Colin Quinn is probably best known for his stint on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," but the faux-anchor job never suited his gruff, working-class brand of comedy. Quinn seems much more at ease in his present gig hosting Comedy Central's Tough Crowd, a boisterous variation on Politically Incorrect where comedians insult each other, crack wise, and, to a much lesser extent, discuss the issues of the day. Quinn began performing stand-up in the mid-'80s, and in 1987, he landed a prominent role on MTV's Remote Control, a pop-culture-themed game show that helped launch Adam Sandler's career and quickly developed a cult following. Quinn later wrote for In Living Color before becoming involved with SNL, first as a writer and then as a "Weekend Update" anchor. He subsequently hosted the short-lived sketch/variety show The Colin Quinn Show, which led to the thematically similar Tough Crowd. Quinn also co-wrote the story for 1996's Celtic Pride, and he's featured prominently in Comedian, a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld's return to stand-up following Seinfeld's end. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Quinn about stand-up, SNL, the benefits of employing creeps and dummies, and why Crocodile Dundee II was not a Colin Quinn/Paul Hogan buddy comedy.
The Onion: How did you get started in stand-up?
Colin Quinn: I was bartending, and everyone said I should go into stand-up. So I went into it, because I had just quit drinking and had nothing left to do in the world. It was really that emptiness that made me say, "Fuck it." Because before that, I was scared to do it. I got a little bit of a late start. It was just that I realized that I had nothing to lose then. I couldn't go drinking anymore, so that was it.
O: I'd imagine that worked out well, seeing as comedy clubs are notorious for their hostility to alcohol.
CQ: Luckily, I was in the New York comedy-club scene, which was more Seinfeld/Paul Reiser-influenced at the time. If I had been in Boston, I probably wouldn't have lasted two days. They were all into drinking and coke at the time. I was working in those days, so I worked from about 12 to 8 or 9 at night as a bartender, and then I'd go to the clubs and sit around until 1 a.m., and then get up for 10 minutes. Somehow, it was so happy a time. Those early days of comedy are when you get addicted to it. I'm sure you know plenty of people who do stand-up–you can tell, because they've got a psychotic, self-obsessed look on their face, because they're preoccupied constantly with their act and their next gig.
O: Do you think comedy comes from pain?
CQ: Not from pain, but from anger. I think it comes from outrage and the pain of wanting to communicate. It's having to communicate, wanting people to see, "Can you believe that? Did you see this?" When it's done correctly, people say, "Yeah, that's right! That is outrageous! I didn't even think about it!"
O: Was the comedy scene competitive when you started out?
CQ: Yeah, but I was lucky. It was about '84 when I started. Now, I feel sorry for these guys, because all these cocksucker club owners make them bring 20 people to the show. They still don't know who's good and who's funny. Funny to them is 80 people with their mouths open, laughing. There's no development of comedy. Even in my day, it was focused on audience-pleasing. I'm not saying you shouldn't please the audience–of course you should, that's part of comedy–but there wasn't a lot of room to really fuck around.
O: When you were on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart mentioned that he wrote some jokes for you when he was coming up. How did that happen?
CQ: He was just writing jokes for me for when I was on Caroline's [Comedy Hour, which Quinn hosted]. If that son of a bitch is trying to say he wrote jokes for my act, he's being misinterpreted by you and probably millions of others, so I suggest he do some kind of retraction. He should put out a full-page ad like Sean Penn in The New York Times.
O: How did you end up on Remote Control?
CQ: At the time, I wasn't a big MTV watcher, but I was offered a game show, and it was everything that we protested against, like Brady Bunch jokes. 'Cause at that time, even in '87, Brady Bunch jokes were like the anathema. Me and [host Ken] Ober were so ashamed that our friends were going to see it. We both said to each other, "Luckily, no one is going to see this show." And then of course it became one of those college fucking cult things. But we had fun with it despite the fact that every time I did stand-up at the time, people would yell "Sing!" It's kind of hard when you're trying to do stand-up and 16-year-old kids are going to see you. It was so much fun being on MTV, though.
O: What were the perks of being an MTV employee?
CQ: Well, I think we all know number one. Let's put it this way: It wasn't the money. There was no money. There was no first-class hotels. What were the perks? I believe there really was only one, but it was the only one that mattered.
O: That one perk being critical respect, of course.
CQ: You know, you kind of had to shut that side of yourself off. You had to have a little salve for the wounds.
O: That perk must have been nice, though.
CQ: Yeah, it was funny. Unless you're some really movie-star good-looking guy, really handsome from birth, or you're a rock star and shit, you don't expect to be treated like that. So for a couple of years, it was kind of nice, you know? They'd treat you decently, and it wasn't like at that time there were so many great rock stars around that we didn't fit right in to the impermanent kind of thing. It wasn't like we were trying to be like Bono. We were trying to be like Faster Pussycat.
