight, and I’m okay with that,” Cole announces soon after. As it shakes out over the course of his loose 50-minute set, the comic’s not really talking about challenging his racially diverse audience’s sensibilities in any truly transgressive or provocative ways. When Cole orders, “Okay, white people, get your pens out” to introduce a bit, you’d imagine he were about to talk about weightier matters than the fact that black people hoard plastic grocery bags or that his black friends could never remember the names of the white actors on that night’s Conan. (“Bitch, he’s Batman,” he snaps at a friend who can’t remember Christian Bale’s name.) Instead, Cole’s referring more to his man-woman, sexual, or personal-appearance jokes, where his unblinking willingness to lock eyes with audience members is as funny as it is occasionally uncomfortable. When he starts out by comparing “thick women” to cold peanut butter, it’d be a lot more off-putting if not couched in Cole’s outsized, irresistibly likable stage persona. Indeed, even when doing jokes about fat people (“Stop eatin’ that shit. You know it tastes good. It’s delicious. And it’s gonna be delicious.”) and singling out an overweight person in the crowd, everyone (pardon) eats it up. There’s no meanness to Cole’s boisterous calls for sanity, just a performer’s glee in entertaining that sweeps the audience along with it.
The closest Cole comes to directly addressing racial politics (apart from a funny bit about guilting a suspicious white lady into buying him an ungodly amount of groceries) is when he talks about having to “manage your blackness” depending on the circumstances. Relating a tale about throwing on sunglasses, loud headphones, and a sideways baseball cap in order to keep old, white airplane passengers from sitting next to him (thus leaving him to take “all that bullshit off” and dive into his Sudoku), Cole strikes a genuine connection with the audience. Moments like that bristle, whether he’s speaking to his white crowd (“That black dude you work with? That ain’t how he really act. That is not the real James.”) or his black audience (After getting a laugh for explaining his reasons for moving to an all-white neighborhood, he takes a beat, then replies “Some of y’all did it, too. Don’t be staring at me like that’s fucked up.”). There’s an evocative echo in the framing device to the special, as Cole begins by sitting down at a D.C. eatery with a trio of black friends, chatting and ordering a turkey burger. He excuses himself, walks through the kitchen, out into an alley, and into the back door of the theater, where he strides onstage to do his show. Once done, he retraces his steps, rejoins his friends, casually picks up his burger, and resumes chatting. Onstage, he manages his blackness to suit expectations.
Such edgy stuff really isn’t Cole’s priority in Cole Blooded Seminar. After one moderately raunchy sexual reference, Cole waits for the audience to catch up, deadpanning, “I’m gonna let that marinate for a while.” Letting jokes marinate is something Cole is especially adept at. Staring down audience members, daring them to laugh, or not to laugh, his animated, aggressive comic confidence stands unafraid to see if they’re going to follow him. To Cole’s credit, even if his material’s more generic here than one might hope, they always do.