Colin Quinn on Comedy in an Era of Political Correctness

Comedian Colin Quinn thinks the state of the union is so far gone that America needs to break up, with his latest show exploring both sides of the political divide. He speaks with Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how to be funny in today’s era of political correctness, and why he thinks compromise doesn’t work.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest thinks the State of the Union is so far gone that America needs to break up in his latest solo show Red State Blue State. Former Saturday Night Live comedian Colin Quinn take stock of both sides of the political divide and he’s talking to our Hari Sreenivasan about how to be funny in today’s era of political correctness and why he thinks compromise doesn’t work.


HARI SREENIVASAN: I’m going to stand up that I’ll ask this out but there is a thesis here. What’s the thesis to Red State Blue State?

COLIN QUINN, COMEDIAN: The thesis is that we’re headed for a civil war and people don’t really seem to believe that that could happen again.

SREENIVASAN: And you’re not joking about that?

QUINN: I’m not joking.

SREENIVASAN: So how did you come up to this conclusion?

QUINN: Well, I did a show a couple of years ago called “Unconstitutional”. It was similar but it’s not the country breaking up like ideologically. I feel like the people that have the most vitriolic personalities are now in — setting the tone. And not just Trump. Of course, Trump would be the most obvious example.

SREENIVASAN: Why do you think people are so calcified in their beliefs now?

QUINN: I don’t know. I just — I don’t know. It’s strange. I don’t feel like people are. I feel like the people that you hear from, I feel like this is like everything else. So you take any positive thing like the Internet, it was a positive thing. And it becomes the province of the [13:40:00] fastest typists and the people with the most time in their hands and the most — the people that want so badly to make sure that you set — that they set the tone, just that my mindset, the precious take or whatever the mindset of people that want to control the conversation. This is their day in the sun, you know.

SREENIVASAN: So we don’t necessarily care about nuance, we care about speed more.

QUINN: It’s not that we don’t but once these people set the tone, that’s the way it goes. And then things speed up. And then suddenly everybody’s kind of in a fear mode and it’s like, OK, you’ve got to lockdown at some point. Once war start, every — you know, you can’t just be like, “Hey, guys. Hold on.” All right, I’m feeling my people on this side of it, you know.

SREENIVASAN: And you have a clip in your standup about growing up offline. Let’s take a look at that.


QUINN: I was growing up offline. If you want to have a political debate, you have to get dressed and go down the bar. You couldn’t do it in your underwear. You get dressed, get down to the bar, pick up the newspaper, find somebody you knew disagreed with you and be like, “You probably liked it, don’t you?” Give me the paper. As a matter of fact, I do. What’s your problem? And you have a debate but it was people you kind of new, friends, family, neighbors. It’s always — the bar itself was Facebook and Twitter was all the strangers in the bathroom doing coke together, speaking in short bursts of paranoid under 280 characters. Like, yes, you following me? Yes. You want to send me a message. OK.


SREENIVASAN: So the public comments has changed, that the idea of a place to meet, a place to actually —

QUINN: Sure.

SREENIVASAN: — share ideas physically. And the fact that there was a human being connected to those thoughts that might disagree with you, now it’s not the case.

QUINN: Right. And it was somewhat tempered by the human interaction there is not now.

SREENIVASAN: Because you have to go to that bar again and say, OK, I can’t be, you know —

QUINN: Right. You have to face everyone in the bar looking at you where they’re giving you feedback that no longer exists. So it’s like everyone — you don’t get that look like — you don’t always turn away from me. You read the room. You don’t want to read the room online.


QUINN: You just read the people that you like.

SREENIVASAN: Technologies of have come to change our way of communication. What is it about this? Do we have a tendency to take things too far?

QUINN: I mean I feel like everything is taken. I feel like everything that’s good, it gets hijacked by people that are either greedy or have their own psychotic anger issues. And then it becomes — it always ends up badly. You know I mean? Look at — what’s his face? Albert Einstein. Ultimately, he was the inventor of the nuclear bomb. That wasn’t his intent, right? He started out good but then it just got in different hands. Then suddenly people were like, “Wait a minute, we have to make sure we use this.” It was used for a good cause to stop Hitler but then it’s like anything else and it becomes a thing where everybody wants it, every — it becomes something else.

SREENIVASAN: You have another clip that I want to play. It’s just about free speech maybe going too far.


QUINN: Yes, free speech, what did it do? It just gave everybody an opinion. That’s what it is. And opinions got ruined by social media because free speech is an acoustic art. It wasn’t meant to go electric. It’s meant to be like spoken on a tree stump, on a porch in front of a general store, something like that. If somebody told you, 15 years ago even, “We have this idea, we’re going to give — everybody’s going to be able to give their innermost thoughts to the whole planet all day every day.” You would say oh, my God, please, don’t do that.


SREENIVASAN: You know this is — you wrote this material not just as a reaction to the Trump presidency. You’ve been feeling about — this way about America for a while now.