O: What was the most embarrassing thing MTV asked you to do?
CQ: I don't know. I did a lot of embarrassing things by choice, like I would take my penis out all the time on the set. We'd always take our dick out. At that time, it was a whole different world, so I can't really remember. You have to understand: We were in Florida. There's a stalker on one side of me who was trying to kill Martha Quinn and kill me because he thought I was Martha Quinn's husband, and on the other side was Humpty Hump with that fake nose, and next to him is 2Pac, who's like 17 or 16 and nobody's even noticing him. It was constantly surreal. You were always going from one party to another. It was very strange.
O: What do you remember about making Crocodile Dundee II?
CQ: Here's how arrogant I was. That was before MTV took off, and to give you an idea what a deluded sensibility I had… You saw the part I had? [The Internet Movie Database lists Quinn as "Onlooker At Mansion."–ed.] That was the part from the beginning, apparently. It's not like they cut out some big part. They call me in, I'm doing comedy in New York at the time, and I go in and say, "Hey." I'd been in nothing but Three Men And A Baby at the time. I go, "Hey, I rewrote the script for you guys." Because it's supposed to be him in New York, and I said, "I felt like your script wasn't New York enough." So I rewrote the second half of the script with me as the co-star leading Paul Hogan all around New York, and him finding the real New York, at least through my eyes, all the boroughs. I handed it in to them, and then when the casting director said, "They just want you to have this little part," I remember thinking to myself, "Their loss. They don't know what they're doing."
O: Were you horribly disappointed when you saw the movie?
CQ: No, but I did feel, in my own deluded mind, "Boy, they really could have had a big hit." I remember thinking that number two wasn't going to do as good, because they're not doing New York. I gave them the keys to the kingdom.
O: And then your character didn't appear in the third Crocodile Dundee movie, either.
CQ: Yeah, well, by then the bad blood between me and Paul had really had time to coagulate. It was really funny, though: I could have made some money from The Enquirer. We were shooting at this big mansion, and I saw him and Linda Kozlowski kissing well before they became an item, and while he was still married. I just walked up, and there they were. I was like, "Oh my God." It's funny, because all the teamsters were there, and the teamsters kind of have a class warfare with the artists on the set, and the ADs, everybody, right? Then Paul Hogan would be like, "Hey guys!" and he'd grab a hot dog off their grill without asking. But they had to respect the Australians, because the Australians would drink with them, 'cause in Australia, one day you're the director, the next day you're driving a truck. There's no class thing, really. But the Australians would drink them under the table, then be up at 6:30 working. The Australians are unbelievable partiers. Really insane. I don't know how they get those genes.
O: Then you wrote for In Living Color.
CQ: Yeah, I just submitted stuff. I always wanted to write as much as perform. And I had nothing going on performance-wise, and when you're ice-cold, nobody wants to hear it. I always loved writing, so I submitted a big packet. They were looking for people, so they called me in. It was toward the end, but Jim Carrey was still there. He'd just gotten the movie [Ace Ventura: Pet Detective]. You know, that movie was floating around for years. I read it a couple years before and I was like, "This movie stinks." Only Jim Carrey could have made that into anything. Among my other great choices… Mike Myers called me up to be the son in Austin Powers, but I was writing a screenplay at the time called Midnight Mass. You've probably never heard of it, because it was never produced. I go, "Yeah, but I'm working on my own stuff right now." And he goes, "But Colin, this is going to be a good movie." He starts describing Austin Powers to me. I was like, "That sounds great. You get like a Burt Bacharach-type soundtrack." He goes, "No, we have Burt Bacharach." I go, "That sounds great, but I'm doing my own stuff." He's like, "Colin, I'm not going to beg you," and then starts laughing on the phone, because on Larry Sanders I'd done the kind of character that he wanted. I was like, "Nah, I totally respect you, but I'm doing my own thing now," as if we were equals. And then, of course, five sequels later, no one's working on their own thing. I've done a lot of those. I've never regretted anything except that, kind of. My nephews and nieces were like, "You should have been in Austin Powers!"
O: How would you compare writing for In Living Color to writing for Saturday Night Live?
CQ: I don't know. With In Living Color, you're writing for black people, and on SNL, it's mostly white people. I always wrote the same way. You know how it is with writing. You just write what you want to write. There's no way to predict what is good or bad. You just do what you think is funny, and either it works or you're finished. It's impossible to predict anything.
O: Was being an anchor on "Weekend Update" something you always wanted to do?
