Colin Quinn on race, comedy and political correctness: "People should stop lying and pretending there's a racial dialogue"

EXCLUSIVE: Colin Quinn tells Salon we need to talk about race -- but we might not be smart enough to pull it off

Published June 11, 2015 4:37PM (EDT)

Colin Quinn
Colin Quinn

Maybe Colin Quinn is the last honest man. Or maybe he has a Twitter death wish. His new memoir -- "The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America" -- is smart, funny and brave. Quinn doesn't just touch the third rail of race and comedy; like Flick in "A Christmas Story" he puts his tongue right on it -- only no triple-dog dare is necessary.

Quinn begins with what is almost a standard critique of politically correct culture: "I'm tired of humorless activist people decreeing that we only use these words and never those, and that we "check our privilege," in case we say the wrong thing and "trigger" someone," he writes. "Across the country, the sexist office asshole has been replaced by the flat-affect, dead-eyed, modern-day Puritan. Both groups -- the old-school assholes and the neo-Puritans -- share a common goal: to wipe the smile off everyone's faces."

But the rest of the book is playing a subtler and more sophisticated game. Quinn wants to talk about race. He's outraged that there's no dialogue -- or that the dialogue veers only to the extreme poles of either angry or pandering. And he wants to tell his personal story of growing up in a multi-ethnic New York as an example of how people can get along when they talk openly with each other.

His frustration seems less with p.c. culture than with anything that stands between a problem and honest conversation about it. His real war is against papering over words and pretending we've fixed a problem. This is a decent and no-bullshit guy. "Maybe we need to admit the sad truth," he says, over coffee last week in lower Manhattan, "which is that we are not smart enough to solve any of these things." Give this guy a Sunday morning talk show and you get the feeling he'd unfreeze the conversation in a really provocative way -- or go down trying.

We spoke before Quinn's good friend Jerry Seinfeld talked about "creepy" p.c. culture in interviews. Quinn's take is more nuanced: That there has been political correctness on campus for decades, and that it's the comedians' job to make an audience uncomfortable and to think. He's not a defender of the cheap provocation and understands that people can take offense at a joke, but he sees through easy outrage as well -- and sees it as getting in the way of really talking to each other. (If you watched him on "Fox and Friends" yesterday deftly deflecting Steve Doocy and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, you only come away with more respect.)

We talked about all of this and more -- including his "Girls" colleague Lena Dunham, his thoughts on Bill Maher and religion, and memories of his years on "Saturday Night Live." The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. And sorry, but the amazing story he told about Sam Kinison, "Remote Control" host Ken Ober, strippers, Las Vegas and cocaine came after we turned the recorder off.

So are you ready to be the most hated man on Twitter? Comedy, race, humor, outrage – it’s a recipe for becoming a trending topic, or like Trevor Noah, landing on the front page of the New York Times. Why is this a third rail you want to leap on top of right now?

Third rail. I like that phrase. I don’t really know why exactly. It just feels like everything has always pointed that way to me. I’ve always been into discussing race. The conversation has been in neutral since I was a little kid. Since the ‘60s, it’s been in neutral. This conversation doesn’t exist. So at least people should stop lying and pretending there’s a racial dialogue. That would make me happy.

And I like to joke. I don’t like how the climate has gone joke-wise. I understand totally when people are offended by jokes. I get it. I don’t like when people make blanket statements. For instance, the whole rape joke controversy. But nobody admits, nobody even discusses, that most rape jokes are made by female comedians.

I don’t like comedy being determined by people who are not comedians. It was becoming a situation where whoever is the fastest typist decides what’s offensive and what’s not with comedy. It’s just too much. It’s too much. Don’t step in and start telling me what humor is. It’s like any job: Everyone wants to second-guess. I do the same thing to politics, to everything. Comedy has become that sort of thing – but with humorless people.

Why is it that everyone who second-guesses a joke is immediately branded humorless? Sometimes what I see from comedians, watching this, is a defensiveness after being told, “Hey, maybe that’s not funny.” Or that a joke failed. Is it possible that comedians have their backs up in such a way that that’s stopping a dialogue that might be useful? Because sometimes it seems to me that we are having a conversation about race and other topics when people say, “Hey, I’m not sure that’s funny and let me tell you why.” That leads to honest conversation – and maybe it is the joke that started the conversation.

