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In his days as Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update anchor, Colin Quinn brought a no-nonsense approach to skewering the news with a straight-man delivery. More recently, his politically themed talk show, Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, never entirely found its audience. Since then, he’s developed several one-man shows that go beyond the scope of his stand-up act. His new off-Broadway show, Long Story Short, is a history of the world that traces lines between ancient civilizations and modern society in an attempt to find out how we got to where we are. Quinn’s gruff, Brooklynite delivery belies the thoughtful questions he asks himself and his audience, but he and director Jerry Seinfeld never let the show get too serious, even when talking about our impending fall as an empire, or comparing our relationship with other countries to a back-alley bar fight. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Quinn about Seinfeld’s involvement in the show, why all comics seem to know each other, and his take on gun control and other constitutional issues.
The A.V. Club: Long Story Short combines history with comedy. What was your research process like?
Colin Quinn: The research was nothing. I would just start writing. Some of it was bits and stand-up, and then it just grew out of that. I’ve always had bits about that, so it was just about putting it all into one idea, to try to combine bits with a thematic thing instead of just doing stand-up.
AVC: Was it around the time you did your politically themed show, Tough Crowd?
CQ: No, it was after Tough Crowd. Are you kidding me? Once Tough Crowd was over, I had a lot of fucking time on my hands. If I was still doing Tough Crowd, I never would have done this.
AVC: Why do you think it never found a fan base?
CQ: I feel like it was just too politically incorrect for the time and the place.
AVC: Is it hard for you to censor yourself?
CQ: Yeah, why would you want to censor yourself? Why would I come into comedy, you know?
AVC: When you were putting together Long Story Short with Jerry Seinfeld, did you have to remove anything because it was too politically incorrect?
CQ: Jerry would… [Puts his hand over the microphone.]
AVC: It’s a pretty good microphone. That probably won’t work.
CQ: You don’t think my great technique would work?
AVC: The sound waves would slip through your fingers.
CQ: Yeah, I don’t think the show’s censored anyway.
AVC: You use banal events like ordering a pizza or getting into a bar fight to talk about major events in history. Is this done to relate to a modern audience?
CQ: Sure, the whole point of the show is to make it more relevant. It’s sort of about historical stuff, but people can laugh and make it tolerable.
AVC: What was Seinfeld’s involvement as your director?
CQ: Seinfeld’s involvement was… [Makes “money” gesture and laughs.] He produced it, directed it, put up the money as far as all the maps and all the stuff. He came to the rehearsals and helped me cut some stuff. He was a lot more involved than even I expected him to be. We did hardcore rewrites and editing. He was here a lot. I figured he would just put his name on it and come to a couple of rehearsals, but he was getting onstage and really directing.
AVC: What was that rewriting process like?
CQ: We’d go to his office, so he’s already got that home-court advantage. Then we’d sit down and just argue for hours over two or three little lines, and break it down.
AVC: Did your friendship help that process?
CQ: I feel like it helps. With comedians, you have that understanding that we’re trying to get laughs. If it’s a dirty way to win in the middle of an argument, we’re like, “If it gets a laugh, well, all right. I guess we’ve got to go with it.” If I was working with straight theater people, they might not be all about the laugh. But you can’t argue with the laugh.
AVC: Is that the deciding principle?
CQ: That’s the most important principle by far. There’s this thing about the pause in the part about the Romans, where they’re trying to distinguish between themselves and the slaves. We do this pause that’s still causing fucking problems. And when the guy looks at the guy who’s not paying attention—those two parts of the show are still torturing me. I mean, in most cases, we would let those go, but I’m having a hard time not believing those things are funny and getting laughs. Meanwhile, every night I try to do them different ways, and those are two things that aren’t fucking working yet. So, eventually I’ll have to let them go.
AVC: But maybe keep in the stuff about the fall of the Roman Empire, even though it isn’t funny?
CQ: Yeah, exactly. But it’s those little moments that drive you crazy, because after all these years of doing stand-up, you still can’t figure out why it’s not getting a laugh, other than the fact that it’s probably not funny.
AVC: Do you think we’re at the end of our empire, so to speak?
CQ: Sure, everybody feels like we are.
AVC: What signs do you see?
CQ: Other than the obvious ones like Jersey Shore, the economy, and—you know, I think the start of the fall of the empire was Father Of The Bride Part II. That was when I thought it was starting to crumble. People have been saying we’ve been crumbling since 1950 or World War II, but did we really have an empire at that point? If we were an empire, we were the most benign empire as far as how much we take vs. how much we give back. Most empires just bled their colonies dry, but we’ve been trying to give back and take and support, so it’s been kind of an ambivalent, weird empire for the past hundred years.
