You may know Colin Quinn from his recent one man show Unconstitutional. Or one of his other one man shows Long Story Short and Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake. Or from his stint as Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live. Or from his time at the helm of the much beloved Tough Crowd. Or from his long and well-respected career in standup. Or even from MTV’s Remote Control. My point is, you know Colin Quinn. Or maybe you just think you do. So of course we jumped at the chance to talk with him while he was promoting shows at Helium Comedy Clubs in Buffalo and in Philadelphia this month,. Amy Hawthorne spent some time talking with Colin Quinn about his sometimes misleading persona and the somewhat random evolution of his career.
The IBang: You just finished up two weekends at the Helium comedy clubs in Buffalo & Philadelphia. What’s it like transitioning back into straight standup after Unconstitutional?
Colin Quinn: I mean, the whole run, I’d still go up in the city. It’s only weird in the sense that you get used to a certain… it’s the audience really, I blame them if there’s ever a problem. No, really the relationship with the audience in standup is more important than anything. And it’s more important than with music or something else. It’s everything. It’s such a relationship, it’s really insane, they’re your fucking partner. So you look at clubs and you look at theaters.. and the one thing they have in common is if you get a weird response in either place it does make you kind of look and go “Do I need to rewrite or was it just that crowd?”
The difference is, when people drink more – and they drink in theaters now too, the whole fucking show, but still not as much as at comedy clubs – you have to be a lot shorter and more abrupt in standup clubs. It’s bad because you don’t get to the same depth of what your humor is but it’s great because there’s no indulgence. It makes you get to the jokes.
The IBang: People always tell young comedians, “The audience is never wrong, it’s you” but I’ve experienced shows where it’s definitely the audience.
Colin Quinn: YES! Fuck yeah. Take the audience the same way you take yourself, with a goddamn grain of salt. The audience is not infallible and neither are you. Look at both, listen to your tapes. If you tape and you listen, you’ll hear that one where you were too wordy and it wasn’t really that funny. And we can get swept up in the moment too, not just the audience. Sometimes it’s a great moment live that’s not really real. Any group of people where you can get up and do eleven straight dick jokes and they laugh at every one of them are not going to be a hundred percent arbiters of what I’m doing. It’s 50-50, definitely.
The IBang: I imagine a lot of your fans of stand-up came to see your theater shows, but did it go the other way? Do you have new people coming out to see your stand-up?
I’d get people who were like, “yeah, fuckin party! Irish! Brooklyn!” and no, no that’s not what I do.
I’m very much a prude in my standup, I’m very Irish. I don’t really talk about sex that much. I curse, so people think “Hey Hey” but i don’t do dick jokes. It’s partly because I feel like they’re too easy and it’s partly because I’m Irish and I don’t like to talk about that shit. I find it offensive on some level. It’s very Catholic of me. We’re the only ones who still feel that way. Everybody else went to church and didn’t hear a word about the fucking shame you’re supposed to feel. I talk about that in my act lately and the only ones who get it are Irish and Italians.
Robert Klein used to have a joke “I went out with an Irish girl once. I taught her guilt, she taught me shame.” I thought that was such a deep joke. Guilt and shame are different things, you know?
My favorite jokes are the ones that make you go “Oh yeah, of course!” The ones that you agree with because they just make so much sense. That would be a great compilation, not clever jokes, all of those jokes where people say it and it’s just like “Oh my god!” that sweeping thing. Those jokes where you go, “This son of a bitch, that was like a philosopher!” So many people have one joke or three jokes that are like that. People you don’t look at and think, “Oh that’s one of those smart comics” but the joke is like “Oh my god, that’s so smart and so funny!”
Everyone always says it’s about finding your voice and I’m like, “I’ll help you find it fucking faster to where you’ll be able to keep writing in that voice whenever you want.
And so many female comedians don’t understand what potential there is that nobody has gone near. When you think about women and you think about what’s so funny about standup, they all do it all the time. Just noticing all the shit and just little behaviors in others. The amount of observation that they’re doing anyway in their fucking life, they should be ruling standup. But then they fall into bad habits like overthinking or having to explain eight thoughts before they get to the funny part.
I really want to open a school. But not for the new kids. There’d be too much enthusiasm. And it’s like everything else, you have to fail so much to learn anything. Like some of the most brilliant people in the business, like directors and writers, they don’t know how it is. You don’t know unless you do it yourself. Someone like Judd Apatow has spent enough time in the trenches to understand standup, but if you took some other comic director, it’d be very rare that they wouldn’t fall for the hack every time. It’s like me with music. If I went to talk about a bunch of musicians, everyone would think I was a fucking idiot. Like, if I tell you I like Nick Drake, it’s just “Oh another idiot who thinks he’s deep because he likes Nick Drake.”
The IBang: It’s so funny when you think about it that with comedians, they won’t necessarily take advice from another comedian but they will listen to a manager or director that’s never set foot on stage.
Colin Quinn: Well, nobody listens to anybody. People say things to you, but you can’t really hear what they’re saying. Like, when I started comedy, I’d go up at The Improv and the owner said, “You speak so off the cuff, you’ve gotta tape yourself every night, trust me.” And I was like, “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m not going to tape every night.” She was giving me great advice and I ignored it until 10 years later when I was like, “Fuck! She’s right!”
The IBang: What is it about comedy that makes people want to learn the lesson the hard way?
If you’re a person that fucks everything up, it’s funny.
The IBang: Going way back to talking about your audience, I remember you from Remote Control, that’s how old I am. And I definitely didn’t look at that guy and think, “Oh, he’s going to be a thoughtful commentator on our society later.” Was that something you learned or did you always know that’s what interests you?
Colin Quinn: I was always kind of a pseudo-intellectual on stage, but I wasn’t always very clear. My standup was very discombobulated. I was arbitrary and random, which is not a good thing for a standup. People would walk away going, “Yeah, that one thing was funny, but then he was talking about that other, I don’t know…” It took me a long time to connect everything. Now the best thing I can do is pick a subject and write jokes about it so I can wander off but I always have something to come back to. It’s more for me than even for the audience, so I can keep order in my head.
TheIBang: You’ve done a lot of different things over the years with your career, was that all random or was there always a plan of “OK, this is what I want to do next”?
Colin Quinn: No, fucking random. I mean, I did some one man shows in ‘94 and ‘98 and I always liked that. I always had that dream of off-broadway, it was so cool in the 70’s so I always liked that idea. And certain things can’t be communicated with standup. If anything, I’ve been loving this standup renaissance. There’s good and bad with the whole “alt comedy”. The good is that people do listen and you don’t have to fucking lion tame. The downside is that you can be too indulgent and people can get lazy. But it’s great, you don’t have to bark, you don’t have to crack the whip…you don’t have to deal with the check spot! That’s one of the worst engineered things in comedy. The person you paid all this money to come see, five minutes of that you’ve gotta deal with paying your check.
The IBang: Okay, we have to talk about your Twitter. It’s great. It seems like you have more fun with the people who don’t get it than the ones that do.
Colin Quinn: Yeah, but the problem is everyone gets it now. It’s very rare that someone doesn’t get it now. Everybody’s in on the game, so now the fun is to get creative with your insults. Though even people who are in on the joke still get mad because I’m saying something so insufferably Pollyanna. It’s not as much fun as when they didn’t get it, but it’s still fun.