As empire-burning barbarians go, Colin Quinn is a flaming moderate: the wiseguy with the midsized battle axe and just one human head hanging from his belt (not a family-of-three, like those other showoffs). “No offense,” says the SNL alum at the top of Long Story Short, his one-man, seventy-minute history of the world, “but we’re the descendants of the pricks. We’re not the people who starved to death waiting their turn.” This more or less sums up Quinn’s tilt on genus Homo: two parts self-taught Social Darwinism to one part brisk, Seinfeldian essentialism. (That’s only natural, considering Sir Jerry directed and subsidized this show.)
In just over one very funny, amicably un-PC hour, he skims thousands of years with an autodidact’s stentorian emphasis and a drinking buddy’s beer-breath bonhomie, merrily jettisoning whatever threatens to slow him down. (Egypt, Persia, the Aksumites of Ethiopia — sorry, guys, you just don’t maintain enough of an outer-borough presence to enter the Quinn-tinuum, with its subliminal 718-centric bias.) Progress, shmogress. For Quinn, a fifty-something small-c conservative comic with a withering Brooklyn-Irish wit and a headlong delivery that resembles a sustained, half-enunciated sneeze, humanity has always been the same passel of mopes and mooks, who can be categorized only by their ethnic flavors of a species-wide propensity for fucking up.
The Athenians were navel-gazers. The Romans were mobsters. The Incas were coke heads. (“They had art, architecture, gold, mathematics, but they also had human sacrifice, beheading and cannibalism. That’s cocaine — gives you the best ideas and the worst ideas simultaneously.”) And so on. All empires fall, brought down not by disease or conquest or even culture per se, but by that guy who cuts you off in traffic, then waves like he’s thanking you. (You know the guy I’m talking about.) Rome wasn’t burnt in a day, and neither were Mayan Civilization and the Ming Dynasty: They were ground to powder by jerk-off behavior that only observational comedy is properly equipped to scrutinize. The best ethnographic and historical analysis, as any two-for-one drinker can tell you, is performed in front of a brick wall.
There’s no wall to be seen in Long Story Short, aside from the Great One. (“Work was China’s drug. The one thing they couldn’t figure out was how to stop working. That’s why the Great Wall is so long. I’m sure it started off as just a wall. The next biggest wall in the world is fourteen feet long. Any other place, a contractor gets to that length and says, “You don’t need more than that, do you?”) Quinn and Seinfeld try hard to banish the spectre of Caroline’s from the intimate Helen Hayes (where the comic’s first Broadway outing, Colin Quinn: Irish Wake, played over a decade ago). They’ve filled the stage with the ruins of an ancient amphitheater, overhung by a flat screen large and sports-bar-ish enough to calm the fears of any red-blooded Quinn fans daunted by the potentially loafer-lightening effects of an evening on at the theater.
As Quinn’s done for years in his club act and on short-lived basic cable stints (see Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn on Youtube), he winkingly, willfully pushes barroom philosophy to the point of peril, homing toward the political, the socio-racial, the uncomfortable. But thanks to the show’s liberating conceit–and to Seinfeld’s moderating, corner-mitering influence–he gets away with it, though sometimes just barely. (On colonialism, Quinn explains why Africa was an “easy target”: “They had conflicts with each other. It was like six Brooklyn high schools let out at the same time.” On Islam: “Sharia law… has some good things. Like they kill rapists, that’s good. But Arabs are too intense, they take it too far. ‘And then we kill the rape victim.’ ‘Oh, see, that’s where you’re going to lose a lot of people.’”) Back in his Weekend Update era, Quinn always looked twitchy and defensive delivering material like this: He’d mistime his breathing, swallow his words, shift and sweat as if he were trying to disown his act in the middle of performing it. Age and Seinfeld seem to have mellowed him, smoothed his timing, steadied his tongue. Quinn still swallows his words, still aspirates whole phrases, but he controls his hurtling comic propulsion now–even his stumbles feel quintessentially his. He radiates an autodidact’s pride-of-accomplishment, cut with just the right amount of shambolic irony, and if some of his rapid-fire allusions aren’t quite en pointe (his take on Plato’s Cave, while uproarious, might leave purists a bit mystified), well, isn’t that the point?
Seinfeld has called the show an exercise in “taking a fatuous premise and proving it with rigorous logic,” and it’s worth remembering that this is what comedians used to do, before political demagoguery became part of the job description. The stand-up’s oldest technique– connect-the-dots free-association — wasn’t designed to organize rallies on the Mall or fill chalkboard after chalkboard with word-salad conspiracies; it was designed to illuminate the truth at funny angles with the bright torch of comic anarchy. The best comedians aren’t conquistadors, after all, just good-natured barbarians, tickling society’s ribs while testing its soft spots. Quinn stays safely in the anarchy camp. He’s still the grumbly-gus visigoth holding forth at the end of the bar, always ready to offer his skewering slant, never staying long enough to take over the world. He just wants to burn a few turrets and be on his way.