You can hear the sirens wailing in the background while Colin Quinn’s on the phone, sitting at home in Brooklyn, lamenting the changes wrought by hipsters to his native New York, and then you’re instantly reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is also true for Quinn, who at 58 remains the consummate comedian’s comedian.
After 32 years on stage, Quinn finally makes his Northeast Florida debut this Sunday at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. “I’ve never performed in Jacksonville,” he says. “I’ve been in the ‘New York’ Florida,” by which he means places like Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, dense with retirees and brimming with expats from the Big Apple.
He does it for the art. He’s not trying to spin his act off into some sitcom or movie deal, though he’ll happily take your money if you offer it. If you made a list of your 10 favorite comedians, and asked each of them to make a list of their 10 favorite comedians, Colin Quinn is the one guy whose name would be somewhere on everyone’s list, even if he wasn’t on yours. If Quinn was a rapper, he’d be Sean Price—an underground legend who never got nearly as much hype as his talent deserved, but he still put in the work, and anyone in the business who matters acknowledges his skills, even if mainstream fans don’t have a clue.
Colin Quinn entered the business in 1986, right around its commercial peak, part of a generation that included many of the greatest ever. “Richard Pryor and George Carlin were the guys; back then, it was like there was nobody else around.” If you are of a certain age (that is, old), you might remember Quinn as the coolest man in the world, back when he was co-host of MTV’s iconic late-’80s game show “Remote Control,” a show that also helped launch the careers of Kari Wuhrer, Adam Sandler and
Younger audiences may remember him as the man who succeeded Norm MacDonald as host of “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live from 1998 to 2000, or as host of the woefully underrated talk show Tough Crowd on Comedy Central (one of my favorite shows ever), which taped more than 200 episodes from 2002 to ’04. It was like The McLaughlin Group, except it was hilarious by design. Its premature cancelation was scandalous at the time; it felt downright criminal. He was replaced by The Colbert Report, and I never watched a single episode.
Having had an insider’s view of the vast changes in the business, Quinn sees some good and some bad aspects to those changes. The best thing is that there are more options for working comedians. “There’s definitely more places—fewer comedy clubs, but more places to do comedy,” he says. “I feel like comedy is good, in that people know the drill by now; they know what to expect and how to act.”
The downside, as he sees it, is that social media has had an outsized influence on the art form, to the extent that he says many bookers make their decisions based on a person’s Twitter following, and that’s not the best way to gauge a person’s skill level. (I can attest that popping off one-liners online is cake, but applying that to a long-form performance is a whole ’nother animal.) “There are lots of great comedians out there, but we’ll see how far they take it. There are 100 people who can do a half-hour, who are hilarious, but once you start to get near an hour, that’s when we start to see who’s really funny, and then that second hour is where that really comes out.” Quinn’s own set runs about an hour and 10 minutes: “Nobody wants to see me for two hours,” he laughs.
Mastery comes in stages, says the master. “I remember in the mid-’90s, around 1996, I’d been in the business 11 years, and I felt like I knew what I was doing. And then in 2004, I was, like, ‘I really know what I’m doing.’ And then in the past four years, I feel like it’s another level.” That period included the one-man shows Unconstitutional and New York Stories, as well a guest spot in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, and his acclaimed short series Cop Show, which must be seen to be believed. He’s also been a regular on Opie and Anthony, and he made an appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with longtime buddy Jerry Seinfeld.
Quinn still maintains a ruthless road schedule, likely to exceed 100 gigs this year. Despite all the usual pressures, he’s never seriously entertained the idea of quitting. “Everybody loves doing it. You see guys who leave the business for 20, and they go back to standup. They don’t need the money—they love it, so it’s kind of an addicting thing.” As he gets his fix on the PVCH stage, the audience will, as well. The artist and his fans have enjoyed a subtle form of co-dependency since the Reagan years, and as far as we can tell, none of us will be signing into a rehab facility anytime soon.