Colin Quinn Thinks It’s Time for the United States to Break Up

Colin Quinn. Photo: Monique Carboni

Colin Quinn cut his teeth on stand-up stages in New York City, his hometown, before breaking into TV as announcer for the late ’80s MTV hit game show Remote Control. By the late ’90s he served as “Weekend Update” anchor on Saturday Night Live, and the aughts saw him host Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd, where he continued to discuss pressing social and political issues. Though Quinn’s first one-man show, An Irish Wake, debuted on Broadway in 1998, over the past decade he’s become entrenched in the medium. In his 2013 show Unconstitutional, Quinn offered his take on U.S. constitutional history. Then, there was New York Story, performed in the summer of 2015, all about immigrant history in the five boroughs and how the various waves of newcomers shaped the city.

But as Donald Trump continues his turbulent presidency, and as Americans on both sides of the political spectrum retreat into bubbles of common perspectives, Quinn’s back on a New York City stage with yet another politically inspired one-man show opening at the Minetta Lane Theatre tonight, Red State Blue State, about the sorry state of the union. Over a quick-paced hour of spoken word, Quinn zigzags through hot takes on all 50 states during the Bobby Moresco-directed show while making the case for a radical reimagining of America, broken up into smaller city-state sectors.

Vulture caught up with Quinn at one of his neighborhood hangouts, Woodrow’s, an American-Irish tavern in Tribeca, to talk about his new show, recent health woes, sometimes-violent social-media alter ego, and his down-the-middle political viewpoints that clash with the status quo.

Like his performances, in person Quinn is smart, funny, and endearingly manic, so this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You suffered a heart attack last February, but you’ve trimmed down and look great. What have you been doing to address your health since then?
I’m on medication, I go to physical therapy, more cardio. I’m not eating bacon. I used to eat bacon every day. I love bacon. Before I had the heart attack I started getting these weird things where I knew I ate bacon that day. I’d feel like I had a pulsing in my arteries or in my bloodstream. It was interesting.

Congrats on surviving that and on the new show. What prompted or inspired you to start work on Red State Blue State?
I was in the middle of writing another show, and then when Trump got elected, I was like, Wow, this is a really interesting divide. I’ve always felt divided from the left and the right in this country, just maybe because I’m a Gemini, or maybe it’s just the way I am. But this was the one where I was like, Oh, this is big. I had already done the Unconstitutional show, and then [with Trump’s election] I thought, This is getting really serious.

People were just bugging me, left and right. I still go on social media, and I can’t believe people are this unaware of what they’re becoming, what we’re becoming. This is prelude to war talk from everybody. That’s how I feel. So anyway, I just wanted to make a show about that.

What were some of the things you were seeing or hearing that made you think that? Are you talking in the media or just social media?
Mostly social media, but social media is the media now. They’ve taken over. You used to have to go to school for journalism and now you just … everybody’s got a Twitter feed, whatever they want, Instagram.

We all have that instinct of being drawn to negativity and drama. I mean, I have it, too. But now I hope people realize what it’s going to lead to. It doesn’t lead to something mellow.

Unconstitutional does end on a hopeful note, where you imagine the right and the left meeting in Philadelphia with “no press” to hash out their problems. But Red State Blue State does feel a bit bleaker. You talk about how we’re in danger of a civil war breaking out. Have you totally lost hope for the country?
I haven’t lost hope for the country; I’ve lost hope for the country as it is now. I’ve lost hope for the United States as we’ve always looked at it. I think it’s time to reconfigure the place, or it’s going to happen the ugly way. It happens one way or the other.

It’s interesting — you always wonder, How could these wars happen? How come people don’t see it? This is what it looks like. Everybody’s like, “Oh, Americans are too comfortable.” That was always the line: “We’ve got all these creature comforts, so it’ll never come to that.” But now I don’t feel that way. Just the way people are, they’re unconsciously girding for it — the way they speak, the way their faces look. I feel like it’s different than even three years ago.

When you say the country needs to be reconfigured, what does that look like?
I just think that we need to be like the U.S.S.R. They broke up into Tajikistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan … whatever the other ones are. Uzbekistan … still more. That was for a reason. I just think somebody needs to go, “Hey, wait a minute, what are we doing? Everybody’s miserable. This is not going well. Let’s try to figure something out.”

When I did Unconstitutional, I did it in Dallas, for example, and when I talked about the country breaking up, they cheered. They cheered in Boston. People are done with each other. That’s the funny thing about America — you just think, The United States does not break up. We don’t break up — it’s called ‘United’ in our name. And now it seems like we may have to.

