10/01/2013 04:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2013

Colin Quinn Tells It Like It Was

colin quinn

Colin Quinn has never been at a loss for words, and yet in 2011, he managed to do the impossible: Summarize the history of the world down to just the funny bits, in a highly praised show called Long Story Short. He next turned his historical sights on the U.S. Constitution in an off-Broadway show called Unconstitutional, which he recently brought to Toronto's JFL42 Festival. I spoke with Colin about his history in comedy.

Karen Geier: Your HBO show Long Story Short took a few people by surprise, because it seemed more like something Ricky Gervais or Eddie Izzard might take on. Have you always been interested in "how we got here"?
Colin Quinn:
I wanted to do shows that made me understand things better. That's why I started looking at history. I wanted to think about things more. When you stop thinking about how we live in a new reality where everyone's narrative is set in stone and we don't even realize it, including mine. There's so much repetitive "information" going around with no counter, and we just accept certain things as the way they are without questioning it. It's so interesting to look at stuff and go, "Wait a minute, here..."

KG: You normally tackle current politics. Do you think it's important for people to know a lot about history, so they can understand how we got this messed up?
CQ: Even back then, the powers that be were trying to suppress people and the press. Everyone's got their own angles on things. People sometimes don't want to know. Everybody's complicit in everything, is how I feel lately. Most people are just like, "Look, motherfucker. I don't care what's going on. I have three kids, I have a finite amount of time in my day, I'm just trying to get through this fucking planet." I do think there's something to be said for history giving you a little humility. Something that's sad, though, is that no matter how technologically advanced we get, we never learn.

KG: Your show that just wrapped, Unconstitutional, takes a look at U.S. history. Do you think it's strange that while many voters are poorly educated on U.S. history, and the Constitution in particular, they think they have become constitutional lawyers in their own mind since the Tea Party took hold?
CQ: You could argue that the U.S. is a benign dictatorship. You could also argue that while the Constitution guarantees personal freedom, freedom is overrated. Regardless of who they are, everyone interprets the Constitution in a way that suits them. But, for better or worse, the Constitution set our personality. We all have different realities, though.

KG: If you could choose to go back to any time period, anywhere on Earth, where would it be?
CQ: The pre-fall of Caligula Rome was pretty good, you know, sexually. I like the Greek philosophical times. There were so many great thinkers.

KG: For someone who came up during the comedy boom of the 1980s and who has been on one of the biggest comedy shows of all time, how does the new comedy business feel to you? 
CQ: People like to blame club owners for the change in comedy. It's always been the same as long as I've been doing it. They are there to sell drinks. Something no one talks about is the change in audiences. You can go onstage and make any dick jokes, and be successful. You start saying "dick", "tit" or "pussy," and the audience is reverent, like "Oh, now we're getting somewhere deep." The crowd would never complain if three people in a row did an hour of dick jokes.

KG: Your comedy has always somewhat been predicated on anger. It seems like this is a style that isn't as popular with young comedians. Do you think that's a sign of the times, or is it about not going deep enough when you're starting out?
CQ: Anger can be overrated. There's manufactured anger, and it just doesn't work. Anger can be used as a trick, too. I will say this about comedy today: there are so many great comics today who grew up on comedy. When they're good, they're the real deal.

KG: What has been the biggest surprise to you in the evolution of your career since 1984?
CQ: Well, I think I speak for most comedians when I say I'm surprised that I'm not more famous or richer. But, really, it's how much it goes up and down. There's always just a weird, outside feeling. Suddenly, you're not able to get stuff done. I can get meetings. I'm big enough to get meetings, but not always to get stuff done. That's why what Patton Oswalt says about doing it yourself rings so true. I'd rather live with a failure that I did the way I wanted than saying "I never really got to do it my way."