QUINN: Yes. Yes. I mean look, it’s a — I just — I guess compromise just doesn’t really work. I mean this country has always been kind of divided. As far as ideologically a lot, it has never really gotten along. But you now had to see each other and each other’s’ face in social media. So it’s really been the last 20 years. Before that, people were like, “Yes, I heard they act like that here. That’s weird.” But you would never go there unless you were from there. Someone would say, “You should see the way it is where I’m from.” But now, it’s in everyone’s face all day and nobody likes it. And the other thing is I feel like people really believe that they are put on this earth to change other people’s behavior and opinions and they’re finding out it’s not going to happen. So people are too stupid to realize, I’m not going to change other people. So we find a way to break this thing civilly or it’s going to — wars probably always start with this kind of stuff where people are just like, “Well, you got to really start to understand to do things this way.” And like no, I’m not doing it. And nobody can hear each other because like, “Why wouldn’t they want to do things this way? Don’t they understand how much better it is for them?” And people are like, “I don’t care. I’m not doing it your way.”

SREENIVASAN: Just because it’s your way, it’s not my way.

QUINN: Just because it’s your way, yes.

SREENIVASAN: That’s pretty pessimistic.

QUINN: I know. Well, I’m a pessimistic guy. A good comedian should be pessimistic about all things.

SREENIVASAN: Is there a solution here?

QUINN: Well, I mean I would divide the country up. I would chop it up a little bit. I mean look, you know, I don’t know. I mean I haven’t really drawn, yes, my plans yet. But I mean city-states is what I say in the show but I mean I just think like look, you look at Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, all these places.

SREENIVASAN: The breakup of the Soviet Republic.

QUINN: Yes. It would basically sit down to brunch with them. Your divorced friends, you go, how is it? They’re like, “I have less money but I’m happier.” Yes. But I mean they broke up. Everybody survives.

SREENIVASAN: And so you’re saying states in the United States have less in common with each other and perhaps should be separate?

QUINN: Yes. They’ve — I mean it’s so obvious that people don’t want to be around each other.


QUINN: We started out with 13 colonies. We became 50 states. What’s wrong with 13 colonies? Thirteen seems like plenty. We’re already bigger than England and France put together but we got greedy. We couldn’t take the hint from God. God put mountain, rangers, rivers like to indicate those are different countries. The Grin Tetons, Mississippi, the Rockies, natural borders. Europe. Europe is the same size as us, made a bunch of different countries because they understood every 700 miles, people have a different personality. Do you think Hungary and Scotland have less in common than Utah and New Jersey?


SREENIVASAN: This experiment is a failure?

QUINN: No. It was just — it was a great thing. We brought a lot of things around that people — other people has used. It was great. It was no more of a failure than monarchy or anything else. It was just — I mean monarchy is successful too. I mean I can actually see the benefits in other systems now that I never saw before. Like in monarchy, like if you were born under a good king, it was just a roll of the dice of how your king was in your lifetime. If you got a bad king or like yes, I just got a crazy king.

SREENIVASAN: So we should be city-states like Sparta in Athens.

QUINN: Sparta in Athens, exactly. There are some people in this country that are not political. Here’s the other thing that happened since social media, everybody has to be political now. So in the old days, 90 percent of people would go how do you feel and be like, “I’m not really that political.” That’s not an acceptable answer anymore. A lot of people just want to be zone out. They like to just go to the gym. They like to watch the food, you know, just Food Network and just cook and just talk about that. But now it really has to — everything has to be infused to politics once again because people are saying, “Well, how do you feel on this subject?” They’re asking — Taylor Swift has to weigh in. I mean this is — do you know what I mean? This should not be, and people are like, “It should be the case.” It’s like you’re not the kind of person I like if that’s how you feel. I mean I don’t like that autocratic. I don’t go for this type of personality where people like you have to weigh in. It’s just too — it’s too oily for my taste right now.

SREENIVASAN: You’re pretty moderate. I mean you —

QUINN: Yes, I’m a radical moderate.

SREENIVASAN: Yes. So explain what that means to people.

QUINN: Well, nowadays, being moderate is being radical. Because if you don’t go marching in lockstep, if you’re not like monochromatically like on every issue on the left or the right, people really look at you like you can’t —

SREENIVASAN: It’s a cop out.


SREENIVASAN: You’re either one of us or you’re one of them.

QUINN: Exactly.

SREENIVASAN: You’re with me or you’re with the terrorists.

QUINN: Exactly. And that’s how everybody is. So you’re dealing with a really simplistic idiotic view of the — from these two, from both sides. And it’s unbelievable.

SREENIVASAN: How does growing up in Brooklyn affect, impact your work the way you view the world?

QUINN: When I grew up in Brooklyn, it was multiethnic. It was New York at that time. It was different. Now, every place is kind of like this but everybody’s just lumped together all the time. So in some ways, it was really good because it was good for somebody like me because I was a wise — so in retrospect, a lot of people are like what is this but I had a big mouth so I kind of — I shined — like a peaked at 13 comedically. And anybody who grew up with me knows is true. I’m not just saying it. I peaked at 13. Maybe not a developed material but I was on fire from 11 to like 13-and-a-half. And then —

SREENIVASAN: All went downhill?

