Comic and former SNL and Comedy Central star Colin Quinn's making a bit of a comeback these days—he's got a one-man show off-Broadway, Colin Quinn: The New York Story, bemoaning the death of New York, he's got a bit part on Girls, and most recently, he delivered a stellar performance in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer's new film Trainwreck. We sat down with Quinn to discuss how political correctness affects comedy—New York Story focuses extensively on the different ethnic and racial groups Quinn grew up with in his native Park Slope—and got to hear some of his thoughts on Mayor de Blasio, monogamy, and working with Schumer.
How did New York Story come to fruition? You know, I’ve just been working on this stuff. I’m so into New York, I’m obsessed. It’s probably just delusions in my head that it’s so amazing. But I just wanted to do something celebrating how it was when I grew up here.
How did Jerry Seinfeld get involved? We had worked together before. One day I just mentioned to him, "My mother wants you to direct my new show.” He was interested in the subject anyway, because he’s a New York guy and he loves [the city]. But when I asked him, I think I saw his eyes light up—I may be wrong, you’d have to talk to him—but I believe it was my mother, really.
Obviously there’s been a lot of discussion about political correctness and comedy—Jerry Seinfeld said he avoids colleges because they’re too politically correct, and your show focuses on the different racial and ethnic groups you grew up with. Do you feel that comedy has been too watered down for fear of causing offense? I don’t feel like it’s watered-down yet, but I feel like there’s a lot of people who are not too humorous who are trying to work against it.
How do you think comics should address political correctness in the future? Just by saying whatever they want, but making sure it’s funny. Nobody wants to hear us preach either, there are enough people out there proselytizing their opinion. Our whole thing is to be funny. So as long as comedians do it and it’s funny, that’ll transcend whatever’s going on right now.
Do you feel that New York is also becoming sanitized? Yeah, it’s what my whole show is about, really. I do feel it’s the one place that was, like, the open city for obnoxious personalities. It was like the free zone for that kind of talk, and now we’ve made ourselves this new kind of fake intellectual. You see all these people using five dollar words, using this ‘linguistic sophistry.' They’re just using combinations of fake psychology combined with presumptions of everybody else’s motives and it’s just too much. And they’re allowed to say whatever they want. But I’m allowed to say “if you’re not the funny person at your office, maybe your opinion on comedy shouldn’t have that much validity.” It’s the most strict people [that define political correctness]. Like the new Puritans. That’s who they are.
When do you think comedy started [becoming more politically correct]? I would say probably ‘94, ‘95. I remember a friend of mine [Rich Vos] coming back from a college and saying “we made this joke,” and it was this positive joke about the Asian kids in the audience studying, and the kids were all laughing. But some professor was actually walking by, and [Vos] told me that this professor lodged a complaint against him. The same week, there was a speaker there who was a very controversial, fiery speaker (I don’t know who it was), but he said, “Meanwhile they complain about my joke that was really a positive joke.” I think maybe 0.1% of Asians would be offended by someone saying that they’re good at math.
Anyway, it was just one of those things where I went, “Oh, that’s kind of weird.” I never worked that many colleges. I tried to, but I went to a college conference and I bombed so badly that I was never really wanted by colleges. Not because of any political correctness, just because I bombed. So I’m still licking my wounds over that one, as you can probably tell. They have these conferences where all the college people come to watch you, so I thought "I’m gonna do all these colleges and make big money.” Next thing you know, I get none. So yeah, the mid '90s is probably when that whole thing started.
At the end of your show, you talk about how New York has become safer, but also more boring. I grew up here, I remember the “No radio in car” signs, I still carry $5 with me in case I get mugged. Yeah, that’s not enough. You gotta carry $20 now.
Yeah, I never have $20, so you'll just have to take my phone. So when do you feel New York started to get boring? Well, like I said, I feel like the people are boring. I don’t feel like the city is boring. Obviously all this money came in, and you stopped seeing little stores. Every corner is a bank or a drug store. It’s insane! So that kills Manhattan right there. Manhattan’s dead. But it all started, I remember coming back in ‘92 or ‘93, I was in LA for a couple of years at the time, and I was on Coney Island Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn. Deep into Coney Island Avenue, you know like way in there, Avenue M or something, and I saw a Domino’s Pizza. Right then I was like, “It’s over,” and I was so depressed. Maybe it was a Papa John’s or something, but it was on Coney Island and Avenue M! And I was like no, the one thing [about New York] was the pizza.
Yeah there are chain stores everywhere, like Dunkin' Donuts and a Dairy Queen. Why that’s boring is that now everything is company policy, whereas it used to be that individual store owner’s personality. He decided all company policy. You were getting the personal touch there.
What do you think of Mayor de Blasio? I think he’s just one of these typical bland [people], you know, symbolic of what I’m talking about. He’s just run of the mill, he speaks in platitudes, and he speaks in these high terms. I don’t feel like he’s… well, I shouldn’t say he’s not authentic. Maybe he’s authentic to who he is, but he just seems like a…. not a talking head exactly, but he is a talking head. He’s just one of these guys who speaks the way people speak now, which is vague, non-spontaneous… like he’s afraid.
I almost don’t blame anybody who speaks that way now, because if you do speak authentically or off-the-cuff, you lose your job. So we are creating a society where all the people who are gonna be in charge are the people who know not to say anything authentic. They know how to be slick. All the people who screw up and say the wrong thing once in a while are immediately gone. So we’re gonna have a nice society of slick talkers, you know?
