When Colin Quinn headlines the Milwaukee Comedy Festival at Turner Hall Ballroom this Friday, he’ll likely get a standing ovation when he walks on stage.
He’ll hate it. But he’ll deserve it.
Quinn, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer and cast member and host of Comedy Central’s “Tough Crowd,” was supposed to do his “One in Every Crowd” show in Madison in March. But he suffered a heart attack on Valentine’s Day and had to cancel the show. After a stay in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, Quinn has made a full recovery and is back out on the road, including Friday’s stop at Turner Hall Ballroom.
“I look at it as, it’s not the end,” Quinn recently said about his health scare on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” “It’s the beginning of the end.”
While fans will likely cheer his return, the notoriously irascible Quinn says he always feels uneasy when audiences applaud or cheer. “I either want laughs or silence,” he said. “I just hate comedy and cheerleading combined.”
This is an edited version of the interview Quinn did with the Cap Times back in February, just two days before he had his heart attack. He talks about his preference for laughs over applause, doing comedy in the age of Trump, and the danger of comedians trying to be “truthtellers”:
Do you think you’re still improving as a comedian, or have you hit your stride?
I feel that comedy’s the only thing when you get older, you should be getting better all the time. Like with music, all these musicians have proven that they do their best stuff when they’re young. Nobody’s busting out their breakthrough album when they’re 50. But for stand-up, it’s logical that the older you get, the better. Because it’s about perception and experience. Younger people are going to be funny, just because it’s funny to be young and full of energy. But getting old isn’t funny. “Ugh, I don’t want to see this old person get on stage and start talking.” But your material should at least be funnier.
Do you think comedy has become a more respected art form than it was? And is that a good thing?
It is more respected. It can be a good thing, but of course power corrupts anything. If somebody’s like, “Hey man, I’m up here trying to give you people uncomfortable truths” — that’s fine, but you can’t call that stand-up comedy because it’s not getting a laugh. The agreement is you’re going to come here and you’re going to laugh.
My show has some pretty serious stuff, because the country obviously is in a toxic relationship with itself. But either way, if I don’t have jokes and punch lines — and that’s the great thing about a live crowd — it’s the one “art” where you really need the audience. They’ll tell you, “We love that, but where’s the joke?”
If they just applaud, that’s not why you’re there.
The other night, I said something and they applauded and cheered. I said “Please don’t do that." I either want laughs or silence. I don’t want cheers and f----- applause. I’m a comedian, I want laughs. Applause is something you can get just by saying something that everyone agrees with.
Are audiences more respectful now? I wouldn’t imagine you’re a comedian who gets much heckling, just because you don't seem like someone to mess with.
When people are drunk they don’t care. I get a couple, but not much. It’s not like the old days. People would savage your sets. There’s just a certain style of comedy I’ve always hated, like “Are you people ready to go crazy?” I don’t want them to go crazy. It’s not a rock concert. It’s not a Packers game. It’s a place to laugh. And the way you laugh is by listening. It seems simple to me.
It really is the one art form which has not changed since it started.
And the miracle is eliciting laughter. That’s what matters. Getting a group of people laughing, and giving this involuntary response. But it’s a two-way covenant where you need people to shut up and not make it about themselves. There’s a lot they need to do, too.
Does the political situation change the audience in terms of how they respond?
Obviously, you don’t want a rally where people are like “F--- Trump! Yeah!” I can’t imagine anyone not making Trump jokes. He’s almost like saying, “Look, if you can’t make jokes about me, I don’t even know if I respect you.” He’s so insane. He’s the perfect “One in Every Crowd” guy. Even when it’s not to his benefit, he has to be a d---, for those reasons that only those “One in Every Crowd” people understand.
You can’t not to bring him into it. What people do ignore is that they’ll attack Trump or his people. And I’ll say, “No no no, let’s talk about what’s really going on in this country, and why people felt like this was our only chance.” Once you start getting really into real stuff, it can get real quiet. Once you start talking about the white blue-collar Trump voter, and what their problem is, people go “Ew.”
Once again, my job is not to enlighten people. If I can do what I think is enlightening, I’m happy of course. But my job is to get laughs from all this. So I’d better have a joke at the end of all of these diatribes, or else I’m not doing my job. I’m a liar. I’m saying I’m a stand-up comic, when really I’m just trying to get people to listen to my opinions.
I feel like that’s a dangerous place that a lot of comedians go into. You’re just like, “Hey, I have the truth and I’m going to tell people.” God, just what I want to hear — some person who wakes up at 1 in the afternoon lecturing me.
I feel like “Tough Crowd’ is the model for how these things should go. No attempts to persuade anybody, just dunk on each other for 30 minutes and then go out and be friends.
What I was trying to achieve with that show was people being honest, really honest, with each other. One of the rules was that if anybody got applause from the audience, we would attack them. Even when I came out to open the show, I didn’t want them to applaud. It was just silence. I was sending a message. It was just a very depressing opening for many people in retrospect. But I just hate comedy and cheerleading combined.