Colin Quinn Never Got On 'Law & Order,' So He Made His Own 'Cop Show'
Originally published on Slant
Colin Quinn is a comedy renaissance man.
He's done stand-up, Broadway, TV, films, hosted SNL's Weekend Update, and written a book. Now, he's trying his hands at a new medium, the web series, with the hilarious, cameo-filled Cop Show.
We talked with Quinn about how New York is changing, what he thinks of millennial audiences and comedians, and his fantasy Cop Show guest star.
SD: How did you first get into comedy?
CQ: I got into because I was kind of a funny guy. I was a loud, class-clown type of person. I wasted a lot of time not going into comedy, but I was just meant to be there all the time. I bartended, I worked different jobs, but ultimately I was supposed to be in comedy.
SD: Where are some of the places that you attribute your success to early on?
CQ: I would say at that time it was the Comic Strip, Catch A Rising Star, and the Comedy Cellar. Those were the places where I spent most of my early years. Every crummy New Jersey bar really made comedians in New York at that time. They would have these one-nighters in the '80s where you would just drive in and make like 80 bucks, 60 bucks, and they really made a lot of us because you couldn’t get on in the city all the time. You weren’t the big names, so you’d go to these clubs and it was great. It really made a lot of people become big comedians.
SD: Who were some of the comedians that you were admiring when you were coming up with your own career?
CQ: There was a guy named Ronnie Shakes that we all liked. He was like a real one-liner guy. He died on the road, he was jogging in Akron, Ohio, at the Akron Comedy Club in the '80s and just died and that was a real shock to everybody in comedy. He was a young guy. We admired that guy and then Richard Jeni, who was a comic that we all looked up to in those days. He was a club guy.
They were guys who went on the road back when I was like, "Wow, this guy went on the road?" They made everybody laugh, all the country. They’d just come in with this giant material and you’d be like, "Wow, this guy’s wild." It was a much more innocent way of looking at it than we would look at it now, but these are the guys that we looked up to.
SD: What was probably one of the most difficult things in the early days? I’m sure there’s a lot of difficult things, or no not really?
CQ: The most difficult thing is learning how to write more comedy. I feel like it took me 20 years before I could write comedy. I feel like it took me 20 years before I could really be — you know and some people are a little faster — but 20 years before I could really be a comedian and consistently write.
Now, I feel like there’s no subject I couldn’t be funny about. But when you're starting, it’s hard. And people say "find your voice," but it’s not really finding your voice in my opinion. It’s finding what the angle is that makes it funny to you.
"Voice" is a vague term. It’s more than that, it’s much deeper than that. Anyone can make a joke about Trump or whatever, and you’re going to laugh. I’m saying, if somebody told you to make a routine about the electoral process in our country, that’s where the years come in as help. I’m going to make a routine, a 5-minute bit that’s going to be funny. It may not be the most breakthrough thing anyone has ever heard, but it’s going to be funny, it’ll have a couple of good insights, and it’s going to be about the electoral process in the country.
SD: You’re talking about the work side of it, the process. How much do you workshop your material before you feel like it’s ready to go? How trusting are you in your first product?
CQ: I’m totally trusting in it. I trust it completely and then when I get up there, I’m like, "Oh shit, I need to go back and workshop."
SD: Are you looking for any commentary from other comics? Is it purely the response from the audience?
CQ: If another comic goes that’s funny, then you feel good. But you’re not really looking for that. You’re looking for laughs. It’s a very simple part of the business, which is that I’m putting it out there. If it’s getting laughs where I think it should get laughs, it’s like, "Oh good, I’m not crazy yet. I’m not the guy that’s out of touch and doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about anymore."
It’s a real art where you really know — I feel like really smart comedians know — I need the audience. Whether I want to need them or not, they’re a bigger part of what we do than most other showbiz type things. I mean, you’re not trying to get everybody to laugh at every bit. That’s impossible. I wouldn’t want that goal. It’s stupid, but you want it to work where you’re like, "I get it, enough people get it, it’s good and that’s it." It takes different workshops. Sometimes you have a bit that works right away, and sometimes you have a bit that you’re like I know it’s going to work and it works after like a month, and sometimes you have a bit that you’re like I know it’s going to work and it never works and you have to give it up or keep doing it.
SD: Right, it’s about keep plugging.
CQ: Keep pluggin'. I mean there’s a lot of people that are deaf and you’re like, "Do you not hear?" They’re not laughing. So you kind of have to look at yourself, too. That’s what I mean about the humility of comedy.
SD: Shifting gears a little bit, New York City has been a central part of your career. I mean when you talk about SNL, you talk about Broadway shows, doing stand-up and coming of age here, growing up in Brooklyn. What’s so special about New York and what sucks about New York?
