News Column

Colin Quinn: A different kind of Patriot Act

October 21, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 21--Check out comedian Colin Quinn's Twitter page, @iamcolinquinn, and you'll likely do a double take.

These are the kinds of tweets Quinn gets:

"Keep lying to yourself about being 'respected' by your peers."

"Hey, where you going to be around 2 p.m. so I can punch you in the face?"

"You are steadily replacing Hitler as my most hated person."

These insults are easily found in one place, because Quinn likes to retweet them.

If the main thing you remember about the 54-year-old Brooklyn native is the smug, abrasive persona he projected as co-host of MTV's game show "Remote Control" and as the anchor of "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live," you might be inclined to take all that Twitter hate at face value.

Yet it's hard to reconcile that image with The New York Times' positive review of Quinn's one-man show "Unconstitutional," which describes him as a "history nerd" who's "translating the dense prose of our founding documents into barroom metaphors."

"Unconstitutional," which Quinn will perform Wednesday at Jefferson Center in Roanoke, tackles the writing of the Constitution and how it informs the character of our country -- all in about 75 minutes. If that sounds like a tall order, especially for a comedy act, consider that in his previous Broadway show, "Long Story Short" -- directed by Jerry Seinfeld -- Quinn covered the entire history of civilization in about the same amount of time, and made it funny.

Quinn maintains his trademark Brooklyn accent and gruff demeanor, whether he's talking about Benjamin Franklin's proclivities for hanky panky or how the Kardashian family epitomizes modern America.

To make matters even more confusing, it's also hard to reconcile all those Twitter insults with Quinn's affable interview demeanor.

"Without Virginia, there would be no Constitution, so it's kind of important that we're playing there," Quinn said. He said he's never been to Roanoke, but added that Rebecca A. Trent, the director of "Unconstitional," is a Radford University alumna. "She's excited for her triumphant return to the town."

Trent, who owns a restaurant and comedy club in Long Island, graduated from Radford with a degree in theater in 1999.

"As a stand up comedy nerd, theatre connoisseur, and direct descendant of John Adams, directing Colin in 'Unconstitutional' has been a dream come true," she wrote in an email.

Take a second look at those Twitter insults, and you'll notice a number of them seem too clever for a typical online argument. In fact, you might conclude that Quinn's fans are roasting him, in the style of a comedy roast, and hoping he'll retweet their best shots.

"Well, it's like anything else. Some of it's sincere and some of it's roast," Quinn said. "But when I first started on Twitter it was a lot of other people who have since unfollowed [because they] were enraged at my positive PG attitude."

Reached by phone while traveling, he agreed to answer a few questions about his show.

The publicity materials for this show talk about how you've collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and other founding fathersHow does that work? Is this political comedy?

I'm more of a social comic. You saw the other show I did, "Long Story Short," the history show? People kind of expect me to be talking about more deeper subjects now, because of that. But as far as "political," I don't even know what political means any more as far as comedy.

So you're not adopting a conservative or liberal viewpoint?

No, of course not. I never do that. I see both sides of everything, you know. I mean, that's the whole point, and that's the point of the Constitution, for that matter. The point of the Constitution, to me, is, guess what, nobody cares if you think somebody else is an idiot. ... It doesn't matter if you think they're wrong, or even if they are wrong, you still get the same vote.

Because if not, instead of being the a---- that you don't like locally voting, it's going to be the a----s who are in charge, and then you're in worse trouble. That's the beauty of the Constitution, and also the downfall.

Will you talk about recent news events during the show?

Sure. They're definitely weighing heavily on my mind with this stuff. ... Do we citizens really have as much political power as the people that we elected? Well, let's see. ... It's kind of weird. On the one hand it's like, wait a minute, you're paralyzing the system. On the other, it's like, right, that's what they said we could do.

Will anything about your show resemble your "Saturday Night Live" material?

No. ... It's sort of a portrait of how the Constitution created our national character. So, for example, the fact that the founding fathers wrote it during a four-month bar crawl when they were drinking ... I do a whole thing about how by trying to please everyone, this country goes broke trying to make all of us happy. Everybody is supposed to be happy, and that's in the Preamble. That's what the Preamble says. "We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union" ... right away, when we say "more perfect," that's already a mindset that "perfect" is good some places, "more perfect" is better here. ... That's beyond perfectionism.

I look at our culture for the rest of the show. So for example, if I'm talking about free speech, I talk about how you can say whatever you want here in public, but there's still speech codes and there's still, you know, political correctness. Free speech is not limited by our government ever, from what I can see. You can even yell "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater, as a matter of fact, and nobody gives a s---. But you can still get fired or boycotted ... so the speech police are not governmental, necessarily.

How do you make this kind of material funny?

I've worked on it a lot, just by grinding away ... If you're a comedian, that's our goal, if you get people to laugh, whether it's grim truths or otherwise. If I'm not getting laughs, I get depressed and I just don't want to be on stage. It's almost a survival instinct with comedians ... I better have something funny, not just something that I think is important to say.

Early in your career, you worked with comedian Ben Stiller. Are you still in touch?

We're still in contact, sure. He tried to help me get a show made of my own a couple years ago, this show I had written. Obviously, he's doing his thing, takes up a lot of time, but we still talk once in a while.

What was this television show? What happened to it?

They just never made it ... I sent it to a few networks. It was about immigration. That's one of those subjects that apparently, people in Hollywood are ready to tackle everything except that subject.

That's strange to think about, as brazen as Hollywood can be.

They're selectively brazen and selectively honest. There's a lot of very edited edginess ... we're going to push the envelope, but only by what we think is acceptable. Everybody has their limits, even them.

Do you talk about those limits in your show?

That's probably the thing I talk about the most.

What drew you to get into comedy in the first place?

I was just always that guy. I was always funny, I was always getting laughs, and I was always loud. I was the kid in school with the big mouth. I was the class clown. I hated studying, ironically, and now I do all this academic stuff. ... I just got bored in school. I'm sure I was a real charmer. They must have loved having me in their class. I just wouldn't shut up!

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