AVC: Was that a mistake?
CQ: Yeah, I think we should have been more brutal. [Smiles.] We’d be in better shape today. I mean, it was a mistake if you want to stay powerful, I guess. I feel most empires fell when they started to act human, but then look at Russia. They kept a pretty strong hand, and they fell from Afghanistan alone because Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. I guess you just can’t sustain it.
AVC: Is reality TV our lions-vs.-Christians cage-match?
CQ: Yes, very definitely. At least, Lions And Christians, wouldn’t you want to watch that? It is pretty fucking exciting. I think really our lions-and-Christians was Siegfried and Roy, when the tiger turned on him and bit him. Lions-and-Christians is secretly what we want to see with mixed martial arts or NASCAR or something. You want to see somebody get hurt, or at least that desire is there. They just didn’t make bones about it back then. They were just being honest about what they wanted to see.
AVC: Is there anything you’d change in the Constitution?
CQ: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I know various things I would change, but I can’t think of it now.
AVC: The right to bear arms perhaps?
CQ: No way, fuck that. I think everyone should own six guns, even though I don’t own any. That’s the one everyone wants to change, and it aggravates me, of course.
AVC: So how would you fare unarmed in a world where everyone had six guns?
CQ: Exactly, that’s the problem. Well, I owned a gun once when I was in L.A. When you’re in L.A., you can buy guns. My friend took it off me. I ended up getting a call from the LAPD about a year later, “Hey, we’ve got your gun. Do you want to get it back, or should we melt it down?”
AVC: How did they wind up with your gun?
CQ: Because I left it at my friend’s house, and our other friend who was a comic, who since passed away, was a crackhead, and he stole it off him. I left it for my friend as like a going-away present, and the crackhead took it. He was going to try to sell it, but he got arrested for shoplifting while he was trying to sell the gun. So I guess that really is a good argument for gun control, the asshole behavior that I exhibited of leaving my gun with my friend.
AVC: What about freedom of speech?
CQ: There are limits now.
AVC: Do you think they should be there?
CQ: [Laughs.] That’s a good question. I mean, I don’t know. I hate to go all the way back to Don Imus, but somehow the term “nappy-headed hos” got him fired, and it’s mild compared to what—I mean, it’s such relative, subjective freedom of speech. I don’t even know how you can judge what “fire” in a crowded movie theater really is. I believe there are such things, but it seems to jump around and be relative to who’s saying it.
AVC: What are your feelings on the proposed Islamic community center in the old Burlington Coat Factory near Ground Zero?
CQ: I don’t know why they’re doing that. It reminds me of—I have a couple of quotes on it. One is my friend who’s an Arab, and he said, “You guys complain when we tear down buildings, and now you complain if we put them up. Make up your mind.” Which I thought was insensitive on his part, but pretty funny, and he’s not even a comedian. He’s just a funny fuck. A couple years ago, he said “I’m going to Afghanistan for pilot season.” Maybe he should be a comedian.
AVC: What does he do?
CQ: He runs restaurants. He does Arab shit, which is basically opening restaurants on Avenue A and then closing them on Avenue B, and somewhere in the middle, they make money on it. But yeah, why would you want to do that? It’s like if you put the Country And Western hall of fame next to the slave museum. Technically, they’re not responsible for it, but why would you do it unless you wanted to start shit? It’s just playing games trying to start up bullshit.
AVC: Do you have plans to expand the podcast for Long Story Short?
CQ: I don’t know of any plans, so it’d be a lie to say either way, so I figure I’ll say yes. My assistant Claire did the episode with me. Did you like her?
AVC: Yeah, she was very newscaster-like. Do you want to do a regular podcast, like Marc Maron does?
CQ: No, I don’t know. Can you make money off it?
AVC: I think so. Do you know Marc?
CQ: Yeah, I know him.
AVC: Why is it that all comedians seem to know each other?
CQ: ’Cause everybody ends up working on these gigs together, so you’re forced together all the time.
AVC: Is there a reason comedy is more insular than other creative arts?
CQ: I guess because it’s one of those things where there’s only one. It’s not like a band, where there’s five guys. If you’re a band, you can hang out with each other. If you’re sitting and waiting to go on, you’re talking to other guys in the band. But with comedians, there’s no one else to talk to except each other. It’s always just you and the other guys when you’re waiting to go on. For the most part, comedians are pretty friendly with each other. They always say they badmouth each other, but most of the time, they’re friends. We’re the only ones that can really stand our type of humor.
AVC: What’s the difference for you between the theatrical and stand-up experience?
CQ: People are better behaved in the theater. They’re less drunk and not having to order drinks, so it’s quieter. I’m used to the stand-up crowd, where people are fucking ordering wings and shit.