Curtis Cook is used to telling jokes to white people. He got his first crack at standup in middle school in Auburn Township, Ohio, a rural exurb east of Cleveland that's 97 percent white. The set was part of a school assignment about careers. Cook chose to research comedy. This culminated, he says, in "five minutes of comedy for a bunch of oddly supportive parents." It included a bit where he recited part of "Get Low" by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz as a haiku.
The next day, teachers took class time to let him repeat it.
"We had just wrapped up a poetry unit in language arts," says Cook, the son of two social workers. "And no one really knew what 'skeet' meant yet."
Twelve years later, Cook's style is more informed and a little less poetic. At 24, he's one of the fastest-rising comics in Portland's scene. His jokes are long-winded and slow-building. During a recent show at the Alberta Street Pub, he runs through innumerable prefaces and asides, eyes closed, the hand that's not gripping the mic held up like an orchestra conductor. Then comes the joke: "We had feminist sex, which is where nobody comes, but we both are made hopeful."
Offstage—where he's far more animated than when performing—he explains his comedic approach: "I try to examine all the sides, and pick the good one, and then make the joke I would have made anyway."
After his performance in eighth grade, Cook set aside standup for cross-country and tenor sax, which he played in his high school's marching band. He did, however, get plenty of public-speaking practice during high-school debate. At competitions, where black or navy blazers were mandatory, Cook sported suits in yellow, red, orange and pink.
"I've been told multiple times that I was only allowed to wear them because I was black," he says, "and everyone assumed it was cultural but was afraid to talk to me about it."
Cook returned to standup in his junior year at Oberlin College, where he studied creative writing and film, to mixed reception. (Full disclosure: I also attended Oberlin, where I knew Cook as the 6-foot-7 guy who owned an Oscar the Grouch costume.)
Oberlin, 40 minutes west of Cleveland, is one of the most liberal of the liberal arts colleges—it boasts being the first to admit women and African-Americans—and is stocked with about 3,000 bleeding hearts. "A white place full of rich, sad people prepared me for a white place full of rich, sad people," Cooks says of the transition from Oberlin to Portland, where he's lived for two years.
Needless to say, Oberlin takes identity politics pretty seriously. In an early set, Cook told a joke about having sex with the Disney princess Mulan. That resulted in a stern letter from an assistant dean.
"It's not a good joke," Cook says now. "I feel like that's why, when I tell jokes now, I spend 30 seconds telling everyone how everything should be."
With experience, he began taking a more measured approach. Today, he has a one-two punch of sensitivity and frankness that's sublime. Race ("I'm the kind of black person who has to announce it to the room before I tell a race joke or else they're like, 'That Indian dude is really racist'") and religion ("Christian rock gets way more listenable if you pretend it's one dude singing about his husband") are regular topics. But he addresses these without coming off as deliberately edgy, a word he hates.
"If there's some kid who was just made fun of in the audience, I don't wanna be like, 'Yeah, and fuck you again,'" he says. "I don't actually want to offend anyone who's listening."
Cook's careful words aren't a hedge. They're revealing of who he is. When he started performing at clubs in Cleveland, he worried audiences expected him to be a stereotypical "big black guy." Speckling his sets with vocabulary yanked from a gender-studies textbook—alongside more proletarian four-letter words—became a statement. "It was very important for me to be like, 'No, you're going to know right now that I've read more books than you," he says.
I ask if he's worried about being pigeonholed as a comic—either for being cerebral or, as could easily happen in a place like Portland, for being black. He doesn't miss a beat: "I want to be pigeonholed as very politely militant."
See him live: The Funniest 5 comedy showcase. Bossanova Ballroom, 722 E Burnside St., 206-7630. 7 pm. Free. 21+.