BSR exclusive interview: SNL alum Colin Quinn on ‘Unconstitutional’ in Philly

Colin Quinn takes on the Founding Fathers. Photo by Mike Lavoie.

I sat in a front row seat at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on a journey into the greedy heart of the unconstitutional United States, written and performed by Colin Quinn of Saturday Night Live (SNL) fame, and quite a few national TV shows of his own, like Colin Quinn: Long Story Short (directed by Jerry Seinfeld) and the popular Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.

Unconstitutional exposed the audience to Quinn’s hard-hitting bullets and made us laugh nonstop and think for split seconds — each time one of his many entertaining verbal grenades exploded:

“The Constitution? It's the document that the drunker you get, the more you understand it," Quinn quipped, and then continued with a straight face: "It's impressive that we talk about it, because nobody's read the whole thing."

Quinn, who can steamroll the founding fathers — most of them slave-owners — without batting an eyelid, also goes on the barricades in our own times when he castigates racial discrimination in the US with great power and clarity, so much so that an African-American friend of mine and I both felt like standing up and saluting the comedian turned statesman.

Quinn did not mince words, and with his Irish-American Brooklyn swagger, showed another side of the true strength of a country that wants to right old wrongs.

Sometimes, however, I wasn’t quite sure which way the unconstitutional wind was blowing. Trying to learn more about the creator of this show, I asked him a number of questions.

Could you tell us when and where your curiosity in history began?

My father used to read to me those classic comics that they had back as a kid, with all the knights and the Roman legions. And I loved it.

You seem to have a love-hate relationship with both America and Americans. How did you manage to create a show which hits us over the head, and at the same time, makes us think and feel good?

I think it's because that's how I feel every day. Mood swings and mixed feelings about life and America — and everything else. The way most of us live. Gray area stuff.

Writing a play with a straight-forward chronology is one thing, but you are holding up a mirror to America in form of a kaleidoscope with constantly moving historical events, colored by the vagaries of the past and its impact on our present time. How did you go about writing this complex piece?

I wrote this show by starting with the [U.S.] Constitution and then trying to figure out what was funny about the founding fathers as human beings. And, if in fact, their document had an effect on our national psychology, which I think it did.

You are famous for, among other things, doing great work on Saturday Night Live. How much did your experiences in that environment shape the writing of Unconstitutional?

Saturday Night Live was just a constant state of trying to write for that week’s news. To this day, that's how it is. You all compete to write the best take of that week’s news story.  SNL shapes a lot of things about me and everyone who's been there. As a habit, it makes you pay attention to the news and translate what's funny about it.

Is Unconstitutional a combination of a stand-up comedy show with most parts written and learned by heart, but other parts added at the spur of the moment, varying each night?

Yes, my show is written, but there's always room for some improv, or more importantly, an addition that's permanent. For example, describing Bush tonight, I improvised, "Whether it was by design or accident, his fault or just fate, everything he touched, broke" — which seems like an accurate summation of his time in office.

Your show was directed by Rebecca A. Trent, described as a “one-person comedy industry.” Could you tell us about that process of working together and compare it to your work when Jerry Seinfeld directed you in Colin Quinn: Long Story Short?

Rebecca's knowledge of comedy and love of comics had a big influence when we worked together. And she's also a Virginia girl who has her own feelings on the Constitution and America. She's funny and brings humor to the process.

Jerry is a master, of course. He's got the eye for the joke like few people do. He's also a great editor. He would jump up on stage and show me how he thought it would look. It was pretty charming to see the legend up there acting out a piece. He’s an amazing friend, too.

You were very clear on issues like ignorance and racism in the U.S. However, there were moments where I wasn’t quite sure whether you were supporting something or not. For example, were you advocating abolishing guns, or were you presenting a Quinn-ean alternative as mysterious as the answers that came from the Oracle of Delphi?

Well, I don't support or not support guns. I support us sitting down in a Constitutional convention environment and discussing things every couple of years, that's all.

Well, you’ve come to the right city for such a Constitutional convention. In Colin Quinn: Long Story Short, you channeled the demise of various world empires. In Unconstitutional, you skewered the contradictions in the history and the life of America. What’s next in your creative life? 

I'm working on the great forbidden: ethnicity and ethnic humor.

 

At the end of his amazing show, against the backdrop of the overpowering American flag and an almost gratuitous, elegant table and chair, symbolic of the founding of the United States in Philadelphia, Quinn bowed to the audience and ended the show with just one word, which brought tears to many eyes: “Philadelphia!”

Colin Quinn’s Unconstitutional is running at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, through July 6. For tickets and more information, visit the Unconstitutional tour website or call 215-985-0420.