Colin Quinn: Bringing Smartness Back

Theatrical comedian Colin Quinn talks about his latest show Unconstitutional, coming to the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre this week. With video.

published Monday, January 6, 2014


Colin Quinn is always thinking. His brain works faster than his mouth and being a Brooklyn wise guy he’s already a fast talker. Fragments of comedic sentences burst out, tugging more ideas to follow that sometimes link back to the original idea, sometimes just a tangent. Sentences devolve into guttural word mangling, only to have another fragment launched, until finally it peaks in a torrent of impassioned Irish raving.

Colin Quinn: Unconstitutional, his latest theatrical vehicle, unfurls at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre on Jan. 10. Seventy minutes of fervent views on the Founding Fathers, the Constitutional Convention, and the resulting four-page document. Along the way viewers are regaled about the spiked punch bowl that lubricated the Constitution’s creation, the Mutt and Jeff duo of studly George Washington and James Madison the shrimp, the endless amusement of Benjamin Franklin’s kinky sex habits, and all those men in tights and wigs.

But Unconstitutional isnot a historical romp. “My show is about the psychological mindset that I feel got created by the Constitutional Convention,” says Quinn. It’s about how our behavior is based on that document, why we are the way we are right now.” The NRA, mass shootings, Obama conspiracies, and various aspects of pop culture like the Kardashians (“low hanging fruit”) are all invoked. Hot topics du jour are woven in, making Unconstitutional a continual work in progress.


Comedian Quinn 

For the audience, the comedic Quinn ride can be exhausting. He’s smart and funny and a bit of a jerk. Pugnacious, confrontational, insensitive, judgmental — all these descriptions have been tossed around. As a kid he heckled passers by from his Brooklyn flat’s window. By college, a teacher tried to punch his lights out. Even after he stopped drinking, the hot-air hyperbole continued, but sober he was able to turn it into a profession.

Quinn’s also incisive and honest, well read and thoughtful. Under all the scrappiness resides a citizen’s heart and a debater’s mind. He’s the guy comedians want to hang out with due to his verbal feistiness. The unfiltered bravado spurs them think and stay on their toes. Documentaries on the art of comedy often refer to Quinn’s respect from other comedians. He’s the only comic Louis C.K. follows on Twitter, a fan of Quinn’s emotionally naked tweets.

After his five years on Saturday Night Live, much of it on the Weekend Update news desk, Quinn launched the Tough Crowd panel talk show in 2002 on Comedy Central. The core of the show arose from his cohorts at The Cellar comedy club, then Quinn’s home away from home. The last Cellar shows of the night were often followed by a freewheeling, booze-fueled, political discussion among comedians.

History is Context

Ironic that after all the grief he gave teachers in school, creating Unconstitutional required extensive book learning. In Quinn’s comedy-theater, he acts as teacher, but that kind of dream teacher who makes distant topics relevant and fresh, who inspires you to ask questions and question answers, and does it while being funny. “What provoked me to take on the Constitution,” says Quinn, “was that I was sick of hearing everyone talk about how brilliant it was, how brilliant the Founding Fathers were, and I just wasn’t in the loop on that.”

Quinn immersed himself in two treatises on the influence of money in the Constitution’s creation: the 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States by Charles A. Beard, which viewed the document as a product of the elite’s economic self-interest, and its more recent rebuttal We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution by Forrest McDonald.

You know what they say: Follow the money,” says Quinn. “The books gave two views of the motives of the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention. And it’s hard for me still to tell which the motives were… And the whole time I’m playing with the Federalist Papers, that’s the other big one,” referring to Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s rebuttal to critics of the Constitution. “I read these boring books so you wouldn’t have to,” says Quinn.

Quinn topped off his reading list with the more enjoyable A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution by Carol Berkin. It postulates that the Constitution was not intended to be a static treatise, but rather a framework for argument that could evolve along with the country. “That book gave me clarity that the others didn’t,” says Quinn. “It was also well written.”

Unconstitutional’s Constitution

Photo: Mike Lavoie
Colin Quinn in Unconstitutional

In Unconstitutional, Quinn demystifies and humanizes these Colonial characters. They’re only people and people haven’t changed that much in 200 years. He describes the 57 delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention as being on a “four-month drinking binge” fueled by a bottomless punch bowl of booze. “That’s a big part of it,” says Quinn, “We were going to be the party country, so people are drinking during the entire time.” The bill to citizens from the Philadelphia inn that hosted the congressional soiree “was enormous.” Yep, not much change there.