There is no conversation about race. There is no conversation. That’s the first lie, that there is a conversation. All there is is a point of view that you are supposed to have -- and if you deviate from that point of view, people go, “Whoa whoa whoa.” That’s not what humor is.

And punching up, punching down! Once again, these terms were not created by humorous people. Activists are activists. They are great and a big part of American society. Humorists and activists don’t very often meld. Humorists and activists have two very different mentalities. Activists are very sincere, very positive. That’s how activists should be. Humorists are supposed to look at everything and see the bullshit in all sides. This is my opinion. We are not supposed to see 100 percent right and wrong. Everything is middle ground. Everything is hypocrisy in all people and all situations.

I feel like people get on Twitter, and they get gripped by self-righteous indignation -- which is fine. It’s just not becoming in my opinion.

Punching up and punching down. That seems like a fair point to me, keeping the target In mind. I’m not suggesting anyone impose rules on comedy, of course, or that anyone is off-limits for a joke. But it does seem like there’s humanity in at least thinking before making a punchline out of a victim.

So let’s say you make fun of a white plumber or Kanye West. Which is punching up and which is punching down? Societally, historically, context is everything. That’s another annoying statement.

But if it’s Trevor Noah making a dumb fat joke on Twitter. That’s punching down.

There are the lines of cruelty, right. It’s asinine.

Does that line of cruelty matter? Or is it the comedians’ job to poke through bullshit somehow free of someone turning around and calling bullshit on them?

No. That’s what we would like to be, of course! Ideally. I’d love it! At the same time, what is the biggest argument? It’s over free speech. Is Trevor Noah making a fat joke yelling fire at a crowded movie theater? Then people go, “We are not the government oppressing people.” No, but if you still get people fired from their job, that’s also a certain amount of power.

There’s a difference between getting someone fired from their job and saying, “That’s kind of an asshole joke.”

Right, but some people do get fired. Trevor Noah, some people wanted him to get fired. All I’m saying is there is a certain amount of power that comes on. It’s not just an average Joe Citizen. There are things that go on on social media in general. Let's not pretend it’s just outrage. What the right-wing fundamentalists were throughout the history of our country from the time of the Puritans to the 1980s -- the left is becoming.

I’m with you on about two-thirds of this: our frozen racial conversation, the lack of context and history from some in the politically correct crowd. And on the important role satirists and humorists play – imagine the Bush years without Stewart and Colbert. But F it. And the other piece of it that to me feels like people have the same First Amendment rights that Trevor Noah’s got to make that joke, to speak up and say, “Not really funny.”

The other side is people saying, “Can’t you do better? You are better than that.” There’s so many lines to be drawn. The day any artist -- dare I call comedians artists -- but the day that anybody starts deciding that (people can draw those lines) how are we different from pandering, from the old idea that you have to please the crowd? I thought the whole point was that you don’t please the crowd; you please yourself artistically.

Let me throw this out there. If you listen to the comedy podcasts, sometimes you can get the sense that comedians are trying to out-outrage each other. But then you also follow comedians on Twitter or read interviews, and it also sounds like there’s a lot of fear that if they say one wrong thing, their career could be ruined. Is there a chilling effect going on right now that is affecting writers’ rooms? Is all of this affecting the way comedians think and work?

Oh yeah. I think so. I don’t have any particular examples of it, but a lot of people are scared of their career or that people will take what they say out of context or in context. It manifests itself across the board, but it’s interesting to watch these unspoken elephant-in-the-room situations that people accept. I said it 11 years ago on NPR. It’s called substitute shock. The audience wants to feel edgy. People don’t want to feel like Puritans. So people make disabled jokes, or rape jokes, or child molester jokes. But if you bring up race, there is a silence in the room. So it’s like where is this coming from?

I’m trying to be funny. That’s my goal. It’s definitely a weird time, as far as more and more things are being determined by people who don’t necessarily have a great sense of humor. It was bad enough when we had these asshole executives. It’s not even that I’m disagreeing with a lot of what people are saying (online). I just disagree that they are pretending to be an average person. No. You are coordinating efforts all the time to stop people that are not necessarily harmful to the United States. First of all, if they want to say we are not going to have a discussion -- and that they believe in oppressing people and admit that -- I will feel better. “I’m the kind of person that believes in suppressing thought I believe is offensive.” Admit you are that kind of person. That’s all I mean. Let’s all put it out there. That’s why I think a racial discussion will be great. If we had a racial show every week it’ll bring it on board.

