On Comedy: The Intoxication of Coolness in Deon Cole’s ‘The Standups’

Part Two

Netflix’s “The Standups” features six comics, ranging from thoroughly mediocre to occasionally exceptional, performing straightforward 30-minute sets. The latter category—the occasionally exceptional—encompasses Nate Bargatze and Dan Soder. The former category features Fortune Feimster (whose special tries to ruin callback jokes for all comics) and Beth Stelling. Nikki Glaser’s 29-minute set is far below her considerable talents. They are not all worth your time. But, kind reader, I have been told that negativity is not a characteristic that the critic should embody.

Instead of writing about those pieces of comedy that I feel ambivalently impassioned about, I should admit that I am oddly infatuated by Deon Cole’s half hour. I do not believe that Cole has transcendent material; he is upfront with the structure of his special: “What I’m going to do tonight is, I’m going to try out some jokes. Hopefully they’ll work. If they don’t then I’ll never see y’all again so it don’t matter.” He sticks to his word.

His jokes are not linked by any specific sense of long-form structure. He’s not a storyteller in the strictest sense of the phrase. He’s barely a joke teller. Half of his bits are sharply formed scenes without a punchline (and more interestingly, without Cole as a participant). Some of them are just thoughts that could have been amusing at one point (I do mean that in the best way possible—remember, I harbor no negativity).

Some of them work. Some of them don’t. At his best, Cole is birthing gems like this into existence, “If you’re over thirty make some noise. [Disparate cheering.] Remember when you were the future,” and this, “[Cole searches through his joke notebook.] Usually when a comedian leaves, they leave on a real big joke at the end. I can’t find that joke. So I’m just going to go. Bye.” (Cole’s jokes lose considerable weight when written—I will discuss this momentarily.)

However, even these gems are untethered to some distinct sense of structure. It is as if Cole is unburdened by the responsibility to make comedy that fits to the normalized beats of “good” modern comedy: cohesive themes, probably an implied sentiment about what it means to be human, and a climactic concluding joke.

With that said, Cole is crafting a character in the crevices between the loosely held joke structure of his special. Most of Cole’s jokes do not feature him as an explicit protagonist (or even an implicit participant)—perhaps because Cole’s work is subtler than other comics’. The character that Cole creates is not formed out of the web of personal experiences that have crafted Cole into the individual he is in the reality of life off of the stage. The character that Cole creates is animated in the “now,” as he terms it, of the show. One comes to understand who Cole is though the jokes he tells and the loose associations between his bits.

The subtleties of creation are what, consciously or unconsciously, define the special in its most brilliant moments. When Cole raspily queries, “You ever be out in public with your husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend and you see someone who’s fine, sexy, and hot to death? You ever thought to yourself, ‘I should have been patient.’ [Subdued laughter.] I see a lot of y’all can’t really laugh at that joke the way you want to,” he is not the subject of the joke. He is not explicitly the observer of the joke. Even the evocation of “husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend,” places Cole in the position of representing multiple perspectives (in other words, “we” is the proper pronoun for this joke, instead of “I”). However, the structure of “Have you ever” places him as the implied thinker.

Thus, Cole is straddling the divide between the comic as a personalized individual and the comic as a kind of omniscient observer of amusing anecdotes. He is straddling the divide between “I” and “we.”

The marks of this sort of transient perspective are subtly littered all over the special. Cole shifts his eyes over the crowd during pauses—as if he is evaluating you while you evaluate him. On his creased joke list, he ticks off which bits work and which bits don’t. In short, he fashions himself as both the artist and the audience, the perceiver and the perceived: the critic.

I, dear reader, believe that this issue of perspective is fascinating material. Perhaps you think that this is intellectual posturing, so allow me to hastily shift gears to discuss the most salient point of the special—Cole’s cool.

It could be his voice. It could be his appearance. I think that it is probably both, in conjunction with the character he creates through the composition of his jokes. Nevertheless, I am more interested in its effect on Cole’s set than its nebulous origins.

It allows Cole to transform content that should not be funny into oddly endearing comedy. The following is closer to life advice than a joke, “If somebody calls you at midnight, they want to fuck. If they call you at 3:00 a.m., you were their last choice. You’re welcome.” However, gentle reader, put some thought into it. Think about which individual called Cole at three in the morning, how Cole found out that he was that individual’s last choice, and then the process that turned that pain into a joke. (The bit still works—even if my explanation doesn’t work for you.) The lifestyle-advice-as-joke does not simply work because the joke is being presented within the context of standup, but because Cole’s cool allows him the space to say things that shouldn’t be funny, lets you fill in the gaps until that piece of life advice becomes a fully fleshed out scenario, and find that comic joy within your own soul from his scenario.

The importance of this is twofold. First, it means that Cole’s jokes are going to almost always work better in performance than on the page, adjacent to my overbearing prose. Second, and more importantly, it means that Cole’s performance is more than a dictatorial relationship between the giver of jokes and the receiver of jokes.

Cole shares in the audience’s role of evaluating and the audience shares in Cole’s role in creating humor. And, for a brief moment—when the line between Cole and us is blurred between “we” and “I”—we share in something special. Through Cole, dear reader, we become cool.

—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at aziz.yakub@thecrimson.com.

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