Colin Quinn: Comedian, Educator and Professional Badass


colin-quinnIt’s perhaps a bad colloquialism to refer to Brooklyn born comedian Colin Quinn as being “ground zero” during the comedy revolution that started in the 1980s. After only three years working clubs in Manhattan, Boston and the tri-borough area, Quinn’s career shifted into high gear. MTV’s Remote Control, SNL, Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd were just stepping stones for Quinn’s latest excursions into truth, unhappiness and comedy. Following in the footsteps of one his hero’s, George Carlin, Quinn hit pay dirt with his educational and hilarious one-man show Long Story Short. Now, with Broadway under his belt, Quinn has returned with a new one-man show, called Unconstitutional, that takes aim at America and how we got in the mess we’re in.


DNA: What’s up Colin?

QUINN: What’s going on?

Not too much here in Santa Cruz, California.

Santa Cruz? I was just talking about the late, actually he’s probably still alive, Edmund Kemper.

The serial killer?

Yeah, was just talking about him today.

Yeah, our Chamber of Commerce doesn’t push his notoriety as much as you would think. You in New York City?

Yes I am.

You got another blizzard hitting you?

No. It’s cold now. It’s fine.

All my family is back there. In California we hear news that there’s a polar vortex on the East Coast, but when I talk to my brother he’s always pissed like, “It’s fucking flurries, the weather men are assholes.”

I know. It’s fine.

Some of these questions might be pretty comedy-centric but I hope you can give me a couple of minutes of your time.

Sure I would.

You started in 1984. Comics today always hear about the comedy boom of that era. Was it as great and easy to get gigs as we hear?

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I got in at the right time, boy. From 1986 to ‘87, I wouldn’t say you could make a good living, but you could make enough. But only if you had already been doing it for three or four years—you couldn’t just walk in and make a living. It was definitely better than today. There was no competition, you know. Every city had a club to fill, and they would still fucking rob you, because that’s a club owner in their heart of hearts. You would still make money.

At that time, in NYC, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser were already top tier guys.

Oh yeah. I remember hearing that Jerry made $20,000 a week doing like 6 shows, or whatever they did in those days. And I was like, “What the fuck?” He was a big money maker even then—or maybe it was just a rumor. Paul Reiser and Larry Miller, they all made their living doing comedy. They weren’t rich, but they were surviving doing comedy and that was living the dream.

When you saw those guys getting their own TV shows, did you have a plan that you were also going to end up on a show on TV? Was that the idea in your head when you first started? Do stand-up and then get a TV show?

Yeah. No. When I first started I definitely had the idea of being big, but I didn’t have any specifics. I just thought, “I want to be fucking famous, fuck this shit.” That was it. I wanted to be famous like Richard Pryor or George Carlin—those were the only ones I knew of when I started. Like David Brennan, he was on the Tonight Show all the time. Obviously, I admired Pryor and Carlin’s material but I wasn’t a purist—I just wanted to be famous.

And after doing three years of stand-up, you got the MTV deal on Remote Control.

It was good, but it was a real side-track, side-line, for me. It was good that I became well known to a certain group of people under 20, but it was bad because it distracted me from stand-up comedy. I would go to gigs and people would be screaming and cheering and I couldn’t really work on my material, on my act, you know?

Were you on same bills as Seinfeld and Reiser?

No, no, no.

Did any more established comics take you under their wing?

Nobody famous—nobody took me under their wing. Comics who liked me would tell the club owner, “Hey, this guy is funny, you should book him.” And the club owner would be like, “Oh, if you say he’s funny, he must be pretty good.”

Did you get more gigs after MTV because you had a TV credit?

Yeah. I got more gigs. I was well known by kids under 20, but those kids were kids—they were drunk and rowdy and my act was never really for that kind of crowd. My ways and my stand-up weren’t for them, but they would tolerate me. It was weird mix that didn’t blend well together.