Larry Wilmore is doing some of it.

Some of it. But if you want to bring it on board, let’s bring it on board. Like I said, racially, in terms of personalities, black and white in particular. This book all about black and white. There’s a chapter on every other ethnic group, but no one is going to care about anything except black and white. Either way, the fact is--and it’s been in neutral since the ‘60s--no interaction. People just want to change the subject. It’s just the way it is. And it’s probably never going to change. It hasn’t so far. But I just don’t like that people act like they are having these conversations.

These might be two different things. But so much of what gets written off as politically correct outrage culture is a really interesting conversation. The outrage over Bill Cosby, for example…

Yes, but those things are things. I’m talking about words. The Duggars, Cosby, those are actions. Not words. Neither of those is part of anything I do for a living.

Bill Cosby’s actions are rape. It’s not rape culture. It’s actual rape. I’m not saying there aren’t interesting behavioral things being brought up. I would never say that. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s still a thing going on--since I started comedy--where there is a tendency that used to come from fundamentalist, right-wing attitudes. Now it comes from the left. Mostly. If the right had cultural power, they would be doing it too, in a different way. (Liberals) are being Puritans. There’s no other way to describe it. All the things you are talking about I agree with --except for the fact that the people making these decisions are starting minor digital hysteria.

Digital hysteria, that’s good.

Digital hysteria. I want people to be honest and say, “I don’t like it and we are going to put a stop to it.” Admit it. I talk to people who monitor websites. And I’m like, “Really? That’s interesting. You fucking monitor with your free time?” This is what people do. That’s all I’m saying. When I was doing “Tough Crowd” we had racial discussions every day. We got nothing accomplished in the long run, but it was the beginning of something interesting.

You talk in the book about “Tough Crowd” getting you branded as a conservative and that hurting you career-wise.

You can’t prove anything, but I would say it did.  Anyway, that discussion ended when it ended and it’s one of those things.

(Blacks and whites) got off on a bad foot, to put it mildly, and now it’s never going to be fixed. Either way, it’s fine if people don’t want to discuss it, but don’t pretend we need a race dialogue. There is none.

That’s what people say about absolutely everything. It’s like politicians saying we are going to have a blue-ribbon panel on something. It’s a way of acting like you are serious about something without actually having to do anything.

Or maybe we need to admit the sad truth, which is that we are not smart enough to solve any of these things. None of us has solutions. Nobody has solutions to any of these problems.

How can comedians help? The subtitle of the book is a comedian solves race relations.

I don’t know if we can. Obviously when you discuss things with humor, interesting thoughts come out. People say interesting things with comedy--not big consequential things--but things I didn’t think of in a certain way. Ultimately, comedians aren’t going to solve the world’s problems, but it’s hard to say.

I feel like we intuitively want to do this, but we are just not bright enough. It’s depressing, but we are not that swift.

So many of the stories in the book are about the way different ethnic and racial groups got along in New York when you were growing up in Brooklyn. As you describe it, people were really direct with each other and made jokes and knew how to get along. They maybe didn't like or trust each other, but they said so to each others' face. Less so now, you suggest. So are things better or worse than they were when you were growing up?

There was just as much racial tension in many ways. It wasn’t some idyllic thing. But, because Park Slope was so mixed, we were much more racially mixed. People aren’t racially mixed now.

In the ‘70s, maybe people had more hope. People now are hardened. I guess it wasn’t that different. It really wasn’t. We got along a little better because we were in close proximity. Like I said, everyone started to move away from each other in high school and that was a thing. It wasn’t because of an incident. There should be a once a week racial summit, but people would be afraid to say how they really felt.

Lena Dunham is back in the middle of controversy right now with Sarah Palin going after her and tying her into the Duggar scandal. You’ve been on “Girls.” Have you ever seen a young writer and actress be turned into a lightning rod like this? Do you have any idea how she handles it?

