Colin Quinn is revered by his fellow stand-ups which explains why Jerry Seinfeld is directing him in “Colin Quinn: The New York Story” at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. In the show Quinn cracks wise about the rise and recent fall of New York City, along with the very mixed fortunes of the Irish, who have been a part of its story for centuries. Cahir O’Doherty hears about Quinn's show, his friendship with this summer's it-girl Amy Schumer and what being Irish means to him.
SOMEONE forgot to tell Twitter that Colin Quinn is famous, so he often likes to do it himself. If you follow his account, @iamcolinquinn (and oh, you should) you will know that he especially likes to do it by trolling the unsuspecting.
“Not gonna lie, team,” he Tweeted recently. “Sometimes the pressure of celeb(rity) can really get to me and talking to ‘normals’ (u types) can really save my bacon!”
Right away Quinn's less Internet savvy readers took offense at his use of the term “team.” We are not your “team” they howled back, how dare you? More than that, they objected to him calling them “normals,” a condescending term that drew a line between his fabulous celebrity self and their ordinary selves. You're not even a real celebrity, they scoffed, blissfully unaware of how much they had just played into his mischievous hands.
If you're the sort of person who delights in watching completely humorless people being baited unmercifully and led on a merry dance by an uncommonly skilled humorist, then Quinn's Twitter account is for you.
It's Quinn's playfulness and his ability to draw out the shocking anger lurking under everyday American life that's extraordinary. In 140 characters or less he can capsize an entire day for anyone dumb enough to take his posts as holy writ (and that's a lot of people).
So what kind of mischief can people expect of his new show “Colin Quinn: The New York Story,” opening at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village this week?
“They can expect the rightful heir to the crown of Synge, O'Neill, Lady Gregory and Yeats,” Quinn, 56, tells the Irish Voice with the modesty that enrages Twitter.
“When you see the show you're going to realize that I've done the impossible. Finally after all these years of torturing myself I've figured out the Irish. Or at least the Irish Americans and to a certain extent the Irish from Ireland. I'm so proud that I feel like I've figured out the Irish that I'm high for the past three days.”
It only happened three days ago, Quinn says. “Which is why I sound like I'm on drugs right now, don't I? I figured out that the Irish people bought a couple of things to America. Everybody brought different things to New York, that's the premise of the show. The Irish brought sarcasm.
“The reason we did is when we got here there was no Statue of Liberty yet. Everyone else had that emotional moment where they said, ‘Oh, my God look at this.’ But with the Irish we got off and it was the same dock as the one we'd left. A rat infested dock that looked just like the one we'd left a couple of months ago.”
Quinn says the reason the Irish became associated with jobs like policemen and firemen was because the church was so influential in our lives.
“All the jobs in the civil service appealed to us as the obedient ones who were trained to take tests, and to work indoors because the sun is not our friend,” he opines.
“The job of carpenter we loved already because of its religious allusion. The job of policeman was explained to us as a job where you help people to confess their sins and to add punishment. Then the Fire Department was described as saving souls from the torment of hell.
So that's what I've figured out. The biggest union to this day is the most Irish, the carpenters. That's a no brainer.”
Part of the fun of hearing Quinn is trying to figure out if he's serious or leading you on, but there is something undeniably Irish about the idea that the world is something you need to be saved from.
Like his hero George Carlin, Quinn wears his Irish ancestry lightly, but it's there in his impulse to be contrary and to mock. It's there in his impulse to charm and cauterize.
“I spend half my time watching videos of Joe Joyce (a notorious member of Ireland's traveling community) on YouTube threatening the Nevins families and the McDongah families. I'm not the intellectual giant I pretend to be,” Quinn says.
“I'm sitting there watching Joyce saying, ‘I tell you this, I asked you 11 weeks ago and you never showed up.’ I watch it like I'm at the opera, the Irish opera.”
What about Quinn’s Twitter followers who don't understand when he's being sarcastic? If they fail to grasp that they deserve to be fooled, he suggests.
“They're getting what they richly deserve.”
New York has changed since he was a young Brooklyn Irish boy, and these changes are the theme of his new show.
“Here's all these people from all these places buying apartments and not living in them. It's kind of an interesting thought that New York is now the safety place where people park money for when it all falls apart. What do they think it's going to do here in New York? Not fall apart?”
When he was growing up it was said in his family if America falls apart Ireland would always a secure place. But now that's no longer an option.
“The money thing has always been a part of New York. The big complaint I always heard from other countries was that in America the people were more interested in what you wore than who you were. In Ireland they care about your personality, even over here,” he says.
“At least the Irish people who have money over here have the good sense to live awash in shame over it. They know how to keep their mouths shut, they don't go around swaggering when they're successful because they know better. There's no celebration and there shouldn't be of any success. I mean, you can be successful but you should walk around with your head hung down and your shoulders rounded.”
Is he joking or is he serious? “We inherently know that there is something about success that's wrong. Everybody else doesn't realize that and just celebrates it. Then they turn around and say, ‘Oh that person turned out to be bad.’ The Irish knew from the beginning, it's a bad thing. “
Quinn says in his new show that it was only the Irish people who truly understood what the Catholic Church was trying to say.
“We are the only ones who understood what they meant, which was, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, don't go around parading like you're somebody. As badly as it was conveyed and as hypocritical as it was, we are the only ones that got it.”
Meanwhile Quinn is co-starring in the new film "Trainwreck," the breakout vehicle for this summers it-girl Amy Schumer. “She's an Irish girl herself in her own way because she grew up in Rockville Centre on Long Island, which is kind of an Irish neighborhood, and yesterday I texted her a picture of it as I passed it on the train and here's how you know she's Irish even though she's a Jewish girl. She saw the cathedral in the picture and she texted back, ‘St. Agnes!’ She knew!”
Both Quinn and Schumer have come in for strong criticism for making jokes about ethnicity and race, among other hot topics, but Quinn is unrepentant. ‘
“I mean look, if there's ever a time you want to wade into anything it's when it's not supposed to be done. The whole point of being a comedian is doing that,” he says.
“For me personally, if there's ever an Irish quality it's contrariness. Don't tell me what I can't say or do. It's all we have. It's the only pleasure we have. Are you going to try to take away my little stupid opinion, you know what I mean? Whatever quiet kind of defiance we have, it matters.”
People get in trouble because of digital mobs, the tyrants of the Internet, and then bankers and financiers panic and boycott you Quinn says.
“It's ridiculous. The whole point of comedy is to say whatever you feel like saying. Comedy can offend me sometimes. I'm not going to try and get someone booted over it.”
And it's never the funny people who are outraged, he explains.
“It's usually the person who has no sense of humor. If you’re offended I really do have a good sense of humor. Thank you for this endorsement.”
(Colin Quinn is now appearing at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. For tickets call 866-811-4111)