Comedian Colin Quinn is Brooklyn born and bred, with a style and voice that is pure New York. He talks about two of his favorite topics, New York and race, in his latest one-man show called "The New York Story" and in his memoir "The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America." NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
Colin Quinn is a comedian, creator of one-man shows, and now author – and clearly, a shrewd observer of New York television.
"My favorite station to watch is NY1," Quinn says.
"I understand NY1. Whoever came up with it was a genius. Here's why: because it was the city of New York, this upbeat, loud city. NY1 is the quietest station."
This is a busy and fruitful time for Colin Quinn. There's his role in the Amy Schumer movie "Trainwreck," including a memorable scene in which he explains the problem of monogamy to his young daughters in a way they can understand.
Quinn's more personal work is on display on stage in his show "The New York Story," and on the page in "The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America."
"This book took 100 years because I was so bored by writing, because I'm so spoiled by being able to perform – when you write, you get to perform – that when you're writing a book, you're sitting there like, two people are going to say, 'Hey, that was well-written.' We're spoiled. We're used to people going 'Heyyyy,'" Quinn says.
Quinn tackles race and ethnicity by bluntly recalling his experience growing up amid a hodgepodge of people in 1960s and '70s Park Slope.
"Everybody kind of grew up speaking a little more honestly," he says.
"When somebody would say a racial slur, it wasn't a commission-forming moment."
The book also tackles his past, including a fondness for drinking, and the occasional drunken blackout and night in jail.
"I loved, loved, loved drinking. Loved it. So I didn't want to stop. So I was just trying to think of a way to not stop. I was trying to think of a way to control it so I could keep doing it."
"I quit drinking is when I started standup. So standup saved my life. And I feel like, suddenly, I had this new addiction, which was going to do standup clubs."
I interviewed Quinn at one of his second homes, The Comedy Cellar.
"This is what I envisioned the Village was going to be like, and comedy was going to be like, when I was thinking about doing it," he says.
He is comfortable on this stage – actually, on any stage – even if that's precisely not the point.
"Standup is supposed to be uncomfortable. That's the whole joke. It's uncomfortable," Quinn says. "Somebody is standing up here looking at you like this, and now I'm going to make you laugh. That's weird energy. But it's great when it works."
At his core, he's a standup on stage. But we've seen him throughout his career on television, on HBO, MTV, Comedy Central's "Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn," and the entry that stands out on any resume: five years on Saturday Night Live.
He's come to appreciate the SNL format pioneered by executive producer and creator Lorne Michaels.
"It allows all this creative freedom," he says. "And sometimes it fails, fails brutally. But guess what? That's the beauty. Anybody else would be like, 'We have to find ways to stop it from failing.' He doesn't look at it that way because he knows it has to fail because it's spontaneous."
Quinn showed an early affinity for the stage growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Quinn: I was a dog, Toto, in "The Wizard of Oz," and then I was the –
Mishkin: We have that footage, by the way.
Quinn: (laughs) I was proud because one kid wrote a letter, 'Was that a real dog?' We were in fifth grade. The third graders, they thought it was a real dog.
There was an early talent for comedy.
"Everyone always said I should be a comedian," Quinn says. "When I was little, I was actually much funnier than I've been since then. I mean, I really did peak at 13."
After John Dewey High School in Coney Island and a few years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Quinn bartended at the comic strip, and his friends suggested he try standup there in 1984.
Quinn: I really did good at The Comic Strip, and this MC named Chris Blitman, he goes, "You're a natural. Come back in a year." And I was like, "A year? What kind of natural comes back in a year?" He should have said, "Come back in 10 years."
Quinn: Because comedy, it's like anything else. Anything you do takes 10 years.
There's been a lot of success since then, and some decisions he's regretted, like closing his 1998 Broadway show "An Irish Wake" too soon while doing Saturday Night Live.
"The box office go, 'You're nuts.' I go, 'Why?' They go, 'Every show wants what's happening right now.' I go, 'What?' They go, 'People are leaving and you're selling more tickets after your show on word of mouth.' They go, 'You're crazy.' They go, 'Nothing ever works like this, and this is…' but you know, I didn't think it, I was like, 'Ahh, I'm sure it happens all the time,'" he says.
"The New York Story" is Quinn's second one-man show directed by his friend Jerry Seinfeld, a sign of the respect for Quinn in the comedy world. These shows present Quinn, and his observations, unvarnished.
"If I was telling a story, I said, 'This black guy,' People go, 'What happened?'" he says in his show. "Now, if you say, 'This black guy,' people go, 'Whoa, whoa, why does he have to be black?' in your true story."
It's a similar approach when he talks about the arc of his career.
Quinn: For individual shows, I definitely feel, "Wow, I got this going." Career-wise, no.
Quinn: Just because, you know, things are choppy. They've been choppy my whole [expletive] career – excuse my language – but I mean, they've been choppy. So it's like, "No, I don't feel that way."
Mishkin: So do you have your time to make your peace with that at some point?
Quinn: I don't know.
Mishkin: Or not make your peace with it?
Quinn: Yeah, why should I?
"I need closure, it's like, whatever. I mean, look, I'm just being honest," Quinn adds. "I don't look at it and go, 'Hey, it worked the way it was supposed to.' It's like, yes, that's the ideal way to look at life. I know that."
Mishkin: By the way, closure, not funny.
Quinn: No, closure, not funny, yeah. A lack of closure? Funny.
Once Quinn discovered standup, there was never a plan B, a chance of doing anything else. And he can't understand why someone would give up standup. It's a feeling perhaps best reflected in an old joke about a guy who just joined the circus.
"I go behind the elephant, and when the elephant is constipated, I put a stick up and then I pull it out. The only downside is, every time I can't get away fast enough, and I get covered in elephant, you know. And the guy goes, 'Why don't you quit?' And he goes, 'And leave show business?'" Quinn says. "And that's how I feel."
Colin Quinn's show, The New York Story, runs at the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village through August 16.