While comparing the arrival of Irish immigrants in New York City to that of subsequent Jewish and Italian travelers, Colin Quinn: The New York Story delivers a joke about the Statute of Liberty I didn’t quite understand. My Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised Italian girlfriend, however, laughed so hard she scared the dog off the couch. “We were cynical to begin with,” Quinn explains, “[because] there was no Statue of Liberty yet. There was never that poetic moment the Italians and Jews had. Because the Italians came… they’re already crying and emotional, and they look up and welcoming them is a 100-foot mother.”
This ex-Texan eventually got the joke, but the Saturday Night Live alum appreciated the response from a native New Yorker to his Big Apple-based Netflix special, which premieres Friday, November 18th. “Tell her I’m glad she liked the line because I said it during the whole run of the show and it never got a laugh,” Quinn said over the phone. “I kept it in because I knew it was true.”
The New York Story, which is based on Quinn’s 2015 The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America, marks the stand-up comedian’s fifth one-man show since his 1998 Broadway debut, An Irish Wake. It’s also his second outing with fellow comic turned director Jerry Seinfeld, who previously directed Quinn in his 2010 HBO special, Long Story Short. Both points came up in our discussion, which quickly turned to President-elect Donald Trump‘s victory a few days prior — an appropriate subject given Quinn’s focus on immigration.
You’ve probably been asked about this countless time, but I feel it necessary to bring up Donald Trump, especially since you spend so much time discussing immigration in New York Story.
Nobody’s brought that up actually. Yeah, it’s definitely one of those things to look at it. And believe me, I’m not somebody that’s just going to be like, “Hey you know what? This is a country of immigrants.” No, there’s another side to it too. You can’t just dismiss it. That being said, the fact that nobody even discusses immigration — on either side, nobody discusses it — is so typical of what’s going on with us in general. There’s a lot of screaming on the surface going on, but nobody ever goes, “Let’s sit down and have a real conversation about it.” My new theory is [we should have] publicly held constitutional conventions, only no one’s allowed to criticize until after. So you can’t just attack people for giving their opinion. That’s the problem. Nobody’s going to be honest, because if you’re honest you’ll be in trouble. So that’s my new thing. With immigration, I think that’s another thing. The truth about immigration in New York City is, it saved it during the past 20 years. It changed New York for the better and no one denies that. Every neighborhood in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and elsewhere is better because immigrants moved in.
You poke fun at the mostly white millennials who’ve gentrified your native Park Slope, especially for their commitment to racially charged protest movements like Black Lives Matter — while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge a person’s color for fear of reprisal. I’m a liberal straight white male, and I know it’s a joke at my expense, but I totally get it. Do you worry others won’t?
I don’t blame you or them. Like I say in the special, you can lose your job if you do [refer to people by their skin color]. My intention is not mean, but if people want to take clips or take it in a different context, I’m sure they can. At this point, people can do that with anything. If you say anything, people can do that. You can do that with my book a lot easier, actually. If people are going after you, they’re going after you and they’re probably going to get you. It’s just the way it goes, but I don’t care at this point. Your intention is your intention, but if people want to misconstrue what I’m saying then they’ll do it. That’s just how it is. You want to get me? Go ahead. Anybody can.
Sure, but does that bother you at all?
It bothers me, but it’s just the way it is. I mean it bothers me, but I’m not deluded enough to think you can change the whole national culture and conscience. You can try but you can’t be like, “Guys stop now! That’s enough! I want everybody online to stop behaving like this.” [Laughs.] We need a “wave your fist” emoticon.
This is your second outing with Jerry Seinfeld, who doesn’t direct that much. Why do you think he decided to helm New York Story?
Because he believes in the stuff I’m doing. I hope that’s what it is. He believes it’s there for a reason, that it’s going for the right thing. He loves doing things like this. It’s the kind of stuff he loves. And he does it, I think, to help me. Definitely to help me, because when you see his name on it, people are more inclined to be like, “Oh Jerry’s involved.” It definitely helps. But also, he likes doing this kind of stuff. He likes to structure things, and I think it drives him nuts that I don’t give a shit.
