In A 'Coast-To-Coast Roast,' Colin Quinn Finds Humor In The State We're In

Sep 21, 2020

No state escapes unscathed in Colin Quinn's new book: Vermont is "The Old Hippie"; Florida is "The Hot Mess"; in Wisconsin, "The Diet Starts Tomorrow." Even Quinn's beloved home state of New York is "The quiet state with the city that never shuts up."

As a veteran stand-up comedian, Quinn has spent more than a couple of decades on the road, performing in 47 out of the 50 states he now affectionately eviscerates in Overstated: A Coast-to-Coast Roast of the 50 States.

Mining history for material has become Quinn's specialty, from the Ancient Greeks in Long Story Short to America's founding fathers in Unconstitutional. For research, Quinn says he reads contemporary history sources as well as books written in the "really arcane language" of, say, the 1800s. He's careful not to get too mired in historical detail, though. (He says if he were to throw out names like Peter Minuit or Peter Stuyvesant to his late night comedy club audience they'd be like: "What did you just say? Stop saying Peter with some old name.")

At the same time, Quinn makes a point to connect history with what's happening today. In Overstated, he compares modern-day Social Justice Warriors (SJW) to the Puritans and observes that the current political divide has roots in the "determination" and "individualism" of white settlers who battled for territory as the United States was forming. " 'Don't tell me what to do' is basically the mission statement of the United States," he says.

Quinn's quest to understand the "mindset and personality" of people with differing political views isn't just about looking for laughs. "I feel like I do these shows for myself to try to figure things out — how people become the way they become," he says.

St. Martin's Press

That curiosity started in the 1960s and '70s when he was growing up in a blue-collar family that was "very Irish" and "very into reading." Quinn speaks with reverence about his mother and aunts. "They didn't go to college, but they were so well-read," he recalls. "Just intellectuals without college degrees. ... They would just sit there and just be chain-smoking, and drinking, and spouting Yeats quotes, and it was just so interesting to hear and see and I feel like that definitely had an effect on me."

Longtime friend and fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld says Quinn "has a really, really powerful, X-ray eye about people and situations — and this is kind of the essence of comedy."

Both men are fascinated by the history of New York City and Seinfeld directed Quinn's special New York Story. They've been getting together regularly at the same diner for about 25 years and they often talk about the serious work of writing jokes.

"We have a bit of a similar approach," says Seinfeld. "We really love to spend time doing real writing, and we're proud of it, and we struggle with it, and there's not a lot of stand-up comics that do that."

Quinn was in the midst of writing Overstated when the pandemic hit the U.S. So he decided to turn his dark humor to a survey of other illnesses that have affected American history. In a section called "Stupidly Named Diseases" he writes about Scurvy: "It only affected sailors. They would give you a lime to cure it. That's why the British were called 'limeys,' which is considered a derogatory term. It's the most positive ethnic insult there is. 'Ahoy, you citrus fruit that destroys bacterial infection.' 'Whoa, watch it with the hate speech.' "

As COVID-19 has shuttered clubs, stand-up comedians face the dilemma: How do you replicate the particular tension and energy of a small comedy club? Quinn says the joke-writing process just doesn't work without an audience.

The audience is such a part of our creative process. ... You really work out all your material with the crowd. They do all the editing. - Colin Quinn

"The audience is such a part of our creative process. ... You really work out all your material with the crowd. They do all the editing," he says.

But, figuring this could be "the new normal," he recently taped a comedy special at a Brooklyn drive-in theater for a special airing on HBO later this fall. People in the audience had to stay in their cars so Quinn and the other comedians couldn't hear their laughter ... or their silence.

Another challenge right now: Making politics funny.

As Quinn puts it in Red State Blue State: "The right sees only the positive. The left sees only the negative. Right sees this country like they're at a high school football game in the stands cheering 'USA! USA! We're number one!' The left sees it like they're at an ICU unit: 'I'm sorry there's nothing we can do.'"

