Irish American comedian Colin Quinn is a stand up’s stand up. This summer the writer and actor will take to the stage to star in his own one-man show, "Colin Quinn Long Story Short", directed by Jerry Seinfeld. Along the way he’ll also appear in the Adam Sandler comedy "Grown Ups".
Colin Quinn made his name when he landed a spot on Saturday Night Live, where he entertained audiences for five seasons with unforgettable characters and brilliantly funny segments like “Colin Quinn Explains the New York Times,” before stepping in as anchor for SNL’s popular “Weekend Update.”
But Quinn first got his start at the Irish Arts Center in the early 1990s with his play "The Irish Wake", a side-splitter that often blurred the line between theater and standup. It was an instant success and is still talked about with reverence in theater and comedy circles.
This month Quinn, 49, is back onstage again in "Colin Quinn Long Story Short", produced and directed by none other than Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a measure of Quinn’s talent that Seinfeld signed up to helm the project sight unseen, because Quinn’s name on the first page was all it took. Talk about a vote of confidence.
So how does he do it? How does an Irish American boy from a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn convince the bigwigs he’s got the goods?
“I’m only a comedian because of the Irish,” Quinn tells the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
“Growing up I watched my uncles and aunts listening to that first album of George Carlin’s called Class Clown at parties. I loved it, but I didn’t appreciate it as much as people who grew up in his era did. I think the Irish thing is that I love language and I love the sacred and the profane, which is how Irish people speak.”
Quinn’s first play about growing up Irish American was performed at the Irish Arts Center in 1994.
“It was about all the people on my block growing up, a couple of whom were from Ireland. In the beginning it was called "Sanctifying Grace" but it ended up being called "The Irish Wake",” he recalls.
“I got wise. I finally realized who else but the Irish would go to see a play called "Sanctifying Grace"?”
Quinn was born and raised in Brooklyn, and Irish America runs in his veins. Few people know the city and its characters like him.
“Well actually, I’m from Park Slope. We lost all our street credibility 15 to 20 years ago,” he says.
“Our neighborhood used to be considered a kind of tough neighborhood, you know? Now when I say I’m from Park Slope they say, ‘That’s not Brooklyn!’
“We were the real deal back in the day. Now it’s just baby carriages. We look like a Swiss village. But guess what? There was a time when, and that’s all we’re going to say.”
Quinn is quick to point out that for all its yuppie hordes, things in Park Slope could have been much worse.
“It’s not hipsters in Park Slope, all the hipsters are in Williamsburg. We’re just soccer moms and lesbians and lesbian soccer moms,” he says.
But back in the day Park Slope was filled with unforgettable first generation Irish people like his aunt, who had a classic Irish immigrant’s take on life.
“My aunt would invoke a different saint for everything. Everywhere she went she was always having some kind of drama,” Quinn recalls.
“It was her against the car service drivers she would hire. You’d hear her saying, ‘That son of a bitch, I had to say a prayer to St. Dympna.’ She was always giving out money too, throwing $10 bills at the local kids and then yelling and cursing at all the different ethnicities of car service drivers.”
Another unforgettable Irish old-timer in the hood was Irishman Aidan Donovan.
“He who was one of those literary Irish guys who would say things like this to the Russian barmen, ‘Listen, you little f***ing Rasputin, go over there and get me a scotch and water.’
“And the young kid would always get the order wrong and then he’d get more abuse for it. ‘This little f***ing Barabbas would sell you out,’” says Quinn, quoting his old pal, and then erupting with laughter at the memory.
“The beauty of the Irish people is how they can turn a phrase and make me laugh. There’s just something so down to earth about them.”
Quinn clearly treasures that defiant Irish stance, especially when it comes to the powers that be.
“About five years ago my brother had his daughter christened. Aidan Donovan shows up in the church. He’s really old now,” Quinn remembers.
“We’re in the church and I promise you this is true, the priest says over the baby and says, ‘Do you renounce evil?’ Suddenly you hear piping up from one of the pews, ‘No!’ Donovan’s heckling the priest during the ceremony.
“Then the priest asks, ‘Do you renounce Satan and all his works?’ Again he shouts, ‘No!’ He wasn’t drunk. He was just saying no till the day he died against the Catholic Church.”
Quinn has fond memories of his youth.
“Growing up in Brooklyn I used to see everything I loved about Irish people. A fierce intelligence that was just thrown out without pretension, like all the Yeats and Thomas Aquinas references and all the cursing. That was the beauty of it. They were still down to earth,” he says.
Quinn’s grandparents came from Belfast, with his father’s father arriving (suspiciously, Quinn says with a laugh) around 1920.
“Apparently he got chased out. We were reading some old family letters from the 1920s where they’re talking about the Orangemen banging their drums until their wrists bled,” said Quinn.
“You can just picture those psycho Protestants with their wrists bleeding playing their goddamn drums. What a thought.”
But in his new show Quinn’s material is about issues closer to home, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from controversy.
“My new show is about America as an empire and about all empires. We are like the Costco of empires. We have to have every bad quality that destroyed the world together at once, you know?”
From the beginning the new show has grabbed the attention of his fans, many of who are immensely influential.
“I started playing with the show last year out on Long Island at this comedy club called Governor’s. Then I did it at the Gotham Comedy Club, and Jerry Seinfeld said I should do it as a one-man show,” Quinn says.
“I said I planned to and he said, ‘All right I’m producing it.’ I said, ‘You haven’t even seen it yet,’ and he said, ‘I trust you.’
“He saw The Irish Wake when it was in its infancy and he’s always been a supporter of my stuff. He saw the run through and I said, ‘Why don’t you direct it?’ and he agreed. He’s been directing and so focused.”
Even in rehearsal they’ve been finding new material.
“You discover these weird things. Like England, for example, which we (the Irish) called many years ago. We told the world they were a bad penny and now look at them,” Quinn says.
“B.P. That’s all I’m saying. Now America’s finding what we’ve always told them.”
How did England ruin the entire world?
“They didn’t overwhelm people, they shamed people. They came to these big countries like India and said to the people there, ‘Look at you! Put some clothes on!’” Quinn said.
“They shamed people. It was like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know I had no class until these people told me.’ It was psychological. England wasn’t big.
“Those little discoveries make up the show. They tapped into people’s insecurities, their low self-esteem by saying of course you want to be like us.”
"Colin Quinn Long Story Short" plays at Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street in New York from June 19-August 15. For tickets call 212-239-6200.