The veteran comedian discusses Trump-era America, social media and PC culture in the wake of his recently-canceled Stanford appearance
If there are milestones in stand-up comedy, chances are Colin Quinn has reached it.
The Brooklyn native announced his presence on MTV in the 1980’s. Soon after, he landed an HBO comedy special and then anchored Saturday Night Live’s coveted Weekend Update satirical news segment and performed alongside the likes of Will Ferrell, Tracy Morgan and Molly Shannon, before hosting the Comedy Central show, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. Movie roles in the hit comedies Grown Ups and Trainwreck came in the last decade, along with becoming the first comic to have a special on CNN.
Thirty-plus years into his career, Quinn is currently finding himself on tour… performing…during a global pandemic. His new hour, The Wrong Side of History, was scheduled for Bing Studio at Stanford before recent cancellations. It comes less than a year after the premiere of his CNN special (now on Netflix), Red State Blue State. As news updates of a cancelled NBA season and other emergency measures came rolling in this week, we kept our calendar date to speak with Quinn by phone on the topics of comics as truth tellers, social media mania, the key to longevity and the current state of Saturday Night Live…
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The Six Fifty: Your friend Jerry Seinfeld directed two of your specials. He famously said he doesn’t perform at colleges anymore because they are too “PC.” You’re coming to Stanford for two nights — why do you still do colleges?
Colin Quinn: I don’t know if colleges are more PC than the rest of the world. I feel like everything is very PC now [laughs].
In Red State Blue State you asserted that we need a natural disaster to gain some perspective. Is coronavirus it?
I was afraid somebody was going to pick that up and you did. Yeah, it’s definitely one of those things…maybe this will give us a little perspective at least on all these other problems, which ones are real and which ones are micro-aggressions, you know what I mean? … Maybe in the long run this will give us a sense of proportion.
Over the last 20 years, culture has kind of elevated comedians as truth tellers. I think it stems from the sit-down style of comedy with Weekend Update or Jon Stewart or a Ted Talk.
Some of us choose to speak politically … but that doesn’t mean that’s the only valid comedy. There’s plenty of people that mask a lack of humor and jokes by lessening the audience too. There’s two sides to it. There’s a hundred great comedians who don’t do political stuff and they’re more legitimate than some guy who is saying, ‘I’m giving you, the audience, uncomfortable truths.’ Yeah, but if you’re not funny, you’re not a comedian. You’re just a person who feels they have to speak their mind.
Your output these days has been impressive. You have a new comedy hour you’re doing—Wrong Side of History—coming right on the heels of your last hour—Red State Blue State. How are you keeping up such a high output?
Thanks. Well, nothing else going on, you know? That helps.
Also, it’s just that thing where I’m at the age, it’s like: Jesus, what do you want to do? My challenge is to say everything I want to say, if it seems like it’s boring…or not really great comedic fodder, and finding ways to get laughs. That’s a fun thing for me … people go, ‘oh yeah, you can make the constitution funny,’ you know?
You take on everyone in Red State Blue State. How is Wrong Side of History going to differ from that hour?
Here’s one principle: history is written by the winners. Everybody says that. So then, how do you know what the wrong side of history was? If it was written by the winners, then whatever you think was the wrong side of history might be the right side and vice versa, you know?
Everybody refuses to acknowledge it because we have this idea in our head, that everybody speaking at all times is a positive thing. Social media has proven that might not be the case. [Wrong Side of History] is a lot of stuff about social media, so it’s actually a perfect show for Stanford because you can think about where we went with social media and the internet.
I was a big fan of John Witherspoon and he passed not too long ago. I heard his genius was he was always working to speak to the audience on their level in terms of staying relevant. Is that your ethos as well or just your personality?
I just say whatever I think is going on. I’m just gambling people won’t go, ‘This old bastard, he doesn’t know what’s going on.’ … I don’t like doing things that are in the news. I like doing the general principle behind it and getting into the historical stuff to aggravate people. But I feel like it is important, it does make sense when you look at it from the point of view, for example, what early opinion was and what it became, it all fits together to me.
It didn’t strike me that you’re moralizing or talking down to a younger generation. The line about Twitter being the person doing cocaine in the bathroom is very apt.
Everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, it’s millennials.’ Millennials will say it’s boomers. It’s so funny how people fall into these comfortable clichés, of boomers, they’re all the same, like there’s not 20 kinds of boomers and twenty kinds of millennials.