CQ: What’s special about it is the subway. That subway brings you face to face with everybody all the time. So there’s no way to not be around a lot of people and a lot of uncomfortable situations. You can’t be in your car all the time. Other places, you’re driving all the time, so you see people when you go to a specific place, but you’re not around them randomly all over the street. New York is a pedestrian town and a subway town, and most other places are car towns. It’s a very unique place, so that’s what’s great about it. It forces you to confront, to interact with people, so that’s what makes it great.
What sucks about it is that it’s losing everything. There was a time when there were neighborhoods. Those days are over. It’s just giant swaths of buildings and construction everywhere, and everybody’s just in overdrive.
If there’s one hamburger place that’s popular, they have to open 500. Or if girls get blowouts, where they go to the salon and blow dry their hair, now there’s got to be 800 blowouts and 5,000 nail salons. There’s just a ton of everything. Everything’s just got to be beaten to death, everything’s just got to be squeezed out to the fucking max and it’s like, alright, relax.
SD: When did the idea for 'Cop Show' originate?
CQ: There’s a routine in my act about how I was never on Law & Order, and how infuriated I was that I was never on this show that everybody that comes to New York, that’s here for a month, is on, and I’ve never been on. So it just started to really burn me up, it started to eat at me more and more. I was like, "I can’t believe I’ve never been on this."
So I did a whole routine about it and then, one day, I moved downtown and I passed by the Law & Order steps and I go, "I should do a routine about that, I should make a short film about it." About how I have never been on Law & Order. I was like, "Holy shit! I should do a cop show. I should do my own web cop show about me not being on Law & Order."
SD: And what’s your relationship to L/Studio and Lexus? That was one thing that first jumped out when I started watching, I had no idea that they actually even made content. So what is that like?
CQ: They did a show called Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow and then that became a show on Showtime. That’s the beauty of Cop Show. We did it in L/Studio and nobody picks us up. But they were the only ones that said yes. We had no other people that were willing to do anything.
The only other person that showed any interest was Mark Cuban, the king of Shark Tank. Everybody else just kind of passed on us. Like if that had happened to me 10 years ago, I probably would have been devastated. I’d be like, "Nobody would step up, all these fucking networks," but now I’m so used to this. But years ago I would have been horrified by that. I would have been like, "This show’s so funny how could you pass on it?"
SD: It’s pretty cool that you get to make a web series, something that years ago wasn’t even a possibility. Has that been strange?
CQ: First of all, Cop Show is meant to be on the web. It's got web written all over it because it’s about my inability to get shit made, too. Very realistic.
With Twitter and everything, it's so much fun to be able to say what you want. I don’t care about these people here, or those people there. "You people aren’t into that right now." Fine. "You have to make sure you hit this many millennials." No, I don’t. I hit whatever I want.
I don’t look at people in fucking age groups. I’m not a marketing guy. I’m a fucking comedian. I don’t give a shit. It’s like I’m trying to be funny, but at the same time I’m not trying to be the most popular person on the planet. I’d like to be, but I’m not going to do anything to make that happen. If it happens, I’d love it, don’t get me wrong. But you've got to make what you think is funny.
SD: I think that’s a whole part of the appeal as a fan. You don’t give a shit about conventions or the "right" way to do it. You’re just going to do your own thing and I think that’s why people like your comedy. It’s not only the character, but it feels authentic and genuine.
CQ: With the people that like me, exactly. They get the joke. There’s enough fucking sincerity in the world. I don’t worry about it.
SD: On Cop Show, you’ve worked with Chris Rock, Steve Buscemi, Seth Meyers, Amy Schumer, Jim Gaffigan. A whole line of awesome people, and that’s just the beginning. Do you have any fantasy guests for the show?
CQ: Yeah, I mean my whole fucking life is fantasy guests. I’d love to do a scene with Angelina Jolie where I have her playing someone who’s unhappy in her marriage, and then she’s secretly attracted to me. She’s like, "I thought I knew what looks were. There’s a feminine/masculine look and then there’s a masculine/masculine look." Angelina Jolie trashing Brad Pitt. Throwing him fucking overboard for me. And then I’d love to do a thing with De Niro, in all endeavors. De Niro sitting down and giving him acting tips and shit like that. That would be ideal.
SD: You were probably introduced to a whole new audience by being in Trainwreck. What are your thoughts on millennials? On younger people?
CQ: I feel like millennials are like everybody else. They’re just products of their environment. What I really feel is sort of weird is people go, "These millennials they’re fucking this," and I’m like, you’re a product of your environment, everybody is, we all are. So it’s like everybody’s going to behave based on what the culture is telling them to do. That’s just what it is.