Reflecting on the divide, Quinn says, "We still have that innocence that a lot of the older countries don't have. Where they're a little more practical and laid back, we're still like, 'No. It's got to be fair. It's got to be right. It's got to be 100%.' "

Quinn calls that "a very childish way of looking at things."

As he writes in his new book, "here we are in 50-states couples' counseling and we are about to file papers for divorce."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Comedian Colin Quinn likes to make history funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "COLIN QUINN: LONG STORY SHORT")

COLIN QUINN: Ancient Greeks - first ones to say an unexamined life is not worth living. They don't tell you what we found out - an examined life, not that fascinating either.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: When you've examined your life as we have, you realize you're not going to be Stephen Hawking, Ryan Seacrest, whatever that dream is.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: That is from his 2011 special, "Long Story Short." These days, Colin Quinn's target is the United States of America. His new book is "Overstated: A Coast-To-Coast Roast Of The 50 States." NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: In his new book, Colin Quinn calls Vermont the old hippie state; Florida, a hot mess state; Wisconsin, the diet starts tomorrow state.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE")

QUINN: New Jersey - a bad idea that continued.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: The book is a spinoff of his Netflix special "Red State Blue State."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE")

QUINN: Missouri - the Show Me State. You can't call yourselves that and then have nothing to show us.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Quinn says whenever he tackles history, it's not just to get laughs.

QUINN: I feel like I do these shows for myself to try to figure things out - how people become the way they become, you know?

BLAIR: That curiosity started early. Growing up in a blue-collar family in Brooklyn in the 1960s and '70s, Quinn says they were very Irish and very into reading. He remembers being around his mother and his aunts.

QUINN: Women from the '50s, they didn't go to college. But they were so well-read, just intellectuals without college degrees. And they would just, like, sit there and just be chain smoking and drinking and spouting, you know, Yeats quotes.

BLAIR: Like a kind of blue-collar philosopher, Quinn researched all of the different immigrant groups that shaped New York City's personality, including the Irish.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "COLIN QUINN: THE NEW YORK STORY")

QUINN: We just did what every group did. We brought all our history and brought - put that onto it to make sense to us. So we made it into parishes. And a parish is just, you know, a church, some Irish people and a bar, basically.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: And the bar and the church are very similar. There's a lot of stained glass in both places.

JERRY SEINFELD: He really, really has a powerful X-ray eye about people and situations. And this is kind of the essence of comedy.

BLAIR: Jerry Seinfeld directed Quinn's special, "New York Story." They've been friends for about 25 years. Seinfeld told me they talk about the craft of comedy all the time.

SEINFELD: We have a bit of a similar approach to it. We really love to spend time doing real writing. And we're proud of it, and we struggle with it. And there's actually not a lot of stand-up comics that do that.

BLAIR: For Colin Quinn, the writing process doesn't work without an audience, which makes it really difficult in a pandemic. He recently taped a comedy special at a drive-in movie theater in Brooklyn. It airs on HBO later this fall. People in the audience had to stay in their cars, so he and the other comedians on stage couldn't hear their laughter or their silence.

QUINN: It does pain me to say this, but the audience is such a part of our creative process that we need them much more than any other field because they're - you really work out all your material with the Crowd. They do all your editing.

BLAIR: Another thing that's hard right now - making the political divide funny. But he's trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE")

QUINN: The right sees only the positive. The left sees only the negative. The right sees this country like they're at a high school football game in the stands cheering USA, USA. We're No. 1.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: And the left sees it like they're at an ICU unit.

(LAUGHTER)

QUINN: I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do.

BLAIR: So here we are, writes Quinn in his new book, in 50 states couples counselling about to file papers for divorce. Quinn says, right now, Americans aren't willing to compromise.

QUINN: We still have that innocence that a lot of the older countries don't have that - where they're a little more, like, practical, like, laid back. We're still like, no, it's got to be fair. It's got to be right. It's got to be 100%, you know? And it's like, that's a very childish way of looking at things, you know?

BLAIR: Colin Quinn doesn't give away too much about his own politics. Ever the equal opportunity offender, he pretty much rips both liberals and conservatives to shreds.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.