Why TV Needs a Tough Crowd

tough crowd colin quinn

It’s been 11 years, 10 months, and 3 days since Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn was placed on “indefinite hiatus,” and the comedic world has desperately been lacking an honest and all encompassing voice on politics ever since. Comics still love discussing partisan politics, but thanks to a highly divided national climate, a revival of Tough Crowd’s unique slant on the universe has never been more vital than in 2016.

Comedy and politics don’t always mix. This isn’t to say that a comedian can’t be political or that a politician can’t be funny, but it should go without saying that not all comedians have the best grasp on world issues, and politicians aren’t exactly known for their natural hilariousness. In fact, despite a growing trend demanding otherwise, it’s quite the opposite—especially when it comes to most politicians having no idea how to be funny. Unfortunately, these facts haven’t done anything to stop both comedians and politicians from trying to combine the two with varied results.

Some comedians who try to get political get too caught up in their idealism and lose their comedic edge. When politicians try to get funny, they either try too hard to maintain their seriousness and kill the joke, dilute their point by making it too funny to seem important, or destroy all of their credibility entirely by showcasing a bizarre or offensive sense of humor they don’t know how to present with a comic’s sensibilities. Many television shows have tried to combine the two, but only a handful ever succeeded, and only one truly pushed the concept to its wildest comedic capabilities. Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn was able to go where few political comedy shows can.

Tough Crowd wasn’t necessarily a unique show, at least in terms of format. Quinn himself would probably admit the format was almost identical to Politically Incorrect, but while PI would take one or two comedians and put them in a panel discussion with the political elite, Tough Crowd realized politicians would only get in the way of political discourse. Perhaps more importantly, the show realized that sometimes ending an argument about politics by calling your friend a bumbling moron with buck teeth can be way more satisfying for everyone involved than getting a pandering crowd to clap because someone made an agreeable, but hollow, tepid, and meaningless point.

Colin Quinn may have been criticized for mumbling some of his jokes and generally being one of the least graceful hosts on television, but the show wouldn’t have been the same without him. It was Quinn’s honesty and personal definition of comedic integrity that formed Tough Crowd’s mission statement. As he defined on Tough Crowd’s final episode, comedic integrity is “the ability to critique all the hypocrisies in society, but also to be be real enough to admit that you’re as guilty as everyone else in the game.”

Actual politicians could never admit they’re as guilty as everyone else out of fear of harming their political careers. Even many political comedians are afraid of admitting culpability in societal problems, and without a respected comedic voice leading the way and pushing others to follow, comedy as a whole is in danger of losing some of that integrity and honesty. This is especially problematic in the current and wildly divisive political landscape. If only confident and funny voices explained it to one another on a nightly basis, perhaps the world would have an easier time dealing with a tumultuous political climate.

The most common critiques of Tough Crowd were that it was too acerbic, too angry, and above all, far too confrontational about ideas on both sides of the political spectrum. These are fair criticisms, but they could be applied to any political platform pretending to give both sides an equal voice. With Tough Crowd, the audience knew that if the politics got too angry or too personal, the panel would usually be smart enough to know when to drop it and simply go for the laugh line instead of trying to get people to agree with them. And if the panel didn’t know when to drop it, you had Colin Quinn telling them to cut the bullshit and start acting funny, forcing them to focus on the laughs if they wanted to get invited back on the show.

Tough Crowd also got criticism for being too conservative. This is only true when you frame Tough Crowd as the show that followed The Daily Show and held the time slot that would eventually belong to The Colbert Report. Tough Crowd was more conservative than either of those shows, yes, but only because Tough Crowd may have been the only truly moderate political comedy show in history. Quinn himself and a few of the regular guests, namely Jim Norton and Nick Di Paolo, leaned towards the right (and in Di Paolo’s case, he did so while waving his middle fingers at the left). But this is also a show that regularly featured well known liberal comics like Judy Gold, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and even Colbert himself, always allowing them to speak their views just as loudly as the conservative host and his regulars.

Quinn debated his more liberal guests on the issues when he felt capable, but he didn’t outright mock them for their views or tell them to shut up—he reserved that for times comics said something clearly intended to make the audience clap instead of making the audience laugh. And he did the same thing to Norton and Di Paolo and any other conservative comic he let on the show, too. As the show progressed into a minor cult hit, Norton would essentially make a running joke out of the idea, intentionally making completely nonsense banal “points” just to see how much bullshit he could get the audience to clap for. The answer was that they’d clap at almost anything, which succinctly explained why it was so essential Quinn stop everybody from doing it for real as soon as he recognized it was happening. It was still pretty funny when Jimmy did it, though.

With most political talk shows, getting the audience to clap at pabulum bullshit almost feels like the entire point, but with Tough Crowd, the point was the wink shared between Quinn and Norton those times Colin caught on when Jim fucked with the audience. These guys knew that political talk shows weren’t about politics anymore, they were about saying what the audience wanted to hear and mocking the other side for daring to think differently than they do. The second part is inherent in all of politics, but at least for two short years there was a TV show that knew how to present it in a manner that wasn’t trite and cliché in its very nature. If the audience clapped, it better be because something was funny, or at least because a genuinely unique intelligent thought was shared. A tough crowd doesn’t have time for the obvious.

After some 200 episodes and just under two years on the air, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn was canceled in 2004 to ultimately make way for The Colbert Report. Patrice O’Neal, a series regular and one of the greatest comedians of all time, predicted during the final episode that there would be “L.A. knucklehead copycats” attempting to recreate what they had, but warned they’d all be hosted by fakes who didn’t understand Quinn’s demand for honesty and realness. Patrice was a genius in more ways than one, as it was only a few years before Jim Norton and Nick Di Paolo became regular guests on the Fox News program, Red Eye w/ Tom Shillue, where conservative viewpoints are met with raucous laughter and applause, and liberal ideas are booed and derided regardless of how funny or thoughtful they may be.

The world is political, partisan, and ripping apart further and further as people become obsessed with ideologies they can’t explain, or worse, can’t defend. Comedy Central reacted by canceling Tough Crowd and replacing it with a string of overtly liberal shows in order to maintain the status quo of the network. The Daily Show is great, but it isn’t honest comedians engaging in clever political discourse; it’s writers presenting their viewpoints to a crowd that already agrees with them. There are plenty of shows, both good and bad, that do what The Daily Show did. Tough Crowd was one of a kind, and that needs to change if comedy is supposed to be real.

Fox News is barely giving conservative leaning comedians a chance to speak the tamest, least creative versions of their thoughts for peanuts on Red Eye, and HBO has Real Time with Bill Maher for liberal leaning comics to make easy jokes and get cheered for their ideologies, but honest political comedy died more than 10 years ago. Now that Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, all we can do is cross our fingers and beg for it to come back.

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Lucas Wesley Snipes is a writer, improviser, and standup comedian living in Los Angeles. He is also a trained trapeze artist, which he loves telling people.
Lucas Wesley Snipes
Lucas Wesley Snipes
Lucas Wesley Snipes is a writer, improviser, and standup comedian living in Los Angeles. He is also a trained trapeze artist, which he loves telling people.