I was just thinking about her today. She’s one of those people that seems like a “light” person. She’s always got a light to her, an energy.

She made the mistake of telling the truth.  I made a whole routine about how when you’re little kids it can be like a Roman orgy. I noticed that a few people were shocked, but most people laughed.

But the right and the left, there is a war going on. It’s constant. It’s every day, everything. It’s terrible, but this is how ignorant we are. All it shows is our ignorance as a society. We’ve got these great technological things and people articulate better than they did 30 years ago, but it’s the same thing. People love to hate. People love to fight. You like to feel like you are on the right side of history, of things. It’s just terrible.

So the role for comedians is to be a reality check.

Exactly. In an ideal world we are a reality check. In the best of circumstances. That’s what we are supposed to be in an ideal world.

You write in the book that perhaps it’s OK to be a little bit racist. The example you use is of an older woman clutching her purse tighter if she sees a young black person. Explain that to me.

It depends on their experience as a person--if she ever got robbed, if she got robbed by a black guy, she is going to clutch her wallet. It doesn’t make her racist. I saw so many people growing up that would be circumstantially racist and have black friends. And their black friends would tell them to watch out for the black kids when going down to a certain neighborhood. We knew it wasn’t everyone.  Now, if you speak some kind of shorthand you are automatically racist.

And like I said, if the past 20 years of whitewashing on language--excuse the expression--if that had actually had an effect of society’s racial ills, I guess I’d say it does work. But it’s bullshit. It’s just childish. It has nothing to do with people’s interactions. That’s just linguistic bullshit. That’s the problem. It’s getting to be another surface layout, another laminated layer of bullshit.

Tell me about “SNL 40” and the moment where most of the Weekend Update anchors reunited. Not a lot of people have had that desk.

It wasn’t about the desk. It wasn’t about the show. It was about my memories of how much--it’s all delayed reaction for me. Life is like delayed reaction. I was like, fuck, man. That was such a great time and I guess I sort of knew it. That’s how everything is in life. I sort of knew it then, but I was sitting there the whole night so overwhelmed by everybody that I worked with. Jesus. It brought back all these memories. It was like a high school reunion in the sense that it was really powerful. The show itself, it was fine. The power came from everyone in that room. It was very emotional for me.

I was struck in the book that you sound very at ease with your years there. Sometimes people look back and they’re bitter.

We all had our conflicts there.

But your take is interesting: You say that everything gets a shot on Wednesday in read-through. And if it can’t make a room of smart people and comedians laugh, well, it gets cut – but it had a chance.

At the time I didn’t appreciate Lorne Michaels. I was like everyone else. That’s the posture you take with anyone in charge of everything. Nobody else in show business would let you come that close to democracy. I don’t care who it is. Nobody in the history of show business. I look back wistfully because I wasn’t one of those people who went back. I should have, but that’s just my nature. When I’m done, I’m never thinking about coming back and doing a sketch. It’s not for me.

Back to the book: What would you do, if you were in charge, to unstick the race conversation.

If there was a real show on every week where you can have these interactions, some of them funny, some of them serious, discussing black and white, that would be an interesting thing to do for a couple of years. To have forums. That would be good.

Who would you put on that show?

Only comedians. Political people have to be more careful than comedians because they really have to answer for the rest of their lives. With comedians it’s different, you are expected to be provocative. Provocative is part of the game.

You are supposed to have a little conflict with comedians. The worst insult in comedy used to be the crowd pleaser. That’s the hack. Sometimes the people that are attacking comedians are the very people that should understand that we are supposed to be a little provocative. I don’t excuse a lot of horseshit. I’m not trying to get away with something. Whatever I have to say, I will say upfront. I’m not trying to slip one by anybody. It’s a muddled line right now. Hopefully it will work out, but it’s a muddled line with social media.

What do you think about what Bill Maher is up to with religion?

With the Muslims? Islam is a weird religion, but that being said there’s billions of Islamic people that don’t do anything wrong. But I have no problem with him saying it.

The conversation is certainly direct.

It’s direct. It’s not racially direct. If that was talked about in Europe, that would be an interesting show. There’s no Muslims here. If you do that show in France or England, that’s provocative.. It’s not our thing as much. It doesn’t feel like it to me at least. Maybe it is.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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