CQ: No, but once it became clear that Norm [Macdonald] was going to go, I said I wanted it. Norm even told me I should take over after him. But that was even before he was going to leave. Once he was leaving, I went to Norm, of course, and I went to Lorne [Michaels] and said, "I don't want Norm to leave, but if he leaves, I'm in for it." If they had brought somebody in from outside instead of one of us, that would have made me feel like, "Fuck, I should have asked for it."
O: You used to do a little stand-up before going on to the news part of "Weekend Update." Was that your idea?
CQ: Yeah. "Update" was never quite for me. It's not my style. I was just trying to find some way to convey my idea of comedy, but once I put on a tie, it ceased to be my kind of thing.
O: You seemed like kind of an odd choice for "Weekend Update," because a lot of the previous anchors were more polished. They could pass for real-life anchors more easily.
CQ: Yeah, a couple of weeks I had it where I wanted it. Otherwise, I never could really grasp it. Part of it was, like you said, the whole anchor thing.
O: What was the best part of being on Saturday Night Live?
CQ: Just that you knew everyone was watching it. In spite of the fact that in my opinion the "Weekend Update" thing was kind of choppy, I could say things I thought weren't being said. For example, like when something happened with Reggie White or some football player right after the John Rocker thing, I was like, "It's under the baseball double-standard rule." But it wasn't just baseball: Everybody was trying to make John Rocker the place where you could absolve all racial tension, and he's like one hillbilly from Georgia. That was the kind of thing I liked doing.
O: Are there any hosts that stand out as being particularly bad during your time at SNL?
CQ: I had almost nothing to do with the hosts, because I was in the background. A lot of people said they didn't like Chevy Chase when he hosted. He's always heckling people. If he's walking down the street with his family, they don't even look shocked or bored or embarrassed. It's so normal to them. He bothers everybody as he walks past them, and harasses them, pushes them. It's really psychotic, but it's funny. In retrospect, everybody says that Chevy Chase was bad and that everybody hated him, but he really made everyone laugh, and he made me laugh, because he was just running around like an angry shit. Lorne would be talking, and Chevy'd be doing that… Do you remember, he used to do that thing where he'd be mouthing the words of people when they're talking? He was standing behind Lorne doing that, like, eight times. After the fifth time, it really is funny to see a grown man doing that, because you realize he's not just doing it to make you laugh. He's doing it because he can't stop doing it.
O: What did you think of Lorne Michaels?
CQ: He was like anyone else in that he had good and bad things about him. He was great as far as the amount of freedom he gave you. He would give anyone the freedom to roll with anything. What he gave you, you had to respect. But there are so many channels there that things get clogged. Things get lost in the ozone there. You don't know what happened. A lot of people there walk around in a fury, but they don't know who they're mad at. There was a lot of bureaucracy.
O: In the book Live From New York, SNL writer James Downey talks about how a lot of the people who were being spoofed, like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, would appear on the show alongside the people spoofing them, and that that was a sign of how toothless the satire was. Do you think that's true?
CQ: No. Because first of all, Downey wrote a really funny sketch about that that really slammed it. You know, he was part of the older crew, from right before we all got there. He wrote this sketch called "The Sneaker Uppers" which was slamming exactly that–it was people always sneaking up [on the actors spoofing them]. Although it didn't get on the show, it successfully took the wind out of anyone writing a sneaker-upper. You could write one, but you could never really enjoy it again. Ultimately, that was more of his goal, I think, than getting it on. I don't know. I mean, what's so cutting-edge about attacking Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro? It's not like we live in a country where it's dangerous to attack President Bush. It's not. Yeah, there's a few people, the Dixie Chicks and whatever, but if you show me what's dangerous, and people don't attack it, then that's toothless. I'm not saying there aren't places where SNL is toothless, but that to me is not edgy, to make fun of De Niro and Joe Pesci. I mean, who cares?
O: What happened with The Colin Quinn Show?
CQ: That apparently wasn't toothless. Even though it was doing well, they yanked it. They try to blame it on the ratings, you know? But the ratings were like 5.6, which is pretty good considering there were only three episodes. And we were up against The Bachelor, which goes to show you how much I know about TV. Everybody was like, "Oh, this show The Bachelor, you're going to have to watch out." I was like, "Please, nobody wants to watch shit like that." Clearly I'm deluded. They just pulled it. I guess the advertisers might have had a problem with the racial content.
O: What was the racial content?
