How Colin Quinn Discusses Race Relations and Political Correctness Onstage

Mike Lavoie
Colin Quinn

"Comedy is subjective, and it's offensive, it really is," the stand-up veteran said of the public's reaction to director Jerry Seinfeld's comments. "This is just people deciding these random rules about my business, and they're not even the funny people at their office, probably."

For Colin Quinn, the most difficult thing about making race-related jokes isn't trying to avoid offending people, but repeating the same, simmered-down punch lines.

"I'll use Irish as the example, because it's mine," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "On the one hand, you can't ignore the drinking aspect or pretend it's not a legitimate thing that goes on. But if that's all you have, that's already been done to death."

So in his new one-man show Colin Quinn: A New York Story, in which he thoroughly traces traits of the distinct New York City personality — the condescending, slightly irritated, quick-speaking, back-talking being that's somehow beloved and fading fast around the five boroughs — to the various ethnic groups that immigrated there over time, he proudly attributes the city's unquestionable sarcasm to the Irish.

The 75-minute show — running from July 23 to Aug. 16 at the Cherry Lane Theatre — couples material from his recently-published The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America with the inquisitive structure of his previous sets, which traced the roots of the Constitution and civilization as a whole.

"I'm so interested in it — that's the only reason I do it. I don't care that it's 'tone deaf' or whatever term people like to use to talk about this stuff," said the stand-up veteran of exploring race onstage. "We're so lucky to be able to talk for a living, so you have to respect it by talking about what you really want to talk about."

The least of his worries? Trying to be "politically correct" — a hot topic in comedy, thanks to Jerry Seinfeld's recent comments about how society's newfound need for censorship is ruining the genre. The very concept is, coincidentally, another theme of Quinn's show, which Seinfeld signed on to direct just after his opinion made headlines.

"These people are really overdoing it, as far as being offended — people's reactions are very strong and passionately over-the-top as if somebody did something, but they just said something. It's weird," Quinn said of the reaction to Seinfeld's quotes. "Comedy is subjective, and it's offensive, it really is. And people are making these imaginary rules, like, 'Comedy can punch up, but it can't punch down.' No, comedy punches down too sometimes, sorry. You don't make up the rules for my business without consulting a few of us. … This is just people deciding these random rules about my business, and they're not even the funny people at their office, probably."

Though Seinfeld and Quinn are longtime friends who also collaborated on Long Story Short, which had a hit Broadway run in 2010, Quinn realized, "The funny thing about Jerry is, as close as I feel to him, we never, ever discussed that incident about him being in the paper and stuff. Because Jerry's all about work. He'd just make one comment about it, and then something like, 'I don't discuss that. Are we here to work?' … He's a hard-ass guy, and he doesn't like to f— around and waste time. Our styles work very well together because he's in it for the love of the game."

The stand-up veteran says that his onstage persona, who bemoans the "new" New York, really longs for the more personal city that, sure, "was bad and crime-ridden and it wasn't a great place, but there was something about it. And it was those personalities." 

For example, "the Indian newsstand guys — once they recognize you, they'll remember your order. I was trying to get that in the show, but I never did — people remembering your order, and how good that makes you feel when you're not just a faceless person. 'Yeah, she likes light, no sugar!'"

Yet of today's technology-ridden, politically correct landscape, nothing rubs him the wrong way like the biannual extravaganza that is Fashion Week: "I get so mad over that stupid tent."