I liked your argument America could be better off as nation states. You mentioned history being written by the winners, if America was to break up, and America is so obsessed with winning, who wins? Who gets to keep everything?
I just wrote a book actually, about the 50 states, where I go over each state and what they are, how they are what they are and what they will be … I talk about what they will be during the divorce, where they would be. It’s funny you say that. Yeah, I’d break it up into like 12 countries, you know?
If you were in your twenties now, and you were offered the SNL Weekend Update spot in this current landscape, would you take it? And if so, how would you approach it?
Yeah, of course I would take it. One thing about comedians, we don’t really turn opportunities down to give our angle on things, you know? I would take it, and look, I don’t know what I would do with it. I’d do it my way I guess.
There’s been an outgrowth of that style of Weekend Update over the years. Do you think it’s more difficult for SNL to stay relevant because there’s so much more noise in terms of politics, and comedy and entertainment, that’s why they’re guest spot heavy and more reliant on celebrity than the principal players?
Yeah, I do. I feel there’s a saturation, having different people playing these obscure politicians, it’s just the way to do it. They’re only in the cold opening for the most part anyway. I think you’re right, that’s exactly what’s happening.
You had a great show, Tough Crowd, you get asked about all the time — 200 episodes but in a short amount of time, that show still gets talked about almost 20 years later. Do you think that comedian panel show can work today?
If they ran it today, we would trend every day. We’d trend to be cancelled every day. ‘Cancelled! No, not okay.’ It would be, oh god, fun of course. It would have been fun to be doing this whole time, of course.
You’re busy with so much going on. Has that ship sailed in terms of a Tough Crowd-style show or would you welcome that in the future?
Yeah, people always say as a podcast, I probably should have done it, you know? But yeah …it would be interesting now because so much is unsaid. Sometimes I’m really interested in why I’m not doing it. Other times, who cares? I’d rather just clarify my thoughts in stand-up and that kind of stuff. It was almost too free-wheeling for me sometimes.
Where is a Stanford student most likely to have recognized you from?
It’s either Grown Ups or Trainwreck. Nobody knows my specials. They’re like, ‘Hey Grown Ups!’ So I’m like yeah, great. ‘Hey Trainwreck!’ Alright, fine.
After roasting all the 50 states, who did you get the most pushback from?
I don’t get any pushback. I’m like a ghost. I don’t get any pushback, ever. I did a special New York Story where I literally, in 2016, describe every ethnic group by what I believe their stereotypes embody and nobody gave me any pushback. It’s called a ghost.
The ghost of Colin Quinn. You’re known for so much, but one that flies under the radar is you did a brief stint writing for In Living Color. What do you remember about that experience?
It was brief. It was at the end. I knew the Wayans brothers anyway, they were always great guys…David Allen Grier I’ve known for 100 years, I knew him from stand-up even before that. Jim Carrey was leaving, right when I got there near the end, he was leaving to go do this movie that I had read, called Ace Ventura, they couldn’t get anyone to do it. I remember thinking, this guy’s going to that bomb movie. What a mistake. Shows what I know.
You’ve been around thirty-plus years in comedy. What’s the key to longevity?
Working like anything else — putting in the work, going on stage, writing all the time. Writing and reading and going on stage, taking chances, you have to be willing to be bomb. If you want to continue to grow in comedy, you have to bomb, that’s part of the game.
If a Stanford student were to ask you after the show what they should do to get started in comedy, is the advice the same?
That’s the basics of it, but I would also say, be distinctive because your life is the only thing that makes you interesting, so you might as well dig in and do what you like. Nothing else will make you stand out, especially in today’s world where everything is saturated, except you as an individual. You better play that.
Your accomplishments are too numerous to list here. What’s left for you as you go forward with your comedy career?
I don’t know. Either some more stand-up specials or coronavirus. I haven’t decided which way I’m going. It might be both.
Now that you’ve linked up with CNN, maybe you can moderate some Presidential debates. It couldn’t be any worse.
I would love to do that. I would love to do anything like that. Like everyone else in the country, I’m afflicted with the idea, ‘Hey, let me tell you what’s going on.’ I’d love it, of course.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
Colin Quinn’s Red State Blue State is streaming now on Netflix.
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