Even so, “I didn’t relate to the Founding Fathers too much,” says Quinn, “too serious. George Washington was the most popular by far. He was also the biggest and the toughest of them all, which is why people loved him so much. Ben Franklin was the genius, the genius of geniuses. He was an inventor, the one who lived the wild life; he was at sex clubs all the time. He doesn’t look particularly attractive. Him at a sex club might be a chilling image to a lot of people. James Madison, he was a shrimp. But he was the Constitution guy, pushed the whole thing.”

The worth of the Constitution, says Quinn, was that “it took into account human nature, not only of the people in power, but the citizenry, too.” The national personality that emerged from this document is “strongly believing in individual freedom. That’s part of the charm of our country. People come over here and they try to make it. That can make for selfishness but that self-interest is part of human nature, so it’s a fine line. That’s part of what the Constitution says: ‘Every man for himself, get out there. Yeah, you’re part of our country, but you’ve got to make it yours.’ Other countries don’t really have that, and that’s good and bad.”

Theatrical Comedians 

Unconstitutional works a niche between stand up and theater, one plumbed by comedians such as Robert Wuhl, Mike Birbiglia and Billy Crystal. This rising field emphasizes hour-long monologues laced with jokes, rather than a compilation of routines and bits. Care is taken with the set and perhaps lighting, and sometimes sound effects and music are integrated. Some are tightly scripted; others leave room for improvisation. “You still have to stay thematic,” says Quinn. “You can’t jump off with different subjects without threading back to what you were talking about.”

“For me, this is what I love: doing stand up, but the audience is not waiting for dick jokes, or trying to drink and talk during the show like in the clubs. It’s great,” says Quinn. His lack of patience with comedy club culture is notorious. He’s been known to make hecklers meltdown and wet their pants. Comedy clubs, with patrons seated at tables facing each other rather than the stage, he says, makes it clear that the performer is not the primary attraction.

Quinn’s now in theaters and there he wants to stay. He launched directly onto Broadway with Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake (1998), co-written with Lou DiMaggio. Colin Quinn: Long Story Short (2010) was a certified big deal, garnering a Drama Desk and Emmy Award nominations. The comic historical rumination on empires and their inevitable demise was directed by Jerry Seinfeld and ran on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre. My Two Cents (2011), Quinn’s rave on economics, ran off Broadway.

Unconstitutional, presented by Brillstein Entertainment Partners, utilizes a full theater crew. Rebecca A. Trent served in the director’s role of ordering and shaping the material and blocking for stage. The set by James Fauvell, says Quinn, “is very stark, interesting, with good lighting” by Sarah Lurie. Quinn’s chambray blue shirt, and occasionally a red tie, designed by Alexis Forte, stand out against the red, white and blue backdrop. He moves about the stage, sometimes resting at a leather chair and desk with bankers lamp, all in early American style.

Trent’s Creek & Cave in Long Island City, Queens served as the workshop space for Unconstitutional. A combination of theater, comedy club and restaurant, it hosts improv, short plays, monologues, stand up and storytelling. “We really worked it there. It was perfect. You could work out in front of small groups like four people which really tests the material.” Having a theatrical audience, many of them trained in comedy, was a boon.

Bottom line though, says Quinn, is that it has to be funny: “It’s not that different than a comedy show in that if I’m not getting laughs for like a minute, I get paranoid. You start trying to find a way to get jokes in.“

On the Road

Unlike the extended runs of Long Story Short and Quinn’s other theater forays, Unconstitutional was made for travel. After four establishing weeks in New York City, the show toured the original 13 colonies and is now hitting venues west of the Mississippi. “It’s been doing great, standing ovations after the show, people wanting to stay after and talk,” says Quinn. “With the response I’ve been getting, I wish I could stay for a week. Word of mouth would do well with this show.”

Unlike Long Story Short’s tight script, Unconstitutional provides a flexible framework that allows Quinn to riff on all things Constitution related. He can also keep it topical. “I am really enjoying being able to change things by what’s going on according to the news,” he says.

When asked if Unconstitutional was slated for broadcast on a network, Colin replied with a loud cackle “No, nothing yet.” Comedy special distribution, traditionally done by channels like Comedy Central and HBO, is undergoing experimentation, with programs going out via Netflix, Yahoo and even Amazon. But Quinn knows how he’d like the tour to end: “I was thinking about July 4th in Philadelphia right in front of Constitution Hall, that would be ideal.”


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