You say in the show that if we do break out into another civil war today that we’d have the “Battle for Six Flags.” What do you think the Battle for Six Flags looks like?
[Laughs.] Every movie and every TV show is dystopia, dystopia, dystopia, and Six Flags almost lends itself to that. It almost has the look of one of those medieval encampments.

You talked earlier about how part of your inspiration for this show was what Trump has triggered. But how has Trump himself, and his presidency, influenced Red State Blue State?
I feel like he’s the embodiment of all the coagulated hatred of everybody come to life. He’s as much a product of our psyche as he is a real person, which is a better explanation than considering him a real person, that’s for sure.

As I say in the show, too, he’s like the comments section of every article you read. He really does represent that part of everybody that is filled with hate [and] is just selfish. But the people who like him like him because he’s saying, “I like you.” And everybody else has been telling the red-state guy, “I don’t like you; you’re the problem with this country.” That’s the narrative that’s been in the media, anyway, for 40 years, which is, “You’re the bad guy; you’re the narrow-minded; you’re the racist.” And they’re like, “Oh, really? We’ll throw this grenade at you — see how you like that.”

I know a lot of people who voted for him — not that many, but more than you might think. And with them, I’d be like, “But he’s nuts,” and they go, “Yeah, but guess what? We don’t give a shit at this point.”

You don’t talk about Trump much in the show, though.
I talk about him a little bit, but Trump didn’t start this; Trump’s not going to end this. But Trump certainly doesn’t help this. When he’s gone, it’s not over.

You have a script for the show, but the way you present it onstage feels like a stream of consciousness. You start and stop in between thoughts sometimes. Is this something you’re aware of? Is this something you’re trying to execute?
I’m trying not to execute it. I’m trying to make it smoother. My whole career, it’s been this ADD — I don’t even know what to call it, just too frenetic. That’s just the way it’s always been. My director, Bob Moresco, he directed my original play, Irish Wake, which I did back in the ’90s, and he’s like, “Colin, you’ve got to slow down; it’s not comedy.” I’m trying to be comfortable in the silences, because in comedy, if there’s no laugh, you’re like, I’m bombing. I’m doing bad. This crowd is about to turn. That’s just a muscle you develop, and this show is not about that.

The title of the show, and the performance itself, points to your centrist views. But growing up in New York, establishing a career in the arts, have you always found yourself in the middle and to the right of many of your peers?
When I was growing up in New York, people would have contradictory, gray-area opinions. I know that’s not in fashion now, [but] I’ve just always been like that. I feel like I’m very liberal in certain ways, but in other ways not. I think I said in Unconstitutional, “I’m pro-gay marriage and pro-choice, but I’m also pro-death penalty. So I’m anti-overcrowding.” That was my joke. I feel like if you’re not marching in lockstep with everybody — whatever side you’re on — immediately, you’re dismissed. That’s how it is now. There’s a real Footloose parent in people.

In the comedy community, though, have you had struggles relating to your colleagues?
No, because most comedians, most people have more centrist, or at least contradictory, views.

Are you a registered independent?
All my life, I’m a registered Democrat, but usually I’ll vote for the middle candidate.

Over the years you’ve been fortunate enough to have a career that gives you access to other parts of the country, and even the world, that many people don’t get to experience. Has that shaped your political viewpoint in any way?
No, because most of the people who are hard-core leftist in New York are from those [conservative] places, so it’s hard to say that where you’re from has any effect on it.

It’s pretty rare to meet a New York comic like yourself so willing to throw barbs at the left.
Yeah, I know.

Since Trump earned the nomination for president, the left, for better or worse, has really banded together to challenge him and his policies. Have you felt any pressure to not criticize the left so as not to help Trump in any way?
No, because the whole point of comedy is to say whatever you feel like saying. Nobody tells you what to say. It’s disrespect, being lucky enough to be a comedian, if you start saying, I better make sure I do this for my career. There’s a big danger in showbiz because people are not comfortable, even in comedy, with hearing anything other than what’s the accepted stance on things. But [countering that] is good for everybody, I think. People go into comedy because it’s dangerous to go onstage and try to get laughs. You can bomb, so you have to enjoy a little bit of [the danger].

One of your opening lines of Red State Blue State is that the left looks at the country “like they’re in the ICU: ‘Sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do.’” What do you see happening that makes you say that?
I say the right’s too positive; the left’s too negative. The right only wants to see this country as this great, shining example. The left only wants to see it as corrupt. Can’t we have a little of both? Whatever happened to nuance? Whatever happened to [the] layers of things?

