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Colin Quinn Will Never Stop Bombing

Colin Quinn Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

In his new special for HBO Max, Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show, Colin Quinn displays much of what has made him a beloved fixture of the comedy community for the past 30 years. Quinn is clearly just as fascinated by how comedians talk about their sets as he is their actual sets, resulting in a release that is part showcase special, part documentary about making said showcase special. Acutely, A Parking Lot Comedy Show showcases Quinn’s love for comedians and bombing. When the first comedian up, Chris Distefano, pretty much bombs, it is a constant point of conversation for the rest of the hour among a lineup that includes Quinn’s new and old favorites, like Sam Jay, Rachel Feinstein, Keith Robinson, and Robert Kelly. The insistent ball-busting in the face of national tragedy will feel right at home to fans of his short-lived cult-classic panel show Tough Crowd.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Quinn discusses the special, why he values bombing, comedy nerds, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

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On Making an Outdoor Special

I don’t even like big theaters. When I started comedy, the reason I fell in love with the Comedy Cellar [was] because I walked in, I was like, Oh, this is the archetype I thought of as stand-up comedy in my mind’s eye: Lenny Bruce chain-smoking in a little basement. That’s all I wanted it to be, because I used to smoke when I started. Everybody always said outdoor shows suck because the energy is not there. And now everybody’s had to adapt. So we had to do it outdoors. My favorite line in the whole thing was when Rachel [Feinstein] goes, “I just winked at the Chrysler Building.”

Comedians in general are so used to doing weird shows. We have ideal circumstances, but all the weird, uncomfortable shows usually are the ones that you don’t have a choice when you start — you have to do them. So you end up doing hundreds of just awkward shows: daytime, outdoors. And people end up saying, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” because, like I said, we love to talk. So they adapt immediately, as you could see. They’re all nervous beforehand and then they go up there, and if I told them “Stay on another 20,” every one of them would have stayed.

On Comedy Nerds

I love them because they listen more. Anybody that listens to comedy, I love it. I don’t think they see it as cool. If they do, they should stop right now. Comedy is not cool. I hate when it’s cool. It ruins comedy to me. It’s the oldest principle in the world: trying to go talk to a girl and slipping on a banana peel or whatever. It’s for people that want to be cool. Then you fall apart and go, “Oh yeah, I forgot. I’m a loser.” That’s the essence of comedy in some way. That’s why Rodney Dangerfield was so funny at his core, because he came up there and said, “I don’t get no respect.” You don’t get no respect either. That’s what’s so funny about him. None of us get respect. That’s why he’s funny.

On the Tension Between Audience Reaction and Critical Response

For example, let’s say somebody goes onstage and does any kind of sociopolitical humor, whatever it is, and the crowd laughs. And let’s say a couple of people in the crowd then do a think piece on comedy and tired tropes that are still getting laughs. You’re presuming that the rest of the crowd is ignorant and falling for tired tropes, and thank God there’s someone as enlightened as you that can then read through this and see what’s really going on and that it’s leading to encroaching fascism, or whatever the piece would say.

So I’m saying that there’s that social media added into contemporary convention versus a live crowd. That doesn’t mean that a live crowd doesn’t get into that mob-rule mentality sometimes and laugh at things that I would personally be bothered by. It changes every minute. But as a general rule, the common wisdom … Like I always talk about punching up and punching down and how I disagree with the idea that comedy is punching. So the fact that people say “That’s punching down” — no, no. Comedy is play fighting. So you are telling me punching down is bad, but it’s not punching. You can’t put it in the same category as, you know, a KKK speech. I’m not dismissing cultural influence. I’m just saying don’t oversell it either.

On Bombing

I do think it is authentic. Comedy is this naked art. We have these real moments. But when you’re bombing, it gets even more naked and more real. It’s so funny because when I bomb, I see the comedians are laughing. They’re not laughing because they are happy their friend’s [bombing]. Some of them, maybe. But mostly they’re laughing because they see your body slumped, and you’re just naked, and you’re just looking at the crowd. It realigns the whole energy — not in a good way. But it realigns the whole energy, like, Okay, listen. Now what are we going to do? Even you don’t know. And the crowd doesn’t know.

All the things that Chris Distefano was saying [in the special] are all the reasons that people do bomb that are not necessarily about you. Like, he did go first, and they didn’t have the horns and the honking for him, so there was less energy. And it was still lights out. There’s always a million reasons that make sense. Even some of the rationalizations, sometimes they’re true. The thing that drives me crazy is comedians that go “I never bomb.” Or they won’t admit when they didn’t do well. I understand they’re just trying to protect themselves in some way, but I love the inherent failure. There’s always that line. Every joke, it’s getting a laugh because it’s releasing the tension of possible bombing.

On Being “Avant-Garde”

Speaking about ways to bomb in comedy, when I started, I was influenced by the worst, cadence-wise, person you can be influenced by: James Joyce. I used to fancy myself to be like this kind of Irish intellectual stream-of-consciousness guy when I started. And once again, the comedians were no help because they kind of reinforced it, like, “That was good.” The audience despised it. Because there’s a practical side to it, too. If you don’t pause in places where you want laughs, how are people supposed to laugh? They can’t. There’s no place for them to laugh. And they’re thinking, He must not want us to laugh. We have to keep listening. So that was my early avant-garde, mid-’80s vibe.

Then, in the ’90s, I started trying to do … I was just mentioning this the other day to Rich Vos, because I’ve never really forgiven him for it. I was onstage and I said, “I’m going to do comedy, but it’s going to be sort of like free-verse-poem comedy.” So I did this thing and it didn’t do well. And then Vos, who I barely knew at the time, goes on and goes, “I don’t do poems. I do fucking jokes.” And I was like, This piece of shit. And I told him that the other day. He loves when I tell the story, because I was so furious I wanted to beat his brains in. Like, Who is this idiot? I was just experimenting with one-man-show stuff but also just trying to do different things with comedy. Because after a while, comedy can be a … not necessarily a trick, but there’s an element of it where you can do it by rote. You can learn the moves if you want, if that’s your preference, and just do it that way. You want to make it a challenge for yourself, and also for comedy in general, to try to make it somewhat interesting.

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Colin Quinn Will Never Stop Bombing