Colin Quinn is having a busy year, to say the least. The comedian, long beloved of a certain generation of Saturday Night Live fans, has lately been popping up in every genre.
Where to start? There’s his webseries, Cop Show, in which he plays an actor on a—well, you can guess. There’s his foray into publishing, The Coloring Book, which has nothing to do with coloring, but is cheekily subtitled: “A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America.” There’s his star turn as Amy Schumer’s philandering dad in Trainwreck. And finally, there’s The New York Story, Quinn’s stand-up show, which is directed by Jerry Seinfeld and has been playing to sold-out crowds in New York’s Cherry Lane Theater. (Even this list is not exhaustive of Quinn news: An older comedy special of his, Unconstitutional, goes online this weekend via Comedy Dynamics.)
Fast Company caught up with the native New Yorker to learn more about creating a room that’s just tough enough, the admirable efficiency of Jerry Seinfeld, and how he feels most at home when he’s “pedantic and rambling.”
Fast Company: The New York Story draws in part from The Coloring Book, which contains a lot of racial humor. How are audiences responding to a topic that’s so sensitive right now?
I feel like people want to talk about this thing. But it’s not something that people love hearing about. People are very solemn about race right now. That’s how it is. But I don’t care. I do what I do. What are you gonna do? On the one hand, you’re trying to talk to an audience. On the other hand, you can’t try to cultivate an audience, in my opinion. It’s never gonna be the kind of thing that’s completely comfortable.
What’s your ultimate aim with your material on race?
It’s just to say what I feel like saying. That’s the beauty of comedy. If you can make people laugh, you get to say whatever you want. I don’t know why no one talks about this thing, except in the most vague, generic, positive way. We talk about surface, superficial things. But the show’s not that deep either. It discusses ethnicity when I was growing up, but it’s not like I’ve nailed it.
Jerry Seinfeld directed the show. What’s your collaboration like with him?
Jerry’s never afraid to go, “I don’t get it.” It’s pretty interesting humility for a comedian to say, “I don’t get it.” He loves comedy. He gets nothing out of directing my show, no money. But he does it because he loves the game, he’s obsessed with it at every level.
In your collaboration, is there a kind of brutal honesty?
There’s a shorthand for how we talk, but it’s not brutal honesty. I don’t like working with people like that. People think conflict is great for art, but it’s not.
But you seem like someone who doesn’t coddle, and probably doesn’t want to be coddled.
Nope. I’m a guy who doesn’t like to coddle people, but I like to be coddled. (Laughs.) It’s fine when I’m doing it, but when somebody else is doing it, that’s rude. Still, I like to be with people who tell it like it is.
And Jerry is one of them?
With Jerry, there was not a lot of time to waste: We only had three days together. He’s such a streamlined guy both in his life and his art. When we worked together, he was in full Jerry mode. He’s a clear, streamlined thinker. I remember talking to a writer who worked on Seinfeld, and I asked him how it was. He said that you’d be walking about in the morning, getting a bagel—but Jerry at 9 on the dot sits at the table, with just a glass of water. Basically saying: “We start at 9 o’clock, not 9:15. Come early if you want the bagel.”
You were on Girls, and you play Amy Schumer’s advice-spewing dad in Trainwreck. Do you change your style at all, playing alongside a younger generation of comics?
No. I’ve always been the person who gives advice, wanted or unwanted. I’ve always been the pedantic, rambling person. I was totally at home in that role.
Do you feel the comedy environment is changing?
Definitely. There’s acceptable targets. There’s definitely a monitoring going on that feels a little strange, that bugs me and makes me angry. It’s probably just a bump in the road. But I don’t like people with no sense of humor telling me, “This is what comedy is.” It’s like me talking about Floyd Mayweather when I’m not even in the boxing game.
What’s your creative process like?
If I talk or try to think something through, it never happens. I have to start writing immediately. I usually write late mornings through late afternoon, usually about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. But I can’t think—I have to write it out. Writing, and failing, and rewriting, that’s all I can do. If I try to discuss it—“Here’s what I’m trying to do”—it doesn’t work.
This interview has been condensed and edited.