JUST A FEW YEARS after graduating from Oberlin College, Curtis Cook moved to Portland and promptly became one of our favorite young comedians. His material catalogs day-to-day absurdities and indignities, offering a perspective on race that's reminiscent of Key and Peele (he's got a joke that perfectly anticipated their "Sex with Black Guys" sketch).
AGENDA: You're pretty young—how did you get started in comedy?
CURTIS COOK: I started on campus at college, and then I started driving to Cleveland and doing open mics there, and then when I graduated I made sure that every day I went to a mic or a show.
I wasn't very good, because I guess no one really is at first, and I did a lot of the exact same material that people tend to do when they're starting out, a lot of "I jack off to porn, and I'm this sort of person...." But I went to a liberal arts college, and they were super into policing language, so all the things that I started with that usually die anyway died super fast, because I was surrounded by people that were very particular about what you were allowed to say and how you said it. In retrospect, it was a very good way to learn to say exactly what I wanted to say anyway, in a way that was still comfortable for everybody.
Why did you decide to move to Portland?
I heard it had a good comedy scene. I heard Ron Funches left and that there weren't any black people.
The Portland scene is amazing, all the comics here are amazing, and part of that is definitely the fact that the audiences here are great. They're willing to sit patiently and watch you learn. But what they want to hear isn't just a different version of what they've seen on TV—they want to hear what you have to say, and how you say it. I think that breeds a lot of great comedy.
What about being a comedian appeals to you?
I don't know. I always wanted to do it. I remember... I was really young and I was in the car with my sister and my parents put on [Bill Cosby's] To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, and I remember loving it, and asking them to play it a lot, and knowing that that's what I wanted to do, but having no idea how to do it. I thought you just walked around and were funny until someone was like, "Hey you. " And then in college, podcasting became a thing, and hearing about how these people got started, knowing that was a [possibility]... then I started doing it, and it felt good in a way that the other things I was doing didn't feel. And now I can't stop.
You have a podcast, Black by Popular Demand, where you and your cohost invite guests and talk a lot about being of mixed race. How did that start?
[When I first got to town] my friend and cohost Raishawn Wickwire talked a lot about how she wanted to start a podcast—originally called Passing—that was all about being of color but nobody knowing. And then that kind of evolved into a podcast about blackness, and race, and people of colorhood, and then that developed into Black by Popular Demand, and then that evolved into her getting cheap recording equipment, and yelling at me on Facebook to get my shit together.
There's a lot of things that people in Portland are really gung ho to talk about. People in Portland are really gung ho to talk about gender, and people in Portland are really gung ho to talk about sexuality, and people in Portland are not as gung ho to talk about race. Not that there's anything wrong with being gung ho about those other things.
So you wanted to start some conversations about race?
No. Oh no, I never wanted to do that. With the podcast, it's fun because it's in a form where everyone can listen, but the conversations are interpersonal. We're just collecting people's personal experiences.
What do you think about the notion that comedy comes from a dark place, or from pain?
I think I would never phrase it like that. But I also definitely talk about the things that bother me the most, or the things that have made me the most upset. I think it probably comes from some kind of darkness... or alcoholism. It sounds ridiculous, but I've also never heard someone get up and tell a joke about how a bunch of nice things happened to them and have a punchline. "I woke up today and a bunch of nice things happened, good night everybody."
How would you describe your comedy?
I don't want to say "social commentary"... what's a less douchey way to say that? I hate reading how other comedians respond to this question, so I'm super nervous about responding to this one. "I take people on a journey, I show people the things they're afraid of looking at"... like, no you don't. You tell jokes. I really like when I can get people to laugh at something that's been bothering the fuck out of me. I'd like to think that sometimes I touch on something that maybe one other person responds to.
Curtis Cook co-hosts the monthly showcase Let's Not Shit Ourselves every last Monday at the High Water Mark, 6800 NE MLK, 9 pm, free; he'll also be appearing at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, May 8-11, bridgetowncomedy.com