What did you think of Bloomberg? He was good. I mean, he was obviously too...he loved the boring side of New York, he just embraced all the tedious things in the city too. Here’s what was fascinating about Bloomberg—at once he was boring and he was everything that I don’t really agree with, if I really analyze what he did, but he was one of those guys who almost made no enemies. People hated it when he did the third term, but even the with third term he was just one of those guys who couldn’t make an enemy if he tried. I don’t know how he did it!
Giuliani, Koch, Lindsey...people were like, “Yeah, [Bloomberg] pissed me off with that third term.” But the most controversial thing was the soda thing! And he also made everyone quit smoking, which I resent even though I don’t smoke. Even though we know it’s good, it’s still infuriating, for some reason. Bloomberg was like the calmest person ever. I don’t know how he did it, nobody was really pissed at him the whole time. But that was part of the problem, you should have people pissed at you.
Speaking of people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds, you worked with Amy Schumer on Trainwreck. How did you get involved with that project? [Schumer] basically forced me to be in it. There’s no other way to really describe it. She asked me to go to the reading, I went to the reading, and next thing you know she was like, “You’re playing this part.” I said I was too young [to play Schumer's father], and she said “Nah, you’re not.” I was like, “Jesus,” but next thing you know I’m on the set."
And you've worked with Judd Apatow on Girls. Yeah. I’ve known Judd for a long time now.
So how was working with the two of them on the film? It was a breeze because they’re both really into comedy. They’re both into trying to make the scenes funny. Whenever I go on a set, not that I’ve been on that many, really, people say, “We want you to do something funny. We’re gonna do some improv.” But if you're improvising as a comedian, with the shit that we say, they're like, “Woah, woah, woah, let’s scale it back a little bit.”
But when you deal with comedians, it’s like, “Haha, that was good,” and then they say something even more shocking and horrible. That’s what I like about comedians, they take it to the next level, which is just how it is with all business. They’re like, “That was alright, but why are you holding back on this part?” With a movie, things are a bit more sanitized, and [movie people] don’t think that way.
I haven’t seen the film [NOTE: I have now and it's GREAT] but from what I understand it's not as radical as the stuff on [Amy Schumer's] show. That’s correct. It’s not. I don’t know how radical she wanted to be or how radical she’s gonna get in her next couple of movies. But it’s definitely funny, and you’re never bored, and it’s not that [Trainwreck] is not Amy Schumer. It’s a side of Amy Schumer. In some ways, if she had been more like her show in this movie, people would say, “Oh, she’s covering up her humanity or her feelings in a way.”
The main plot of Trainwreck stems from Amy Schumer's father telling her that monogamy is not great. Do you agree with his views on monogamy? That it's not feasible? That it's not realistic?
Yeah. Let's put it this way—a lot of people do practice monogamy, so you can't say that it doesn't work or it doesn't happen. But I would say that it's not instinctual. How's that for the most politically correct thing you've ever heard?
It was pretty sanitized. That was good. You could run for mayor. Would you ever run for mayor? I would love to be mayor. I would love to be in charge of the whole country, really, but I don't think on the right path for that. I mean I have all these ideas, and I can put them in stand-up. I have a lot of ideas constantly, but I don't think anyone gives a damn.
What's next for you? Well, I’m doing two more seasons of Cop Show. Cop Show is my response to never having been on Law & Order. It’s eight web episodes, each five minutes, where I force my dumb celebrity friends to come be on the show. It’s kind of funny. It’s all Law & Order episodes, but starring me.
I used to watch Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. You did? Honestly, I mourned Tough Crowd for two years, but after Greg [Giraldo] and Patrice [O'Neal] died I didn’t care anymore. Especially now, can you imagine? A show like that, every day, would be trending, like, “they can’t say that.” We’d be banned. We’d be boycotted at these protest marches. It was great!
I guess that’s how life is. Everybody comes to their conclusion before they have any debate. You’re not gonna change anybody’s opinion. They’re just gonna try to get you to have their opinion and that’s it.
And Amy Schumer's been accused of being racist. Unbelievable. It’s obviously a joke, and suddenly it’s this whole big thing. I mean that was the most insane article, and the fact that the Washington Post printed it also says something about society. When they compare her to... the Confederate flag is around and churches are burning, and Amy Schumer is playing with race.
That’s what I’m saying about people taking these isolated things, and say “they’re speaking to a higher truth.” These brilliant minds that have decided “this is represented, this is why it happens.” They’re all saying it speaks to a larger picture, a psychological state where people think this is all a joke. Yeah, comedians do think everything is a joke! We’re comedians, that’s what we do! If you want to be an activist, that's what you do. I don’t tell you how to be an activist, you don’t tell me how to do comedy. They’re not connected all the time. Oh god, it’s so annoying.
So there’s a line between being truly offensive and making a joke with some element of truth? And those lines are not supposed to be drawn by the most outraged people in society. You know what I mean? It’s like “woah, I didn’t know you were the line drawer, but you seem like a very humorless, very angry person.” You draw the line of what people are offended by? I don't like that.
Colin Quinn The New York Story , which is based on his bestseller The Coloring Book: A Comedian's Guide to Solving Race Relations in America, is at the Cherry Lane theater through August 16th; Trainwreck is open nationwide.