Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central alumnus Colin Quinn is the headliner for the Woodstock Comedy Festival, returning September 19 to 21 for its second year of comedy for a cause, with all profits going to Family of Woodstock and the Polaris Project, which fights human trafficking.
Following last year’s smashing success, which raised more than $5,000 for the organizations, executive director Chris Collins and his crew have pulled together a combination of edgy young New York City comics, along with seasoned performers like Quinn. Three nights of laughs will include the political humor of Comedy Nation at the Woodstock Playhouse on Friday; Quinn’s Once upon a Time in New York at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday, followed by the Upright Citizens’ Brigade show Whiplash; and Laughingstock! standup, plus Bobby Tisdale and the Knot Bads, at the Colony Café on Sunday. Saturday afternoon will feature panel discussions on comedy writing at the Kleinert Center for the Arts. On Sunday afternoon, Upstate Films Woodstock will screen two documentaries: one on professor Irwin Corey and the other taking us backstage at Whiplash.
Quinn’s 2011 one-man Broadway show Long Story Short, directed by Jerry Seinfeld, outlined a history of the world in 75 minutes. He has been touring with his latest show, Unconstitutional, in which he tackles 226 years of American constitutional calamities. He discussed his brand of intelligent humor in a phone interview with Almanac Weekly’s Violet Snow, riffing on each topic in his headlong, spontaneous style and a vivid Brooklyn accent.
I watched ten minutes of Long Story Short on YouTube, and it was really funny. What’s your favorite historical period?
I’ve been doing this whole show about the Constitution and kind of liking it, but I don’t like the outfits. In the artwork, it’s kind of dark; in the Colonial period everyone looks dirty to me. The British, with the regimental uniforms – they really had something going, even though it made them lose the war – the red uniforms had a real flair. I also like the Renaissance. But talk about the one percent: the Medicis and the Borgias, who once in a while threw a few crumbs to the artists. They don’t show us that side.
You did a political show on Comedy Central, and you talk about why the world’s a mess in Long Story Short. Do you think comedy can change the world?
I don’t know if anything can change the world. Even when you have one place going great, other places are doing horribly. I don’t think it changes; it just packs up and moves every few months.
Does comedy help the world?
In the ideal form, it lets people have a little relief and realize, “Oh, that’s what’s been bothering me all this time, but I couldn’t articulate it.” That’s when it’s done right. A lot of comedy just reinforces your own ignorance. But at least I’d rather have someone reinforcing my ignorance and being funny than being stupid.
It’s weird how I’ve gotten more and more into the relationship with the audience. At first, I thought, “If it wasn’t for the audience, I’d be so happy.” Now we’re intertwined the way no other performers are; they’re helping me write my material. For a comedian, it’s an important relationship.
I watched a clip from 1992, and I was amazed at how much better you got since then.
If I could trade the bad comedian I was then for who I am now, with all the insights and stuff, I’d do it in two seconds. I was young, and I looked amazing.
Yeah, you were pretty hot.
I was smoking three packs a day, and I could run four miles a day. I was miserable actually, but…it’s a hard tradeoff.
The show you’re doing at the comedy festival is about New York City?
It’s about growing up in New York, but it’s really about ethnicity – me describing everybody’s ethnicity. We all have the same basic genetic whatever, but we’re all different. It could be construed as racial, but it’s a study.
It’s always bugged me, the more diverse New York gets – there are over 120 languages spoken in Queens – it seems to be like, “Don’t mention anyone’s ethnicity.” I don’t want to call it a meditation – people will be thinking, “What an ass” – but that’s what I’ll be doing: meditating on ethnicity.
What made you decide to be a comedian?
I was always the class clown, a big-mouth, and got laughs a lot. I don’t know if I was born to do it, or just started getting addicted to it. I was always trying to disrupt class, like everyone who becomes a comedian. Someone should study comedians, find out if it’s ADD or just a shitty attitude.
First time I went onstage, I felt, “This is where I belong.” A guy came up said, “You’re a natural; come back in a year.” He was right. A lot of people are hilarious, but you also have to have that…I don’t know if it’s the death of the spirit or an existential crisis; you almost have to be unhealthy to want to spend years of your life alone, crafting this stuff. You have to be a little despairing about everything else in life.
Do you ever think, “I wish I’d done something else instead”?
In a fantasy world, maybe, but there was really nothing I could’ve done. Well, I could’ve done other things for ten years to get more material.
What would you have done?
Maybe – I guess – well, ideally, I would’ve moved to ten cities in the US and taken ten different jobs: Chicago, three Southern cities, three Midwestern cities, one or two in New England, to get the big sweeping picture, to have that authority. I’d be the Walt Whitman of comedy.
What kind of jobs would you get?
I don’t know, I only went to college a year-and-a-half. Whatever jobs would explore what the real culture is: an oil rig in Texas, a cabdriver in Salt Lake City. You know, I told my manager, “This is an ethnic show, it’s specific to the Northeast, so get me something in the Northeast. The next day my agent calls me: “How about Ogden, Utah?” I said, “I think northern Finland would be a better place to work out this material.”
Who are your influences?
Levon Helm. Ha! Just playing to the local crowd. Well, Pryor and Carlin: Those are the Mount Rushmore guys to me. Joan Rivers was really funny, even when she was doing those celebrity jokes, which I don’t care about really, but they were well-written jokes. She was a craftsperson, she was the real deal, out there being shocking, but also being funny.
Your onstage persona is pretty rough around the edges; how close is that to the real-life you?
I’m not like that at all. I’m a show-business diva. I have a gravelly voice. Kris Kristofferson and I could’ve been Rhodes scholars together.
You post a lot on Twitter. Is that fun for you?
It’s so much fun: another addiction. You laugh so hard. People issue death threats left and right to me. They want to kill me because I’m throwing out these positive affirmations, and it makes them so mad. I’m a combination of a soccer Mom and a life coach. My fans don’t seem to appreciate that persona.
Have you been to Woodstock before?
I lived in Woodstock in 1970. I went to Woodstock Elementary School for six months. We were going to move out of Brooklyn. We tried it out and moved back. I was a breath away from going to Onteora Middle School. There was a poster shop on Tinker Street, before they called them head shops. I was 11. I’d buy incense. It was like buying weed: “I’m gonna go smell this incense” – you sense something’s going on. By the creek, pervert that I was, you’d see all these young couples going in the Mill Stream, and they’d be naked. I thought, “This is Utopia, man; I could sit here all day.” I was young; they didn’t care. My sister lived there in the late ’80s; I went back lots of times.
It’s changed a lot since then.
Good thing you warned me.
The Woodstock Comedy Festival will be held September 19 to 21. All net proceeds will be divided between Family of Woodstock and the Polaris Project, to counter violence against women and human trafficking. For schedules and tickets, visit https://woodstockcomedyfestival.org.