History Bluff: COLIN QUINN EXAMINES OUR FOUNDING DOCUMENT IN HIS NEW ONE-MAN SHOW

Mike Lavoie photo
Mike Lavoie photo

Many of us grew up with Colin Quinn as a member of Saturday Night Live, but there are those of us whose first dose of Mr. Quinn’s raspy Brooklyn accent was on MTV’s non-gameshow, “Remote Control,” where he’d destroy the hits of the year in his unmusical voice. Since then, this stand-up comedian has acted in films and television, hosted comedy variety shows, and recently popped up on an episode of “Girls.” But during his stint on SNL, Mr. Quinn was already working on long-form stand-up. His first show, “Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake” went to Broadway, and since then, he’s maintained a presence on stage. Now this Saturday, he comes to the Lobero with his latest, “Unconstitutional,” an examination of our nation’s founding document, or 226 years in 70 minutes. This will not be a history lesson, but you just might learn something … and you will be laughing. In this interview, however, Quinn gets into the serious business of parsing this document and reveals that he’s a big James Madison fan.

News-Press: How much of a Constitutional scholar were you before this show?

Colin Quinn: Beforehand, I knew nothing except the basic Bill of Rights, and now afterwards, I know a little bit. But like they say, it’s a dangerous thing, a person with a little bit of knowledge ñ that’s what they call me. But the good thing is, I’ve read some of the Federalist Papers too, so when I argue with people, even when they know their Constitution, I’ll just throw a Federalist Papers reference at them and then shut them down. So they can’t kinda probe and find out how little I know.

NP: How did the show start?

CQ: I always was amazed by the fact that the most cynical people ñ left, right, it didn’t matter ñ everybody respects the Constitution in some weird way, you know. That’s what made me want to know more about it and so then, (the show) became a history of the United States based on the Constitution. It’s more about how it developed our mindset, our psychology, than just about the actual event.

NP: So when you properly sat down and read the Constitution, what are some of the things that struck you?

CQ: Just the whole psychology of “Look, we all know how people are. Don’t trust me if I’m in charge; I’ll take advantage of you. If you are in charge, you’ll take advantage of me. Let’s not pretend it’s not going to happen. We all have different interests. Let’s not pretend that’s not going to happen either. Just the healthy cynicism of it is what really impressed me.

NP: That links the past with today. We always feel that we’re too cynical, but they sound just as cynical …

CQ: Yeah, they were realists. I don’t think they would be shocked. The problem with today is we naturally feel that with all our technological advances, we figured that we would have grown a little bit emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically. But we haven’t at all.

NP: So which of the Founding Fathers are you a fan?

CQ: I love Madison; I love Franklin. I’ve grown to really like both of them a lot.

NP: How did you develop and shape the show?

CQ: I took the Constitution and I tried to think, why is it like the way we are today? I started looking at Freedom of Speech and how we would view that today. Everybody is kind of an individual looking out for themselves, but at the same time we’re trying to be a part of a community. I mean, everything is just the same, from immigration to state versus federal rights, to trade. It’s amazing that they addressed this stuff. But there’s also things we don’t have anymore, like Constitutional Conventions. I mean, if we had conventions once every 20 or 30 years, that might actually help us. We don’t do that anymore because it’s too … It’s exposing certain truths that people don’t want to expose about themselves and about each other, about our society in general. It’s just too uncomfortable.

NP: Can you imagine amending the Constitution now? We used to, a lot.

CQ: No, the arguments would be too long. Most of the changes to the Constitution are unconstitutional, or they were just forced in, but I agree with some of them. Abortion is a perfect example. I’m pro-choice myself, but guess what, to say that it’s part of privacy rights is not true. It’s a forced-in Constitutional amendment … We all want to tell other people that our opinion is correct and it does cover that pretty well. And that’s the fight every day. Every day the Constitution keeps the left and the right from being in charge in this country.

NP: Did the show change your cynicism level?

CQ: Yeah, well, I mean, what’s good about James Madison, for example, is that he is talking about debtors and debtees, landowners and farmers versus manufacturing. They’re gonna be at odds. That’s not how it should be, but that’s how it is, and there is nothing that can really change that. I don’t know if it is just cynical or just pragmatic. I love that kind of thinking because even though it doesn’t solve any conflict, it does try to regulate it. I feel like nowadays, we try to solve things instead of regulating. We try to solve evil or solve greed instead of regulating it, and I feel like that could be the problem.

NP: James Madison would have regulated the financial markets more than we did, right?

CQ: Of course! He would have been like, “are you kidding me?” There’s another guy, Gouverneur Morris, who was a rich guy himself. He said you should give all the senate seats to all the richest people in the country. His reason was that of course they naturally were going to be at odds with the government, but at least it’s all going to be up front. They ignored him though. They said he was cynical.

NP: What would you get rid of if you could amend the Constitution?

CQ: The Supreme Court. But it seems like we need it, so I would try to fix it. Maybe add more people to it. Right now, it feels too much like average people and everyone is partisan and you’re in trouble if you vote against (nominated judges). It just feels precious.

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