Despite a lengthy on-camera career that began back in 1987 when he was the host of MTV's Remote Control, Colin Quinn generally seems most comfortable when he's telling jokes or gently roasting fellow comics. As the host of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," the gruff Brooklyner brought a weary yet punchy panache to the position, bringing the same verve to The Colin Quinn Show and Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, two unfortunately short-lived efforts that have nevertheless proved to be enduring influences. On the big screen, Quinn often turns up in the filmic endeavors of his fellow SNL alums, including Night at the Roxbury, Sandy Wexler and Grown Ups, but he demonstrates unexpected pathos in Trainwreck.
Standup has always remained at the forefront of Quinn's efforts, though, and his last three specials, Long Story Short, Unconstitutional and New York Story, experiment with the form while still delivering laughs. Quinn's latest tour, One in Every Crowd, is similarly united by a central theme, and fans shouldn't miss the opportunity to watch the new hour take shape.
Westword caught up with Quinn ahead of his February 8 to 10 headlining engagement at Comedy Works Downtown to discuss his new hour.
Westword: Hi Colin, this is Byron Graham from Westword.
Colin Quinn: Hey, how you doin'? Why are you in Colorado Springs?
I live in Denver, but I'm from there originally, so I still have the area code on my phone. I'm impressed that you recognized the 719, though.
No, Colorado Springs came up on my phone when you called in. I wish I could just remember every area code off the top of my head. I also know it from that Colorado Springs detective show.
What, Dog the Bounty Hunter?
No! Homicide Hunter. You don't know that show?
This is literally the first I've heard of it. They shoot a TV show in Colorado Springs?
It's the most popular one on all those Investigation Discovery channels. This guy's a retired detective, and he talks about all these cases in Colorado Springs — which I imagine you know since you're from there — and it's a crime haven for some reason, and it's always been that way. His name is Lieutenant Joe Kenda. He's this real serious ex-cop, and he's worked hundreds of murder cases there. I remember coming to the Springs in the ’80s and people would say, "Watch out, there's a lot of crime here," and I'd say, "What do you mean? It's beautiful here!" There's not even that many people, but somehow it's still dangerous. Apparently they're never going to run out of cases: murders galore out there.
I'll have to check that out. I'm glad my home town is getting in the national spotlight for something, even if it is all the murders. Anyway, I'm going to segue into the formal interview questions now. Your last three specials — the New York Story, Long Story Short and Unconstitutional — deviate from the standard standup-special format; it’s driven by jokes, but they’re all working from the same theme. What inspired you to take a sort of one-man-show/ standup hybrid approach?
Yeah, I like to try and get thematic. To figure things out. I want to figure out the Constitution, I want to talk about how New York was shaped by each wave of immigrants that moved here; it's better for me that way. The audiences just have to realize: It's about what's good for me. I know it sounds selfish, but that's how it has to be. [Laughs] I just don't like being arbitrary, scattershot. I wanna do what I wanna do, you know? I've been doing this a long time, and I just like it better this way.
It's definitely a way to stand out in a landscape where there's a new standup special out on Netflix every week.
Oh, my God, yeah. Isn't it crazy?
Do you think it's too many?
Yeah, I think it's saturated again, you know? In some ways, I think it's good because it makes comedy fans more savvy. When they watch a lot of standup, they can see something and go, "Well, that was pretty generic." They're almost becoming like standups, which is always good for me, because standups are my people. My best audiences are always other comedians. But we do glut the market. If you're the one guy who says, "I'm not doing a special," nobody cares. There's still going to be fifty of them coming out.
It makes sense. It's relatively cheap content for networks and streaming services to produce, and of course no comic is going to turn down that stage time.
Right. You spoke that like a standup yourself.
I do actually do standup.
I knew it by the way you said that. Nobody except a standup would think of a special as stage time, either. But it is. It's really an addiction for us in many ways, and a special is a nice big hit. It's a good addiction, but it's still an addiction.
