Global studies just got funnier and faster.
Thank Colin Quinn whose solo show, "Long Story Short," opened Tuesday night at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre.
Seen last summer downtown, the extended monologue, billed as a "history of the world in 75 minutes" and directed by Jerry Seinfeld, is like a condensed-book bop through civilization's ups and downs.
Quinn, known from "Saturday Night Live," wastes no time noting that mankind has been battle-scarred since Day One.
That's where his zinger-laced lesson begins, before hustling on to the ancient Greeks and the Romans, whose conflict simply boils down to "thinkers" versus "tough guys."
That same rivalry still reverberates now, he says. "Even today, this guy works for Google and that guy has a Harley and a neck tattoo of a handgun – girls are still conflicted about which would make a better life partner."
Quinn is a master at drawing parallels between past and present. Some clever projections and sound effects help tell the tale on the amphitheater-like set.
Greeks "watched Antigone on her knees, crying over the loss of her dead brother." Now it's "Snooki on her knees, crying over the loss of her cell phone."
The bling-obsessed Holy Roman Empire excess looked "like a Death Row Records release party from 1998."
Africa, meanwhile, "is like your little sister who grew up and got hot -- she's got a lot of natural resources."
Raised in Brooklyn, Quinn has a poker-faced persona and on-edge delivery which works very well here. Between him and Seinfeld, the show has great flow and punch. To his credit, Quinn is not one of those comics who cracks himself up.
But cramming a couple of thousand years of material into a one-act is no mean feat. He tends to rush, trailing off before he finishes thoughts and sentences.
Otherwise, it's a polished act.
And with Broadway prices for an act that's just an hour and change, it should be. That's no joke.
As empire-burning barbarians go, Colin Quinn is a flaming moderate: the wiseguy with the midsized battle axe and just one human head hanging from his belt (not a family-of-three, like those other showoffs). “No offense,” says the SNL alum at the top of Long Story Short, his one-man, seventy-minute history of the world, “but we’re the descendants of the pricks. We’re not the people who starved to death waiting their turn.” This more or less sums up Quinn’s tilt on genus Homo: two parts self-taught Social Darwinism to one part brisk, Seinfeldian essentialism. (That’s only natural, considering Sir Jerry directed and subsidized this show.)
In just over one very funny, amicably un-PC hour, he skims thousands of years with an autodidact’s stentorian emphasis and a drinking buddy’s beer-breath bonhomie, merrily jettisoning whatever threatens to slow him down. (Egypt, Persia, the Aksumites of Ethiopia — sorry, guys, you just don’t maintain enough of an outer-borough presence to enter the Quinn-tinuum, with its subliminal 718-centric bias.) Progress, shmogress. For Quinn, a fifty-something small-c conservative comic with a withering Brooklyn-Irish wit and a headlong delivery that resembles a sustained, half-enunciated sneeze, humanity has always been the same passel of mopes and mooks, who can be categorized only by their ethnic flavors of a species-wide propensity for fucking up.
The Athenians were navel-gazers. The Romans were mobsters. The Incas were coke heads. (“They had art, architecture, gold, mathematics, but they also had human sacrifice, beheading and cannibalism. That’s cocaine — gives you the best ideas and the worst ideas simultaneously.”) And so on. All empires fall, brought down not by disease or conquest or even culture per se, but by that guy who cuts you off in traffic, then waves like he’s thanking you. (You know the guy I’m talking about.) Rome wasn’t burnt in a day, and neither were Mayan Civilization and the Ming Dynasty: They were ground to powder by jerkoff behavior that only observational comedy is properly equipped to scrutinize. The best ethnographic and historical analysis, as any two-for-one drinker can tell you, is performed in front of a brick wall.
There’s no wall to be seen in Long Story Short, aside from the Great One. (“Work was China’s drug. The one thing they couldn’t figure out was how to stop working. That’s why the Great Wall is so long. I’m sure it started off as just a wall. The next biggest wall in the world is fourteen feet long. Any other place, a contractor gets to that length and says, “You don’t need more than that, do you?”) Quinn and Seinfeld try hard to banish the spectre of Caroline’s from the intimate Helen Hayes (where the comic’s first Broadway outing, Colin Quinn: Irish Wake, played over a decade ago). They’ve filled the stage with the ruins of an ancient amphitheater, overhung by a flat screen large and sports-bar-ish enough to calm the fears of any red-blooded Quinn fans daunted by the potentially loafer-lightening effects of an evening on at the theater.
As Quinn's done for years in his club act and on short-lived basic cable stints (see Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn on Youtube), he winkingly, willfully pushes barroom philosophy to the point of peril, homing toward the political, the socio-racial, the uncomfortable. But thanks to the show’s liberating conceit--and to Seinfeld’s moderating, corner-mitering influence--he gets away with it, though sometimes just barely. (On colonialism, Quinn explains why Africa was an “easy target”: “They had conflicts with each other. It was like six Brooklyn high schools let out at the same time.” On Islam: “Sharia law... has some good things. Like they kill rapists, that’s good. But Arabs are too intense, they take it too far. ‘And then we kill the rape victim.’ ‘Oh, see, that’s where you’re going to lose a lot of people.’”) Back in his Weekend Update era, Quinn always looked twitchy and defensive delivering material like this: He’d mistime his breathing, swallow his words, shift and sweat as if he were trying to disown his act in the middle of performing it. Age and Seinfeld seem to have mellowed him, smoothed his timing, steadied his tongue. Quinn still swallows his words, still aspirates whole phrases, but he controls his hurtling comic propulsion now--even his stumbles feel quintessentially his. He radiates an autodidact’s pride-of-accomplishment, cut with just the right amount of shambolic irony, and if some of his rapid-fire allusions aren’t quite en pointe (his take on Plato’s Cave, while uproarious, might leave purists a bit mystified), well, isn’t that the point?