Everything that occurred in this country, to [the people on the left], is still under the cloud of this racist, sexist [agenda]. Nobody’s denying that part — I’m not denying that part — but that’s not all of anybody’s whole story. And people say, “This country is based on just genocide,” and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s what every country’s based on: genocide.” That’s how countries got formed — by people going, “Hey, let’s get rid of these people and call it our country.” That’s just the way it is. And then the other side, the right, is like, “No, we’re all good.” So there’re these two sides of ignorant, definitive truths, [and] in a world of subjective truth, they think there’s objective truth. And that bothers me when anyone does it.

You’re very critical of the left for its fight over political correctness and its impact on free speech. Do you feel like we’re going overboard with sensitivity toward people and groups?
Everything has the same dynamic: It starts as this great thing, then after a few years the idiots start to notice it, and they take over, and it becomes stupid. And the same thing has happened with political correctness. It started as a great thing, and then the idiots get in charge, and it gets destroyed. For 200 years in this country, all the censorship, all that political correctness came from the right. Then, 40 or 50 years ago, now it all comes from the left. I don’t feel limited, but I do think that there’s a tendency to try to squelch dissenting thought and opinion. I think that’s a big instinct, [today], that only came from the right, and now it only comes from the left.

You seem to have this nuanced view of where we should be on the free speech debate. You’re critical of anyone who limits speech. Then, in the show, you say that if 15 years ago someone said, “We’re going to have this idea: Everybody’s gonna give their innermost thoughts to the whole planet, all day, every day,” we would say, “Oh my God, please don’t do that.” You’re sort of saying that you should be able to say what you want, but not some other people. Can you explain that?
Yeah. I’m a contradictory hypocrite, just like everybody else in this country. I think I’m special. I think I’ve done the work. That’s the only explanation I can think of. [Laughs.] It’s true, that’s the sad part.

What do you think the left can do better to right the ship that is America?
I don’t think the left or the right can do anything better. I think it’s irreparable. I don’t think it’s up to the left or the right to do anything but realize they don’t belong together. I feel like the left has as many valid points as the right, but it’s two different ways of looking at life, and I feel like the idea of compromise is gone. The left and the right to me have the same problem: They cater to the most strident of people, because people are scared of strident people.

It’s like the William Butler Yeats quote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” People who are just true believers, zealots, are the ones setting the tone in each party. That’s it. And that’s beneath us.

Social media has definitely enhanced that, or sped that up, right?
Yeah. The fastest typists and the people with the most time on their hands set our national tone.

Speaking of, on Twitter you seem to play a version of yourself.
[Laughs.] Yes.

You can be boastful, but then you retweet shit-talkers. Is your Twitter game like some subversive piece of performance art?
Twitter had just started, and I didn’t realize that irony doesn’t translate, sarcasm doesn’t translate. Then people started retweeting; people started cursing me out. It just made me laugh so hard.

[In 2011, when former prime minister of Libya Muammar] Gaddafi had died, I was like, “You know what? The man did a lot of bad things, did a lot of good things, too. A lot of friends left behind …” just giving him a send-off. And people were like, “What’s your fuckin’ problem?” So I just kept feeding into them because I’m a natural ball-breaker anyway. I was like, “Well, you can say what you want, but the guy definitely had friends.”

Then I said Will Ferrell was using and dealing heroin. I just thought it was funny because Will Ferrell is like the nicest, most clean-cut guy ever. So I go, “Look, he stole my script for Anchorman. I had a script, it was called Newsman,” or something. People were calling me “a bitter fuck.” I’m retweeting them, going, “You say I’m bitter, but you weren’t there.” And then finally, his manager, who was my ex-manager, calls me and says, “Quinney, could you please issue a statement, because everyone thinks Will’s a heroin dealer and script stealer.” So I did. It was so much fun.

Now the joke’s over, but I used to have hundreds of people saying, “You fucking asshole,” and I would just be like, “You talk a good game, but just be aware you’re talking to a sixth-degree black belt.” And it would pull some people back, which was funny, too.

In those days on Twitter, I’d threaten to stab people. I’d be like, “Guess what, when I stab you, we’ll see how funny it is then.” Imagine doing that today? People would be like, “Oh my God! This guy threatened to stab people.” It was a different time on Twitter, too.

Colin Quinn Says It’s Time for the United States to Break Up