Colin Quinn – Tough Guy
Updated: Sep 16, 2020
by Ronald Sklar
We as Americans have always taken for granted that we know Colin Quinn intimately. Of course, as a nation we’re bound to make that presumption since we feel that we have more or less grown up with the dude.
Sure, we learn more than we need to know about his sex life because he’s incredibly forthcoming – shockingly so – as one of the most compelling guests who ever appeared on The Howard Stern Show. Along with Howard, who has heard it all, we no longer blink at Colin’s stories of prostitutes and cats and priests.
And true, we come to know his sociopolitical views each evening on Comedy Central’s surprise hit Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn (Mondays through Thursdays at 11:30 p.m. EST). And each of us can name at least one song he warbled, tinged generously with gravel and nicotine, on MTV’s Remote Control (for me, it was “The Way We Were.”) And how many of us have taken comfort in the memory of how he – with his neighborhood-guy delivery -- helped us through a small part of the Clinton years as post-Norm-McDonald "Weekend Update" anchor on Saturday Night Live?
So yeah, we know him, but do we know know him? To look at him, he appears to be your typical Brooklyn bloke on the stoop – that put-it-there-pal kind of guy who would buy you a beer at the corner bar in exchange for an hour of your time hearing his stories. But alas – our Colin (the guy we think we know so damn well) goes a lot deeper than that.
For instance, did you know that he hasn’t had a drink in twenty years? He gave up drinking at age twenty-three and has been sober ever since. To fill up his time, he pursued stand-up comedy, and we know the rest, of course.
You may also be surprised to learn that Colin has had a one-man show on Broadway in which he portrayed colorful characters based on his Brooklyn neighbors. The performers who have enjoyed success on The Great White Way – with no chorus line, orchestra or even Nathan Lane to loosen up the crowd – are few and far between, but Colin is on that legendary short list. And his 1989 MTV special, Goin’ Back to Brooklyn (co-written by Ben Stiller) remains one of the most brilliant lost treasures in the history of television.
Now we know him as host of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, which has been happily renewed by Comedy Central through the futuristic year of 2004. The irreverent commentary forum, peopled by a panel of “non-expert” comedians, draws more than half a million viewers each night. This peanut gallery – consisting mostly of Colin’s comedy world cronies -- toss hilarious barbs at the world, and when the barbs are not so hilarious, they toss them at each other. Along with crowd-pleasing regulars like Greg Giraldo, Nick DiPaolo and Jim Norton, they occasionally toss a barb to such no names as Jerry Seinfeld, Denis Leary, Chris Rock and Janeane Garafolo.
Here are some more details you may not have known about Colin, in his own words: On his influences: I grew up on Carlin and Pryor like most guys my age who were into comedy. Having Carlin on the show was such a big thing for my family. My whole family came – sixty people – and there are only a hundred people in the audience. They laughed at nothing I said, but for Carlin, he’d say anything and they’d laugh. On the show’s MO: Today, being honest is edgy, which is unfortunate. I just want everyone to say how they really feel, not just trying to win the crowd over by saying the right thing. The thing that I love about the show is that we nail each other: "You phony!" You have to be loud and you have to be quick. It’s definitely a rhythm. I think that most people come on the show and say, “How seriously am I really going to take the world?” On political correctness: I don’t like what I’ve seen in this country as far as the phoniness in the last twenty years. On Politically Incorrect: It was a role model for our show. But on my show, we’re all comedians. No experts. We’re not as high-minded. If we don’t agree with someone, we just make fun of their shirt. On the comedy of politics: If you are an extreme right or extreme left guy and you think there’s a real answer to the right or the left and you don’t think there’s some extreme bullshit on certain levels, you’re not really a comedian. Our job is to point out the bullshit and the hypocrisy on both sides. On weaknesses: Sometimes I feel I need to know more. I don’t know a lot about finance. I wish I knew more about business dealings. The way business works. The way multi-nationals really work, because that’s obviously a big issue with all of us. Are they good? Are they bad? On Remote Control: It had nothing to do with what I was trying to do at the time, but it was fun! MTV was like a big family. A real family atmosphere. People still come up to me about Remote Control. We had such an effect on people who are now thirty to forty. It was pivotal to a lot of people. On Ken Ober, former Remote Control host and who now serves as Supervising Producer for Tough Crowd: He’s one of the best comedy minds around. He’s quick, funny and smart. And he could host anything. He cuts through all the nonsense. On his stint as "Weekend Update" anchorman: The pressure was that I’m not really a “joker” guy, doing one liners. I always just keep talking. The pressure was also on to keep up on the news. Lorne [Michaels, SNL producer] taught me some good lessons. Lorne is very interesting in many ways. I would be like, “Geez, Lorne, all my jokes are about the Senate subcommittee.” And Lorne said, "you can make it funny.” Making it funny is hard because you have a long setup. And you hope the punchline will work. I did it for two and half years. I wasn’t particularly cut out for it. It wasn’t my kind of comedy. But it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. A dream. Conveying what’s funny in the news to a crowd is hard, because you would have to find the right words that would get a laugh. There’s no hard and fast rule as to what’s funny to people. On his one-man show: It was such a personal show to me. I was nervous, but I wasn’t really nervous. I wasn’t trying to show people "how talented I was." I was trying to show what these people [in my neighborhood] were about. What their life was about. Those people meant so much to me, my life on that block. On his acting career (which included pivotal roles in Crocodile Dundee II and A Night at the Roxbury, among others): One of the great shames of the twentieth century. It’s right below the Japanese internment camps. On comedy clubs: I never leave them. I can still bomb. Comedy clubs keep you humble. The crowd, no matter who you are, will give you grace for like five minutes. It’s a live crowd, they’ve paid money, they’ve had a couple of drinks. You have to keep their attention. You can’t be phoning it in and you can’t be living off your laurels. You have to work. It really brings reality back to you quickly. On the rules he lives by: By comedian's rules: Nothing sacred.
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Photo Credit: 2003 Nico Parani. Courtesy of Comedy Central.
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