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Talking with Colin Quinn 

The comedian brings his show Unconstitutional to the Joy Theatre Jan. 9

click to enlarge Colin Quinn debuted Unconstitutional off-Broadway in New York.

Photo by Mike Lavoie

Colin Quinn debuted Unconstitutional off-Broadway in New York.

Comic, New Yorker and former Saturday Night Live cast member Colin Quinn doesn't offer the most refined explanation of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, but he has a clear stance on its founding principles.

  "F—k you, you can't tell me how to think," Quinn says while talking about protections for individual rights. "Everyone keeps trying to get everyone to think the way they want. People are always saying, 'You guys are wrong. You guys are racist, or socialist' or whatever. Tough shit. You don't get to tell them how to think or how to speak."

  Quinn also sees the trade-offs in the Constitution's balance of individual rights versus the government's need to work for the common good. He became fascinated with the Constitution following his previous show about the history of the world, Colin Quinn: Long Story Short. Unconstitutional may not be suitable for print in a law review, and onstage on and off Broadway, Quinn sounds like many New Yorkers on the street.

  Growing up in Brooklyn and beginning his career in New York comedy clubs left him with a pedigreed group of friends. That's how Jerry Seinfeld came to direct Unconstitutional. The two were sharing one of their regular breakfasts at a New York diner when Quinn nonchalantly asked Seinfeld if he would work on it.

  "I was just doing it, I needed a director," Quinn says. "I said, 'You don't want to direct it, do you?'"

  Seinfeld took him up on the task, and pitched a different title.

  "Jerry had the greatest title for me," Quinn says. "He called it More Perfect, Colin Quinn: More Perfect. ... But I was like no one is going to get it."

  Besides the directness of the title, Quinn thought it offered another safeguard.

  "When people come to the show, they think they're going to be bored, because I am going to be talking about the Constitution," Quinn says. "Then when it's funny, they're pleasantly surprised. But if I called it Colin Quinn: Tits, Beer and Porno, they'd be disappointed if I started talking about the Constitution."

  Quinn has made a career out of his antagonism toward anything politically correct. His Comedy Central show Tough Crowd, which aired from 2002 to 2004, followed The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It featured a panel of crass and irreverent comics addressing the daily news headlines. Quinn's distaste for political correctness eventually led him to the subject of the Constitution, but it hasn't made him predictable.

  "If you mention the Constitution, all the Republicans carry it in their back pocket now, so they all think it's going to be that way," he says. "All the liberals think, 'Well, he's in show business, he's a comedian, he must be totally liberal.'

  "I had two different people come up to me, one from the right and one from the left, before I even did this show. And they both said to me, in dead seriousness, when I said I was doing a show about the Constitution, 'Good, because they're trying to change it.' Talking about the other side."

  Quinn doesn't fall neatly on either side of the red state/blue state divide. The free-speaking, highly contentious Brooklynite loved George Carlin and broke into comedy following his model. He also says having family in New York was key to making it in the business.

  "I was very lucky to grow up in New York," he says. "It's harder when you don't have family, because you always go crawling back. In the early days, me and Chris Rock would go do comedy together. And then one of us would drive the other one home — to our mothers' houses."

  Eventually, Quinn made it and moved out of his mother's house.

  And then he moved back home — several times, including after his stint as the sidekick on the MTV game show Remote Control. He kept working at standup comedy in New York, mostly making jokes about Brooklyn at Manhattan clubs, and he started touring.

  "When I got my first road gig, people were like, 'What is he talking about?'" Quinn says. "I was talking about the subway. There's no subway in North Carolina."

  As he's become better known, he's found the road more welcoming.

  "The smartest comics and the dumbest comics all love D.C.," he says. "Isn't that weird. Of course, I count myself as a smart comic, and you're like 'Yeah, that audience really gets me.' And then the dumb comics love it, too. So I guess I wasn't as smart as I thought I was."

  Quinn hasn't performed in New Orleans before, but he says he's ready. He knows some New Orleanians' accents sound like those of New Yorkers. And his favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces.

  "I have read Confederacy of Dunces like 20 times," he says. "It's the funniest; it's so brilliant. I read sections of it all the time when I get depressed.

  "I remember sitting on the train, back when the trains were dangerous. Everyone I talked to that read it said, 'I was laughing on the train.' In those days, no one talked on the train — let alone laughed."

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