CHICAGO — Comedians will spend months in comedy clubs trying out new material to see what works and what flops. The good stuff stays. The rest is usually discarded and never seen by a wider audience. But what if a comedian let you see that process?
Late last fall, Deon Cole began honing material for a tour that was to begin in March. The pandemic put those plans in limbo, so he decided to sift through three months of club performances — all of it taped to be studied later — and assemble that footage into a 40-minute compilation that gives audiences a sense of how the process works, awkward moments and all.
"For every 15 jokes I write, only one works," Cole says in the non-special, called "Workin' It Out."
It's available for free on Netflix's official YouTube channel for the streaming platform's comedy arm, called Netflix is a Joke.
I caught up with Cole, the South Side native who also co-stars on "Black-ish" and "Grown-ish," to talk about the value of letting audiences witness some of his least successful moments.
Q: Walk me through the basics of what we're seeing here: How do you start to build a show?
A: You start from scratch. You write down a couple premises. You observe different things going on around you and write that down. You might have an old joke that didn't work before that you might want to bring back out to see if you can find a new way into it. And then you go into the club and see what works and what doesn't.
So I was at the Hollywood Improv every Sunday night from November to February, until I was about to tour. Every Sunday I was there, in front of 40 people, and would just work on material for an hour to an hour-and-forty-minutes each time.
Q: What's it like going on stage knowing for a fact that a certain percentage of your material is not going to work? Is that daunting or do you like the challenge?
A: No, it's nerve wracking! I'm just as embarrassed as you would be trying this for the first time. But it's the process. That's the job. You have to bomb in order to rip.