Absolutely. So why do you think history is so rich with comedic potential?
Just because I feel like not that many people do it. People bring it up briefly, but I feel like they don't get into it. And there are so many correlations behaviorally, as far as what we're like as human beings, you know? If you look at history, the technology and stuff becomes irrelevant over time, but the human behavior is always relevant because it's stayed the same.
When you were gearing up to record those specials, what did you do when you thought of a joke that didn’t fit with the hour thematically? Where does it go?
I mean, they all fit. You squeeze something in. You know how it is. Most of the jokes you gotta wedge in somewhere. I guess some stuff gets cut out, but I'm definitely a typical standup in that way. Like, "That's funny. I gotta find a place for that."
A good punchline is a good punchline.
The crowd just laughs; they don't care how you got there. They like a good punchline more than any point you could make. You know how it is. I'll do all these specials that are about something, and people will come up to me and say, "I loved your last special," and I'll say, "Thanks. I'm really proud of it." And then they'll say, "My favorite part was when you made fun of the guy's shirt." And I'll say, "Yeah, but what about my insights?" Anyway, it really was a stupid shirt.
Your current hour is called One in Every Crowd. Is there a unifying theme for this one too?
Well, yeah. The unifying theme started out as being about the one toxic person in every social situation you've been in. Every job, every school, every crowd: There's that one person. I'm fascinated by this phenomenon, because everybody knows who I'm talking about. How can that be, that every person in life, whether they're in China, Africa or Congress — there's that one person there making everyone else miserable. So that's where it started, but now it's expanded and become about the breakup of the United States. Because I really feel like the country is going to break up at some point, you know? So it's kind of about that, and how every system tries to deal with their one idiot.
I mean, it's easy to say Trump, but he is an example of one of those asses, obviously. But this country was breaking up already before he showed up. But he is a fascinating example of how much damage one person being an ass can do. He has the perfect personality type for what I'm talking about, because he didn't change one bit from the day before he got elected to the day after he got elected. Most people would have been stunned; they would have either gotten much nicer or much meaner. He stayed exactly the same.
He does not appear to be humbled by the office.
It's like the Frog and the Scorpion. That's the type of person I mean; they've got that scorpion nature, and they're never going to change. He's an overused example in comedy these days, so you gotta use those examples sparingly. But ultimately, it's about something bigger than just him. But he's like that, and he's in charge right now, so it's hard for me not to see the parallels, even though I started working on this show before he got elected — which nobody expected, including him. But, yeah, throughout history, there's just always that toxic person who ruins everything.
Do you think it’s possible to do topical comedy without getting political these days?
Yeah, I do. I feel like you can do it by forgetting about the politicians and their problems and talking about us. About what jackasses we've become on social media. Look at what we've become. Our tribal and fractious tendencies as people. Look at all these ugly fights going on all the time. I feel like we don't take enough credit for the deterioration of the country as people. There's a lot of ugliness just floating around out there, and like I've been saying: All it takes is one toxic person to set it off. I once read this book about mob psychology — not like the Mafia, like a group of people — a couple years ago, and studies have shown that all it takes for a crowd to descend into chaos is for one person to transgress. That sets something loose in people; part of it is the fear of not going along, and part of it is all that anger finally coming out. It's serious stuff, and I just think it's fascinating. Because it's been going on in some form or another since time began.
Do you have plans to film the material for a new special at some point?
Not right now. Because like you said: I'm not chomping at the bit to do it yet. That's another thing about all these specials: I think they're getting filmed a little too quickly. I feel like good standup needs to gestate longer. I would say that it takes about two and a half to three years to get ready for a special. That's what I think. Does that sound about right?
Yeah, that way it's still an event.
Otherwise, you're just throwing stuff out. You don't have to film something every time you write a new hour. Tour with it; let it gestate. You know how hard it is to write new material. Let it take shape over two and a half to three years. Make sure it's fully formed before you go and shoot it.