[Laughs.] What’s it like to be directed by Seinfeld?
Once we’re filming, he lets it go. He’s very hands-on in the early days with the structural things. That’s when he’s really involved. When it comes down to figuring out the beginning, middle, end and things like that. That’s when he’ll ask questions about what I’m saying at certain points and why. Where they’re coming from. Things like that.
In a 2013 interview with The New Yorker, you discussed a television show about immigration you’d written that nobody wanted to make. Whatever happened to it?
Nothing. They never made it. I’ve written a bunch of immigration shows and tried to get them all made. A bunch of different types of shows. Everyone was always like, “This is a good idea! This is a good time for it!” And it’s never happened. I don’t know what to say at this point.
Did anything from it percolate into The Coloring Book or New York Story?
No. It’s all stuff about immigration, and all the different aspects of immigration in New York and in the country in general. None of them ever got made.
The cut of New York Story I saw came in at just over an hour, though I’m sure the live show was at least an hour and a half. Was there anything you had to cut for time you’d wished you hadn’t?
I can’t remember, to tell you specifically, what we cut at this point. It was more like an hour and 50 minutes instead of an hour and a half in total. But I guarantee whatever we cut, in my mind, I thought “How did we cut that? That’s gold.” Every time I write something, I’m like “What? You want to cut that? That’s my masterpiece!” But you have to do that. You know how they say in movies that you “kill your little darlings”? It’s like that.
At least with Netflix, you don’t have to cut for commercial breaks or broadcast timeslots.
Yeah, but then if Comedy Central or somebody else like that buys it… The worse thing is when they cut into the middle of a joke and you have to call them out for leaving a setup without a punchline. People watching at home are going to think, “that guy’s not funny,” because they left the setup in but not the punchline. So you have to go in there and watch it because it’s so arbitrary and they’ll just kill it. That combined with political correctness, with which they’ll cut things and ruin the whole joke — especially a show like this. But if Comedy Central does buy this — I don’t know Netflix rules, I think they just own it forever, hopefully — I don’t want it cut up for commercials. Because if they do I’m getting in there and saying, “You can’t make this comfortable for people.” It’s either they like it or they don’t.
They can’t keep doing this in comedy. I was talking to somebody the other day about it. Look, you can argue for or against political correctness, but in comedy you can’t argue for it. Because whatever the standard is that people want, whatever is considered appropriate, the whole point of comedy is to go a little bit past that. That’s the point of it! Everybody talks about how you’re supposed to push the envelope, but then if you push the envelope they’re like, “Whoa! There’s standards of decency!” What is this, the Catholic League? [Laughs.] Is this 1930s? Stop! You’re speaking like the moral majority back in the fucking ’80s, you know? It’s so weird. I understand you want to be like that, but not with comedy. We’re off limits! How’s that work for everybody? I’m calling it now, we’re off limits. You can’t judge us! You can say we’re not funny, but you can’t judge us based on the normal standards of society. That’s it.
It’s an appropriate topic for discussion, given who we just put in the White House.
Yeah! [Laughs.] We’re in whole new sphere right now. We’re in a mindset that’s never been explored in society. People say “may you live in interesting times.” Well guess what? I guarantee you one thing — it’s not going to be boring. Whatever happens, it won’t be boring.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been working on something. It’s about, for the lack of a better word, that one asshole in every situation. When you’re at your job or anywhere else you go, there’s always the one person who has that sort of toxic personality. You know what I mean? It’s about them.
Are you still writing it, or have you already been trying it out on stage?
I’ve been putting it up for a couple of months. The thing about writing stand-up is, the audience has to be a part of it. More than anything else, they have to be in it the whole way. That’s the funny thing about stand-up. The audience is there for the development of the whole thing.
Unlike writing books, like your The Coloring Book. It’s much more insular.
[Laughs.] About halfway through the book, I was like, “You know what? I hate writing books.” Which is horrible, so I figured I should make it into a stand-up show or I would be miserable. Everybody was saying, “You should write a book!” and now I know I hate it.
Colin Quinn: The New York Story streams Friday, November 18 exclusively on Netflix.