'Long Story Short': Colin Quinn's 75-Minute History of the World

Comedian Colin Quinn has been around a long time.

How long?

This long:


Quinn has come a long way since 1990, but unlike some of the comedians he came up with, like Jon Stewart and Ben Stiller, his career has been a series of, shall we say, lateral moves.

Sure, he was the “Weekend Update” guy on Saturday Night Live for five years, but his movie career never quite took off (A Night at the Roxbury, anyone?).

He took up stand-up comedy after he quit drinking and needed something to take up his sudden surfeit of sober free time. Nearly thirty years on, Quinn remains a workhorse, and is sometimes called “the comedian’s comedian” (which some comics and fans consider a dubious designation, a backhanded compliment that’s synonymous with “too brilliant to ever make it big”).

It’s the Colin Quinn of Tough Crowd (2002-2004) I’m most familiar with: the fast-talking, working-class Brooklyn autodidact whose dry quips sometimes flew over the heads of the audience, not to mention the fellow comics who debated current affairs with him in the midnight hour.

Come on: if Lincoln could opine to Douglas and those assembled that “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together,” then surely we can use the elevated word “debate” here, too (EXTREME language and content warning):

So I brought a lot of enthusiasm to Quinn’s latest production,”Long Story Short.” He’d workshopped the material for a long time in clubs, then took the 75-minute one-man show about the history of the world off-Broadway. It seems stupid to talk about a performer who started out in 1984 as “getting his big break” in 2010, but that’s sort of what happened when Jerry Seinfeld signed on as producer/director: with that big name attached to the production, “Long Story Short” made it to Broadway.

HBO turned “Long Story Short” into a special, which was nominated for an Emmy. When it came out on DVD a few weeks ago, it topped my to-watch list.

Over the course of the show, Quinn takes viewers on a whirlwind “1066 and All That” tour of world history, from Antigone to Snooki.

(Before you say to yourself, “Oh! You mean like, he’s the cool teacher we never had?”, Quinn’s anticipated that reaction; he gets around to spoofing every Hollywood “hip white teacher helps underprivileged black kids succeed” movie in one of the show’s funniest bits.)

Most stand-up comedians are terrible students, as Quinn himself has noted, but he must have absorbed a few lessons while he was throwing spitballs behind the nuns’ backs. He opens the show by declaring that “human nature doesn’t change,” which is a very Catholic concept. And he told one interviewer that the show’s material about the Silk Road and the historical acrimony between the French and the English was “just general knowledge,” which was true if you went to Catholic school when we did, but not so much anymore

The Colin Quinn of Tough Crowd, who relished talking about race and ethnicity, is the same one on the Broadway stage, if in exceedingly cleaned up form. He traces familiar Italian hand gestures back to ancient Rome, and explains the differences between the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs based on the particular drugs they used.

Quinn explains that the way Jews, Christians, and Muslims pray reveals a lot about them, with Muslims crouched over as if “they know there’s gonna be an explosion.”

The show isn’t punchline driven, which may throw some viewers off. I guess Quinn was trying to be “above” that, but for what it’s worth, the occasional old-fashioned, just plain jokes got the biggest laughs (“the average Greek child was watching 40 hours of plays a week”).

Other stellar bits saw Quinn veering off topic, like a cringe-inducingly accurate reenactment of the last time you visited a relative in the hospital (“See that other family? They stole my chair!”) and the real reason restaurants invented the “early bird special.”

As the show wraps up, Quinn tries to get semi-serious, musing that all empires end and perhaps America has had its day. Don’t worry: he doesn’t descend into Michael Moore-like vitriol, but he makes a point that few people were willing to hear when they needed to most – around ten years ago. That is, that “exporting democracy” sounds like a great idea to us, but for millions (maybe billions) around the world, “democracy” is synonymous with Britney Spears and crack. (One encounters the phrase “whiskey, democracy, sexy” far less often in the conservative blogosphere these days…)

You’d almost think Quinn and Seinfeld might have read Mark Steyn:

Speaking of Seinfeld: yeah, I’m a philistine — I don’t really understand how you “direct” a one-man show, but whatever Seinfeld did to get Quinn to stop mumbling and talking so fast, he should be congratulated.

Quinn doesn’t act like a typical comedian. He doesn’t pull stupid faces or mug for the camera. In fact, he seemed pretty tense for the first half of “Long Story Short.” Having seen video of other versions of the same material, like this:

I now wonder if Quinn was told that for the sake of the HBO taping, he should look “up” (at the camera) instead of “out” at the audience.  The result is that the HBO special is stiffer than I’d been prepared for – Quinn is looking up and out at nobody, and seems almost afraid to blink. Quinn sounded great but looked extremely uncomfortable – the contrast was jarring.

The opening and closing music and graphics were a bit cheesy. The shifting stage backgrounds depicting pyramids, maps, and other predictable images made me feel like I was seated in the orientation center at the Hoover Dam or some other historical site instead of “at” a Broadway show.

Since there’s nothing much to see, per se, maybe you should listen to the show instead of watch it. I’m almost certain that would improve the”Long Story Short” experience for pretty much everyone.

Because this production is worth seeking out. There are genuine laughs, and plenty of cool facts that will have you running to Google and Amazon.

Long Story Short” isn’t political in a partisan sense, so you don’t have to brace yourself for the usual insults and idiocies that make it so difficult to enjoy any piece of entertainment made in the last twenty years.

Along with a lot of belated recognition, Colin Quinn’s gotten a book deal out of this recent run of success – a mid-six figure deal, in fact.

Maybe Colin Quinn will finally lose that accursed “comedian’s comedian” label. Now, if he’d only use his newfound clout to pitch a second coming of the late lamented Tough Crowd. If Obama wins a second term, a lot of us could really use something to look forward to every night.