You’re a no-nonsense comic who doesn’t tolerate bullshit. You don’t pander to a crowd. Now, with one successful one-man show under your belt and the new one getting its sea legs, I imagine riffing with the crowd is not part of your act.

Exactly. Comedy clubs are great as far as it goes. But there’s something to be said for people listening to your act. Here’s the great thing about doing a one-man show—there’s never a moment before I go on and think, “That table is going to be trouble.” But at clubs, there’s always that fucking table and they ruin if for everybody. I don’t have to deal with that, usually. Once in a blue moon in the theatre you get a drunk asshole.

When you’re working out a new one-man show, do you work on smaller chunks of the show at smaller clubs?

Clubs, yeah, sure.

How much do you trust the audience’s reaction?

It’s a combination, but that’s what they are they for, that is what you are doing it for—to get the feel of them. If they’re listening and they’re sober, you gotta trust them—they are there to laugh, they are not there to ruin the show. But if it’s a talky crowd, chit-chatting and yelling shit, you can’t really gauge it that well.

When you’re working something new in NYC, do you take it other, maybe more Southern states to get another reaction? Or are comedy audiences pretty much the same around the country?

Well, first of all everybody in NYC is from somewhere else now. Nobody is from here any fucking more. So, it’s a pretty decent gauge. And, it seems like the whole world is one big generic, homogenized group. All the young girls watch “Girls”, all the guys watch “True Detective” and everything goes online—so, it’s much more across the board then it was in the old days.

My day job is working with international students. So, kids will arrive from Bosnia or Turkey and they want to talk about Family Guy and the NBA. They know more about the Late Night controversies then I do.

That’s so funny. That’s really interesting.

When you are working on a new one-man show do you still feel the need to get on a stage every night and hit the mic?

Leading up to working on a new show, I’m up every night. But recently, I haven’t done shit. And just last night I went on, I signed up at the (Comedy) Cellar for the weekend. It feels good to be on. I’m working on some new concept stuff about America, the Ukraine, our relationship with Russia and what that means and what it’s always meant. I’m working on people’s personal perceptions of what it all means—it’s hard. There’s a thing about stand-up where, if you’re heart is in it, you do better—then, the audience believes every fucking thing you’re saying.

OK. So you’re doing a one-man show that is political. Russian invades the Ukraine and you are obligated to mention it in your show. We could be on the brink of World War Three, and it would be odd not to include that in your show. But, when Russian pulls out, and danger is narrowly averted, do you feel like, “Fuck, I shouldn’t have wasted that much time on that material?”

You know what the beauty is? Even when you write those bits and they fall apart—but guess what? Every little premise, or principle that you have in that bit, it will come up again in a year or two for some other situation. That’s how I look at it, even though it’s annoying, like, “Goddamit, that’s the perfect bit.” You know what I mean? The principle of that bit will come back again as part of the DNA of your whole as a comedian. It might not even be about a global thing it could be about your job, but that bit you abandoned might actually fit in. It’s not like you worked on something so hard and it’s no longer relevant. Like that guy who did the Kennedy imitations. Vaughn Meader, he was the biggest comic with that album he made. And then Kennedy got shot and that guy was fucked for the rest of his life. Lenny Bruce actually went onstage the night after the Kennedy assassination and said, “Vaughn Meader is fucked!”

Your first Broadway show encompassed all of known history, but your new show focuses on the 4,400 words in the Constitution.

It’s more than that. It focuses on how the words in the constitution made us who we are. You know how the Koran informs all Arab personalities? Well, that’s how the Constitution is, it informs all American personalities, in my opinion.

A big difference is Muslims actually read the Koran.

Good point.

Do you miss going to 42nd Street and seeing hookers and the “edge” that NYC used to have?

Of course I miss it. At the same time, it was fucking scary it was terrifying. It was bad and it was only getting worse. But of course I glorify it in my mind.

Do find New Yorkers have gotten nicer in the last decade?

Money and not being from here add to a civility.

Come see Colin Quinn at The Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on May 2nd. Tix here:




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