Black As Cole

"The college [comedy] circuit made me good money. Bought my ex-wife a house": Alex Cole
Tom Berthiaume

Here it is, opening night of the Directors Theater production of Talk Radio at the Acadia Café. The show, as usual, is competent if unexciting. Highlights include a cantankerous but ill-formed script by Eric Bogosian (he revised it extensively for the film version), effective but undistinguished performances from such Acadia Theater regulars as Kourtney Kaas, Bob Malos, and Edwin Strout, and a fuming, world-weary turn by Alex Cole. As you may have heard, until recently Cole was a member of KFAN-AM's Common and the Family Cole program. Cole plays Barry Champlain, the acerbic radio host at the center of Bogosian's play, and, stunt-casting aside, he is marvelous. Cole sports thick black hair, haggard features, and a sharp tongue honed by decades on the comedy circuit, where, through the Eighties, he was part of the local mafia of comedy professionals, alongside Louie Anderson, Jeff Cesario, and Tom Arnold. Cole's Champlain is an unpleasant but fascinating creature, in turns paternal and monstrous to his radio audience, giving them just enough time on air to inspire his own interruptions and tub-thumping monologues.

After the show, Acadia's owner (and theater executive producer) Harvey McLain provides an impressive spread of bread, cheese, beer, wine, and other comestibles. I fill a plate and find a table, and moments later, Alex Cole joins me. We introduce ourselves, and then I mention a story I recently stumbled across. It was printed in the Twin Cities Reader in the early Eighties and consisted of interviews with a half-dozen local comedians in the then-nascent local comedy circuit. Cole, then in his early 20s and very brash, was among them. I quote the younger Cole back to the older Cole, from memory. "Fuck writing about comedy in the Twin Cities," I recall him saying. "Write about me. I am comedy in the Twin Cities."

Cole doesn't seem surprised to hear this two-decade-old quote. He shrugs. "Do you know, when I did that interview, I thought I was the only person doing comedy in the Twin Cities," he says languidly. "It was only later that I found out that there were other people, that there was a small club that had started."

We talk for about 45 minutes, disconnected ramblings prompted by occasional questions. Afterward I jot down what I remember, much of it perplexing. I had asked him about his years on the college comedy circuit. Cole has performed at more than 1,700 colleges and universities, according to his bio, and in 1988 was named "Comedy Entertainer of the Year" by the National Association for Campus Activities.

"Outside of the college circuit, nobody knows what the fuck that is," Cole says. "But it made me good money. Bought my ex-wife a house." Cole cites the amount of money he made on the college circuit, and writing it down later, I doubt my memory. The figure seems impossibly high--in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Cole rattles off the figure in the same deadpan tone he uses throughout the evening. The brash boasting of his youth, it seems, has been replaced by a more sophisticated type of boasting, in which the most astonishing stories are related with a bored nonchalance.

With a bit of encouragement, Cole unleashes a small barrage of entertainment war stories. I mention having seen McHale's Navy on Comedy Central a few days previously--it seems to run on a near-continuous loop on the channel. The film contains a brief scene in which Cole, playing a military guard, is kicked into unconsciousness by Will & Grace actor Debra Messing. Cole nods when I mention the scene.

"I went down to Mexico to pitch a film to Tom Arnold," Cole says. "I cut my hair in a sailor's cut, just in case. And while I was talking to Tom, he said, 'Hey, we just wrote a scene for someone to get kicked in the head. Do you want to play it?'

"So Tom took me over to the director, who said to me, 'Let me see your head.' So I took off my hat, and there was my sailor's cut. And the director asked, 'Have you ever been kicked in the head?' And I said, 'Not professionally.' He said, 'You're hired.'"

Cole smiles. "What a piece of shit that movie was. But I got a reel of film with Debra Messing, and that's nice. Thanks to Tom Arnold, I also have a reel of film with John Goodman, from doing a few episodes of Roseanne. "Tom's like that. He never turned his back on his old friends, like some people do. In fact, I like to say that it's because of Tom that I dried up. I was going into treatment, but I didn't have enough money, and Tom got me those spots on Roseanne. It was just enough for me to get insurance through the Screen Actors Guild. I think Tom knew that, too."

Cole follows this up with stories about joining the Mexican version of the Screen Actors Guild ("I was the only one in the union who spoke any English"), stories about his attempts at writing children's books ("I'm writing a book about a book; it's set in the Thirties"), and stories about his uncredited authorship of a film titled Carpool, which starred Tom Arnold ("Don't bother to track that one down," he says. "What a piece of shit that was.")

After a while, Cole's voice tapers off. "That's all I know," he says. "If I am going to tell you any more, I'm going to have to start making it up."

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