If anything, the thing I don’t love in millennials is that they’re all politically correct. But, once again, it’s not their fault. In fact, if they decided to buck against that, they’d be fucking shunned and outcasted by society. The beauty of millennials is they’re so fucking ironic and sardonic and such comedy fans.
Comedians should all love millennials because they were raised on comedy. You guys know good comedy from fucking bad comedy most of the time. Of course, there’s a few tricksters that’ll sneak through, I won’t mention names.
But for the most part, it’s the most high-IQ comedy audience since it began. So in a way, that’s kind of fucking amazing that, for a comedian, it’s the best time. You guys were raised on Comedy Central, on old SNL, so you’ve seen it all. I believe you’ll be able to sniff out hacky or pandering more than any other generation. It’s just a more savvy audience.
SD: I think we just have a vast archive that’s super accessible. On one end, there’s so much, so it’s easy to latch on to crappy, shitty stuff. But at the other end, there’s all of this amazing stuff that’s just at our fingertips. There’s just so much more content and there’s so much more to digest.
We talked about political correctness a bit. I wanted to ask about that. Jerry Seinfeld’s been pretty vocal. He’s saying that he doesn’t even want to go to college campuses anymore because there’s always a protest, an editorial in the paper.
CQ: It’s relentless. It doesn’t take intellect to be a de-constructor in my opinion. At a certain point, people are just doing it to just show off their intelligence, but it’s not intelligent to me. Once in a while, someone tells me, "Wow, that’s great. I didn’t see that." But otherwise, you’re deconstructing work like any other critic.
SD: You’ve done standup, you’ve done sketch comedy, you’re an actor, you’re an author, you’ve had successful Broadway shows. Which one of those brings you the most joy and why?
CQ: Obviously standup. It snaps you out of it all. It keeps you in reality. I’ve been doing this 32 years.
I’ll tell you what’s funny. I go up there and all the shit I thought was going to be funny isn’t funny, and all the shit I thought wasn’t funny is funny. It keeps smacking you in the face. That’s the beauty of standup. It keeps you going, "Oh yeah, I’m a fucking asshole."
That’s why I became a comedian. I don’t know shit. I’m a dumb fuck. Every time I think I’m an expert — I mean I may know more than most people about it — but I’m still a fucking idiot that doesn’t know shit until I get up on stage and go, "Ewww, I sucked. I’m a fucking fool."
And that’s the beauty of it. It makes you realize, I’m a fucking loudmouth. Big expert, and then you get up there and you’re like, "Oh, the expert just fucking bombed." And that’s the beauty of it.
SD: Do you have any favorite younger comics?
CQ: There’s so many. I don’t even want to single them out, because there’s so many. There’s so many people that are funny.
The hard part is getting past the hour. I can name 80 people that have a great 30 minutes, but getting past the first hour that’s the hard part. Being a young comedian today is so much harder, because you have to stand out, you have to capture the imagination of the public. In the old days, people would be like, "Oh, that person’s funny. I’m going to go see them in a comedy club."
And now it’s like, "Oh, who’s that person? They were on Comedy Central, you didn’t see it?"
When I first came around, but we were dealing with maybe 20-25 hours of material that was already written that you couldn’t do. Maybe 25, maximum, half of that was dated stuff from the old days. Now, every new comic has thousands of hours that have already been observed. I mean, that’s fucking hard. It’s such a miracle that there’s so many fucking comics because they’re dealing with a bunch of shit that’s been covered. It’s fucking amazing when you think that people can still write an hour of standup.
SD: I never really thought about that. In terms of how many people are doing it, and how many people have done it for 50, 70 years.
CQ: I never thought about it until just this second when we started talking about it. I thought about how many stand-ups there are. There’s a lot of competition, but I never thought, "Wow, they’re dealing with all this other stuff."
SD: Do you have any regrets over the years? About comedy, about your career, anything?
CQ: Of course, I have a lot of regrets. I could have taken it less seriously in certain ways. I can get very tense. I could have had better perspective on life. So that was definitely one. And my biggest regret is that I quit smoking 23 years ago. I didn’t realize how much I loved it. I do mourn cigarettes.
SD: And that’s difficult in New York.
CQ: Yeah I have some regrets, sure. Career-wise, I feel like there’s things that I wish I would have known earlier. But, I feel like my instinct was correct. I feel like even though I screwed up the whole time, I wasn’t trying to pander. That’s something I’m proud of, that I was always like hey I think it’s funny, I think it’s legitimate I’m saying it.
SD: What can we see you doing in the near future?
CQ: I just finished New York Story, I’m trying to get somebody to buy that to film it. Maybe I’ll just put it out myself if I just film it. That’s it. That’s all I got going on. That and Cop Show.
Cover photo: L/Studio