Seinfeld has called the show an exercise in “taking a fatuous premise and proving it with rigorous logic,” and it’s worth remembering that this is what comedians used to do, before political demagoguery became part of the job description. The stand-up’s oldest technique-- connect-the-dots free-association — wasn’t designed to organize rallies on the Mall or fill chalkboard after chalkboard with word-salad conspiracies; it was designed to illuminate the truth at funny angles with the bright torch of comic anarchy. The best comedians aren’t conquistadors, after all, just good-natured barbarians, tickling society’s ribs while testing its soft spots. Quinn stays safely in the anarchy camp. He’s still the grumbly-gus visigoth holding forth at the end of the bar, always ready to offer his skewering slant, never staying long enough to take over the world. He just wants to burn a few turrets and be on his way.
In “Long Story Short,” a snappy recap of human civilization as seen through the skeptical eyes of a standup comic, Colin Quinn traces the roots of various contemporary phenomena, including the economic crisis, the Middle East conflict and “Jersey Shore,” back through the centuries to the Greeks and beyond.
The evening’s themes are not exactly new. That humankind has been consumed in mayhem and folly ever since we started walking upright — and probably even before — is obvious to anybody who’s glanced at a history book. Our propensity for destruction has been a source of cackling amusement at least since Aristophanes and the age of classical comedy.
But if Mr. Quinn’s ideas aren’t novel, they’re definitely immortal. And this easygoing alumnus of “Saturday Night Live” brings his own distinctive every-guy’s perspective to the galumphing march of civilization toward — well, toward whatever it is we are approaching, as Blanche DuBois so lyrically put it.
Whimsically and more or less accurately subtitled “History of the World in 75 Minutes,” Mr. Quinn’s new show at 45 Bleecker has been directed by Jerry Seinfeld, who employed similar observational humor to consider less momentous events in his smash sitcom of the 1990s. Some of Mr. Quinn’s funniest material is the kind of casual, offbeat commentary about the petty quirks of everyday behavior today that Mr. Seinfeld specialized in.
How can we expect the world to live in amity, Mr. Quinn observes, when sensible people find themselves seething with rage when they have to share an elevator with someone who presses a button to get off at an earlier floor, or get stuck behind a slow functioner at an A.T.M.?
Irritability is seemingly programmed into our DNA, Mr. Quinn suggests, although the angst on display today often lacks the awe-inspiring heft of the tragedies that riled the ancients. Antigone mourning her unburied brother tears at the soul in a way that the tantrums of Snooki definitely do not.
Mr. Quinn’s take on the Greeks and the Romans essentially boils down to a duality he sees running through history: “Tough guys vs. smart guys.” (I don’t need to tell you who’s who in that pairing, do I?) At several points in the show he compares world conflicts to brawls of various levels of intensity and complexity, a point of view that epitomizes his blue-collar appeal and knack for reducing the world’s intractable macro problems to matters of micro-egoism and macho one-upsmanship.
Mr. Quinn performs in front of a video screen on which old maps and classical paintings are projected in a sort of animated slide show. The pseudo-educational trappings end there. Mr. Quinn does not avail himself of PowerPoint to make his case, instead simply riffing on the connections between yesterday’s idiocies and today’s in the skeptical, confiding style of the wiseacre on the stool next to you pointing out the antics of the moron across the bar.
The rise of the British Empire is hilariously attributed not to England’s martial prowess or strategic brilliance, but to the Englishman’s ability to cow the world by channeling the power of contempt. The empire’s subsequent decline is amusingly compared to a company’s struggling with a franchising problem.
The gaudy splendor of St. Peter’s in the 15th century is analogous to a “Death Row Records release party from the ’90s,” the use of the word “shalom” as both greeting and farewell offered as a pithy comment on the long history of the Jews’ persecution. (It’s useful to have a single word for quick entrances and exits.)
As soon becomes clear, Mr. Quinn’s historical lesson plan is fundamentally a fancy way of giving form and purpose to his fondness for ethnic humor. The British and French are lampooned with snooty and sneering accents, respectively. (Mr. Quinn wonders if the history of France might have been different if Marie Antoinette had been able to append three letters to that infamous comment about cake: “LOL.”) The Italians’ affinity for gesticulation inspires one of the show’s more rote and familiar passages, but the conflicts roiling Africa over the past centuries he piquantly compares to “six Brooklyn high schools getting out at once.”
As with Mr. Seinfeld’s, the humor is rarely savage or seriously insulting. And since Mr. Quinn includes just about everybody in the strafing, the derision is spread around evenly.
America certainly isn’t presented as the culmination of human achievement. Our recent mania for exporting democracy proves rich fodder for Mr. Quinn’s riff on the obvious indifference to the idea in a couple of current global hotspots. And even the founding fathers come in for some amusing snark, for the folly of including those lofty words about the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.
Really bad idea, guys, Mr. Quinn says. Now we’ve got Dr. Phil on our hands.