From ‘SNL’ to ‘Tough Crowd,’ Colin Quinn brings comedy gold to DC’s Miracle Theatre

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Colin Quinn at Miracle Theatre (Part 1)

He consistently made us laugh on “Saturday Night Live,” “Tough Crowd” and “Trainwreck.”

Now, Union Stage presents Colin Quinn on Feb. 4 at the historic Miracle Theatre, which opened in 1909 and remains the oldest theater in D.C. thanks to recent renovations.

“The whole country is filled with these old vaudeville houses,” Quinn told WTOP. “You even go to these small towns and there’s these old theaters and they’re beautifully restored. It’s amazing. There’s just a great feeling to it. There’s something elegant about it.”

He always relishes a chance to perform standup in the nation’s capital, and he said he’s not alone. “All comedians love the crowds in D.C., and that goes from the smartest to the stupidest,” he said. Where does he fall on that spectrum of smartest to stupidest?

“I’m not the one who can answer that question. I’m like everybody else: ‘I’m smart!’ But everybody looks at themselves that way, don’t they?”

Born in Brooklyn in 1959, Quinn fell in love with comedy at an early age.

“Me and my brother used to listen to George Carlin and Richard Pryor albums all the time,” Quinn said. “My whole family loved Carlin because he was this Irish-Catholic New York guy, but Pryor, we couldn’t believe how funny he was. … I saw David Brenner on ‘The Tonight Show’ and I was like, ‘Oh, you could be a cool guy like this guy and do comedy.'”

He began performing standup himself in 1984, working anywhere he could find.

“Me and Chris Rock once did it when we had to perform on top of a pool table on Sunday after the Jets and Giants played in Jersey,” Quinn said. “We were literally standing on top of the pool table in front of all these guys, performing. There was no place to stand where everybody could see you, so they said, ‘Go on top of the pool table.’ We were like, ‘OK.'”

Soon he began hosting the MTV game show “Remote Control” (1987-1990).

“Oh my God, we had the greatest [time],” Quinn said. “We were all young. It was just great. So much fun. We would travel. Everybody that worked at MTV was friends.”

In 1994, he got a job writing on the final season of “In Living Color.” He remembered Jim Carrey leaving halfway through the season to make “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” He also remembers thinking Carrey was making a mistake: “I can’t believe he’s doing that movie.”

Turns out, Quinn underestimated the pet detective. “When you read a movie, if it says, ‘Guy walks in room, sits at table and starts knocking glasses over,’ … you’re like, ‘That’s not funny,’ but when Jim Carrey does it, it’s going to make it something special.”

Quinn joined “Saturday Night Live” in 1996 and took over hosting “Weekend Update” in 1998 when Norm McDonald was fired over his relentless jokes about O.J. Simpson.

“Once he got fired, they were like, ‘You’re doing it,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want him leaving, but he’s gone, I’m doing it,'” Quinn said. “I did make [O.J. jokes]. I had to carry the tradition on. The Clinton thing was the big one, of course, when I was there. It’s so funny; when you look back you go, ‘That was really big,’ but at the time it was just the news happening.”

Who was his favorite of all the “Weekend Update” hosts?

“I think it was Dennis,” Quinn said. “Dennis Miller changed the game. But we’re forgetting Chevy Chase! Chevy Chase was great at it. No one had ever done that before.”

He next hosted Comedy Central’s “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn” (2002-2004), airing after “The Daily Show” as Quinn would sit in a pool hall chatting with Nick DiPaolo, Greg Giraldo, Jim Norton, Patrice O’Neal, Rich Vos, Keith Robinson and Judy Gold.

“Every day was a surprise,” Quinn said. “We didn’t believe in too much rehearsal; it was just, ‘Say whatever you want to say and we’ll leave it all in.’ It was very shocking to people at the time, but it was very honest. You don’t see that in a lot of things.”

He also acted in movies such as “A Night at the Roxbury” (1998) across his “SNL” pals Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan. What’s the proper Roxbury head-bobbing technique? 

“Will and Chris based it on some guy they knew; they were at a club watching two guys bob their heads,” Quinn said. “You have to have a little of the expectation and fear of, ‘Hey, I hope I’m fitting in here.’ They caught that. … There was a vulnerability to the head bob that people need to keep in mind. It’s cocky, but underneath there’s got to be a little fear.”

He also played Adam Sandler’s childhood rival Dickie Bailey in “Grown Ups” (2010)

“That was a magic time for all of us,” Quinn said. “Sandler really sets it up so all of his friends are involved. I was with Norm all summer and David Spade. I would be laughing like a fan. These guys had me crying with laughter. Norm was on a tear all summer. Every store we went into, he had to talk to people and mess with them. … It was insane.”

After playing Hermie on HBO’s “Girls” (2013), Quinn played Amy Schumer’s dad in Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” (2015) across Bill Heder, John Cena and LeBron James.

“You’ve got everybody being funny off camera,” Quinn said. “Comedians are such troublemakers. On the break, nobody’s being serious; nobody’s being nice; we’re breaking each other’s chops. There’s never a moment where people are being sincere. It’s just not in our DNA. Everybody’s busting each other’s chops. What the hell is wrong with us?”

Still, there is one role he regrets turning down: Scott Evil in “Austin Powers” (1997).

“I’m such an idiot!” Quinn said. “People said, ‘Mike Myers is looking for you.’ He gets my number and calls me up, ‘Hey, I saw you on “Larry Sanders” doing the son, I want you to just basically do that in this movie.’ … I go, ‘Sounds great, but I’m busy.’ … I treated him like we were two equals. My movie never got made and his movie is iconic.”

Today, he continues to crank out standup specials, from “Red State Blue State” (2019) on Netflix to “Colin Quinn: The New York Story” off-Broadway directed by Jerry Seinfeld, to “Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show” on HBO Max in 2020.

“We were just doing it for cars,” Quinn said. “It was just basically cars honking at us. It was weird that it didn’t bother us. All the comedians on that show have been doing it for so many years and have done so many weird, horrible shows that nothing can faze us.”

However, he admits that pandemic life has made him appreciate live crowds more.

“It really has a different energy from the audience and for us,” Quinn said. “I think we’re all more grateful now because we’re like, ‘Oh man, this went away.’ You have to take things away for people to appreciate it — and that’s how I feel about it, too.”

Sadly, that’s also the case with his comedian friends being taken away. In the past year, the comedy world has lost Norm McDonald, Bob Saget, Louie Anderson and Betty White.

“Starting with Norm it’s just been ugly,” Quinn said. “You start to realize that all these people I knew that were so amazing are gone forever now. I was thinking about Norm two days ago. I was watching something and it was like, ‘He’s really not coming back.’ Same with Louie and Bob. Those guys were just what everybody says about them: nice guys.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Colin Quinn at Miracle Theatre (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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