QUINN: Yes. But you know at the time, there was a lot of danger, there was a lot of madness, and there was a lot of stuff going on. But in retrospect, it was like I look back and I’m like, oh, my God, it was magic.

SREENIVASAN: Yes. Has comedy changed since the time when you got involved and how so?

QUINN: Yes, it’s changed.

SREENIVASAN: How many years have you been doing this now?

QUINN: Please, 32.

SREENIVASAN: Right. So in 32 years —

QUINN: Thirty-three.

SREENIVASAN: Thirty-three years of working with ensemble cast, doing standup on your own, what’s the biggest difference do you think for a comedian coming up now that maybe you didn’t have either the advantage of or the challenge of?

QUINN: Well, I mean it’s — the — when I was coming up, you could just get on. So if you went on stage, people were like, “Ooh, a comedian. This guy is crazy.” And they just start laughing over the audacity that you would have to be a comedian. So that was a good age. People were like — you know, like already you had like 50 percent of your audience. Now people are like, “Oh, my cousin does this too.” So I mean that —

SREENIVASAN: There’s YouTube videos of my cousin now.


SREENIVASAN: They’re hilarious.

QUINN: With so many comedians now, it’s saturated. And I mean, you know – – so there’s — that’s the negative side of it is that there’s too many. Once there’s too many, even the good ones have a hard time breaking through.

SREENIVASAN: Do you do like a Jack Welch bottom 10 percent out of the business every year? What should you do about that? Are you getting better as a comic?

QUINN: I’m getting better as a comic, yes. But when you get older — I’m just — from my perspective, I don’t like seeing old people in front of my face any more than anybody else.

SREENIVASAN: Are you a borderline old person?

QUINN: Yes. So it’s like well, here’s an old person going to talk, you better be funny, you better be really funny. If you’re going to have the nerve to be old and perform, you better be really funny.

SREENIVASAN: Otherwise, you’re just an old angry guy.

QUINN: You’re just an old guy. No. It’s like young people are funny. You see them up there. Like yes, I see them young, you’re just laughing at the idea of somebody young and just seeing that maybe something funny about the energy. So you better — you have to get funnier when you get old.

SREENIVASAN: Who did you look up to when you were starting?

QUINN: Pryor and Carlin. Those were the big names for my generation.

SREENIVASAN: There are a lot of things Richard Pryor and George Carlin said out loud that would not be possible on a stage today.

QUINN: That’s true. That’s correct.

SREENIVASAN: What does that do to you as a creator?

QUINN: That’s — I’ve never heard that said in that exact phrase but that is the saddest thing I’ve heard in a long time and truest one. Yes, there’s a lot of things that we can’t say. What does it do to you as a creator? I don’t know. I mean I guess you try to do what you think is funny still. I mean my work speaks for itself. My last special was an ethnic special, all about ethnics in New York story. So I mean you still try to do what you think is funny and do it unapologetically but I’m sure it affects a lot of people badly. And so in some ways, it keeps you on the straight narrow in a good way, in that you have to really think of what you’re trying to say, and you can’t just be sloppy. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not good because there’s a lot of people judging comedy. It’s like me talking about the Knicks. So I’m like, you know the problem is that here, it’s like I have an opinion, I might even be right once in a while but I don’t really know what I’m talking about the way the Knicks — they think these things all day. You know what I mean? So it’s like anything else. There’s a lot of amateur opinions that aren’t necessarily coming from a good place.


QUINN: The enemy is not out there, it’s here. We’ve met the enemy and he is us. And now we’re in danger of a civil war and you don’t want to see a civil war in this country. We had one and we’re not built for another civil war. It’s the first time in history you’re going to see fat refugees, never a good look. Flip-Flops and Jorts, coolers trembling towards Canada like a giant cattle drive. Nothing glamorous. Fifty years from now, kids are in history class reading about the battle of six flags.


SREENIVASAN: So is this show then more to inform an audience or to warn them?

QUINN: I mean my mother just died. And my mother, she died in November. And I feel like this show — she wanted me to work with my director, Bobby Moresco. She said, “I want you to work with him again” because we did a show Irish Wake together and she was loved.

SREENIVASAN: That was a long time ago.

QUINN: It was a long time ago. So she just loved that show and she wanted me to do something. And so this show was really for her. It’s just to scold people and just let everybody know you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re all wrong, I’m wrong, we’re all guilty. And it’s really like it. I feel like it’s a very Irish thing too. There’s — nobody is innocent. Nobody escapes on this one. Let everybody know they’re all, we’re all guilty, we’re all entrenched in this.

SREENIVASAN: Colin Quinn, thanks so much.

QUINN: Thank you, Hari. Thank you so much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Van Jones & Scott Jennings about bipartisanship; and congresswoman Veronica Escobar about President Trump’s views on immigration. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with comedian Colin Quinn about comedy in an era of political correctness.