CQ: The first week was kind of slamming Arabs, which nobody was saying at the moment, or just slamming the idea that you couldn't slam Arabs. Everyone's just kind of attacking each other's ethnicity, which doesn't really go on unless it's against white males. Nobody else is supposed to be attacked in their generalized form. It's old-school, or bad taste, or something. In that way, it was kind of dangerous, I suppose. But everybody who came up to me on the street–black, white, Puerto Rican, anybody–they all loved it, because that's how everybody talks growing up, at least where I come from.
O: Where did you get the idea for Tough Crowd?
CQ: I don't know, it was based on that show, the ABC show. Only they made it a conversation, and they were like, "Politically Incorrect was a little like this." But what the hell? We'll do whatever we do. We're not trained to imitate them, and maybe they're not the first ones to come up with that format.
O: Why have only comedians?
CQ: I never have to worry about being intellectually intimidated that someone's going to say something imposing that I don't understand. They all have less education than me.
O: Do you think comedians tend to be an uneducated lot?
CQ: The ones on this show really aren't. There are some dumb fucks on this thing–I mean really dumb people. I'm not even saying it to be funny. I mean, they're smart in a comic way, but they're stupid idiots, non-high-school-graduates. We've got three non-high-school-graduates on the show. They don't even have GEDs. The only smart one is [Greg] Giraldo, who went to Harvard Law School and Columbia University, and then from there it's just a bunch of creeps.
O: Of all the people who've been on Tough Crowd, who has surprised you the most?
CQ: Rich Vos, speaking of dumb. Because he's such a dummy, and I thought he'd be good on the show, because he's so funny when we just bust each other's balls. We always say that he's the only dumb Jew we've ever met. He doesn't deserve to call himself Jewish, because he just has no thought process. It's not even education–his mind just doesn't contemplate. He tips Mercedes dealers when they rip him off and sell him a shitty car. He tipped the guy who sold him his used Mercedes, which was a bomb. He tipped the guy. You're not supposed to tip him. He didn't graduate high school. He finished, like, 10th grade, and then he started some awful business. He had a mullet. But he's a funny motherfucker. He's great on the show because he's quick, you know? He just says a lot of dumb stuff. One of the greatest cockblocks I ever threw on him was about two years ago. He was going out with this girl who was an artist. They were at the Comedy Cellar, they'd been going out for two weeks, and they were doving and cooing, whatever it's called. I look at him and look at her, and say, "Listen, miss. Vos, tell me, where's the Museum Of Modern Art? If you can tell me where the Museum Of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, or the Whitney are, or even the Natural History Museum, I will get up from this table, apologize to both of you, and walk away." Of course, he had no fucking clue.
O: Is there anybody you'd like to have on your show who hasn't been on it yet?
CQ: George Carlin's coming on. That's kind of exciting for me, because he was my childhood idol. But we had Chris Rock on, and Seinfeld. Those are guys I wanted on not only because they're funny, but also to make people realize I do know them. It really wasn't so much for their talent as to have people go, "Oh, yeah, he really does know them. They're his friends. Isn't he something?" And then you don't have to worry about networks going, "Can you get this one? Can you get that one?" They're always looking for the big name out there.
O: Why do you think people like Jerry Seinfeld continue doing stand-up when they obviously don't need the money?
CQ: Because they have to. I've done stand-up almost every night for $20 even though I was exhausted. I do it a lot because you feel like you have to communicate whatever things are making you so mad, whatever things you think are such bullshit in the world. I think that's why we do it. But you still want to make it funny, or it's just preaching, and who cares what your position is? The mistake that people make in stand-up is thinking they're profound or they're deep when there are so many people who have more worthwhile ways of phrasing things. But we can make it funny. That's what we're good at.
O: Do you think comedians feel a bottomless need for validation?
CQ: Maybe. Sometimes I do. I don't know. I've been trying to figure it out for years. Are we more depressed? Do we need more validation? Do we need more attention? It's hard to say, but it's got to be a part of that, too. No matter who's at the table at the Comedy Cellar, it could be a guy who bombed the last 10 times, doesn't even belong on stage, has to follow three killer acts… It could be a guy who's not really that good, but he still wants to go on. Maybe it is validation or attention or whatever, but it really is a compulsion. Rarely does anyone ever go, "No, I don't want to go on."
O: Can you ever imagine retiring from stand-up?
CQ: Yeah, I did retire from stand-up for about three and a half years, but nobody seemed to notice. I retired in the early '90s. I'd written this play and I was doing all this other stuff, and I wasn't doing stand-up, but it was pretty uneventful.
O: Did that leave an emptiness in your life? Did you miss stand-up?
CQ: Yeah, I did, but at first I was so happy, because it's aggravating, too. It's an obnoxious culture, stand-up, you know? You've got drunk people trying to laugh away their troubles. That can be annoying, too. But if you have a good crowd and everybody's kind of low-key, it's great, you know?