Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
During his five year run on Saturday Night Live, Colin Quinn (who Tina Fey once called “the New Yorkiest New Yorker we know”) brought his Brooklyn born-and-raised Irish-Catholic tough guy background and mannerisms to all of his roles on the show. Coming to SNL as a writer and stand-up comedian and not an improviser or character actor, Quinn’s time on the show was more focused developing his signature blue-collar gruffness than a wider range of characters and impersonations, and he’s best remembered as anchor of Weekend Update in an era between the dry parody news style of Norm MacDonald and the young snarky wit of the new millenium’s Fey/Fallon team.
Quinn was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and briefly attended Stony Brook University. After years of working as a bartender, in the early 1980s he quit drinking and decided to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. He landed small roles in Crocodile Dundee II and Married to the Mob, hosting gigs on MTV’s Remote Control and A&E’s Caroline’s Comedy Hour, and he starred in and co-wrote with Ben Stiller the LL Cool J music video spoof “Goin’ Back to Brooklyn,” which aired on MTV in 1989. He also appeared in The Cosby Show, True Blue, and The Ben Stiller Show, and wrote for In Living Color for 8 episodes in 1993 and co-wrote Celtic Pride with Judd Apatow in 1996.
Quinn landed a spot as SNL featured player in 1995 and was promoted to repertory player the following year. While he played supporting characters in many sketches, his best performances come from his Weekend Update appearances (before landing the Update anchor gig) in which he appears both as himself and a few characters like ex-convict Gene, Queens worker/whiner Joe Blow, and Lenny the Lion (see above) – all tough chip-on-the-shoulder New Yorker types who stem from Quinn’s stand-up roots. In one of his sketches “Colin Quinn Explains the New York Times,” which aired twice, Quinn explains the Times in layman’s terms to the “Hard Rock Café bomber jacket”-wearing, New York Post-reading crowd, a technique he brought to his stint as Weekend Update anchor after Norm MacDonald was fired by NBC in 1997. In Live from New York, Quinn says “Norm was such an ally of mine, getting all my Update features on, that in a way, he had a lot to do with the fact that I would be the guy to take over for him.” Quinn opened his first Update segment with this:
You know how you go to your favorite bar, and your local bartender isn’t there? You ask, “Where’s Jeff?” “Jeff no longer works here, I’m Steve.” And you’re thinking, “Hey, who’s this idiot? I like Jeff.” But you still want your drink? And even though Steve doesn’t mix your drink the same way you’re used to, like Jeff, you still like the same bar, you don’t want to have to go to a different bar. And even Steve might feel kinda bad because Jeff trained him. Jeff showed him how to work the cash register, where the tonic was on the soda gun, who tips, who doesn’t… Well, I’m Steve. What can I get you?
After Quinn left SNL in 2000, he wrote and hosted his shows The Colin Quinn Show in 2002 and Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn from 2003-2004. He also appeared in The Larry Sanders Show, A Night at the Roxbury, and Grown Ups, as well as on Broadway in his one-man shows Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake and Colin Quinn Long Story Short. Most recently he appears in I Hate You, Dad, set to release in 2012. While his Weekend Update stint wasn’t always successful – he was terrible at joke recovery and asides – Quinn did bring the show a needed bridge between the Farley era and the Ferrell age with a signature sharp blue-collar style and no-bullshit delivery that wasn’t snide or mean, just honest. “Today, being honest is edgy, which is unfortunate,” he told Pop Entertainment in 2003. “I just want everyone to say how they really feel, not just trying to win the crowd over by saying the right thing.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.