I noticed you’ve mentioned in other interviews that appearing in movies and television shows is often more about maintaining visibility so people come to live shows than the joy of the work.
Yeah, I mean, where's the joy in most TV and movies? I mean, not all, but most on them are fine. But they're nothing compared to what standup can be. You can talk about stuff on stage that someone would stop you from saying in a movie or a show. Before you even got people to read your script, you'd be noted to death. With standup, I don't give a shit what anyone says. If I think it's funny, I'm trying it. And if it bombs, I'll take the heat. The self-censorship people do now is ridiculous.
Do you think you were always disillusioned with the industry or did it happen somewhere along the way?
No, it happened along the way. I would say it happened in varying degrees, to the point where now I'm in that space where I'm not even as angry as I was. It's just like, "Eh, that's how it goes." Because how angry can you get? Sure, it's ridiculous, and I hate the way they pretend to be edgy, to take chances and speak the truth. I can work myself into a lather right now just talking about that hypocrisy. But in the grand scheme of things, I'm not like a ten-year-old Syrian kid who just saw his parents get blown up. It does suck, but it's important to keep things in perspective. It's sad that I have to think of such a heinous example, but life is unfair. So it's all relative.
Is it different when you're creating your own thing, like Cop Show?
Even Cop Show. Nobody would pick it up; nobody would pay for it. We had a car company paying for it for a minute, but nobody's doing it, so it only infuriates me more. I pitch shows a lot, so it's not like I'm not trying. And everybody can say what I'm saying. Like, "Well, we all feel that way." But my temperament — and this may be a standup thing, too — is not one where I just accept what happens. It's like, "No! I'm great! How dare you!" That's just who I am. I'm not even getting the notes like, "We're going forward, but you're doing this our way." They always just say, "We love Colin, but we'll pass." That might be the most infuriating part. My manager always tells me, "They said they loved you," and I'm like, "Stop saying that! They don't love me. It's just an easy thing to say." How do they benefit from saying, "We hate Colin?" Of course they're going to say that.
Are there any subjects or premises that you can’t manage to make funny?
No. Of course not. That doesn't mean everything gets laughs. But of course I think I can make everything funny. I've been doing this a long time, and it's sort of a challenge to get people to laugh at things they wouldn't ordinarily laugh at, in each particular era. Most standups do like to transgress a bit, and you evolve with the job.
Has think-piece culture been good for comedy in general? On the one hand, people are more aware of comedy than ever before, and they can spot a hack, but I think sometimes non-comics get prescriptive about what comedy should be.
Even when you said "think piece," my blood started boiling, because you're right. It's good that people are on Reddit or whatever discussing comedy, what's hack and what's not, but the think-piece culture bothers me. Unless you're up there doing it all the time, how much can you actually know about standup? It's like me saying, "You know the problem with the Knicks is that Michael Beasley's good, but he moves to the baseline too much." I played basketball when I was kid, but I don't know what I'm talking about! I don't know what I'm saying! Anybody who's actually in the league could probably say, "Here's why that happens, stupid." I don't understand what the game looks like when it's being played on that level. That's what a lot of these think pieces are. And the weird part is that a lot of them almost sound like the League of Decency in the ’50s. They're the new fundamentalists. It used to be that in society, all the censors were on the right wing, and then suddenly now it's people on the left.
There's nothing less funny than ideological purity.
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Exactly. It starts with not being allowed to say things, and then soon you're not even supposed to think them.
I think it can help to be aware of those things: I definitely don't want to offend someone by accident, you know? I want to be precise in my targets. But, yeah, when you're chasing that level of transgression that you mentioned, going too far is a risk you have to take.
Right. Of course there are going to be idiots who are just saying hurtful things. But once again, that's very subjective, and I don't know that any think piece is going to figure out where the line is supposed to be.
Colin Quinn is headlining Comedy Works Downtown February 8 through February 10. Showtimes and admission prices vary; visit the Comedy Works box-office page for more details.