“The right sees only the positive, and the left only sees the negative,” says Colin Quinn, pacing the stage in his sixth one-man show, Red State Blue State. Later, he amends that slightly: “Half the country sees a Nazi invasion, and half sees a Muslim invasion.”
Quinn, who hosted Saturday Night Live ’s “Weekend Update” segment from 1998 to 2000, is famously centrist, taking exceeding care to criticize everyone. In his 2013 one-man show, Unconstitutional, the Brooklyn, New York, native declared, “I’m pro-gay marriage, pro-gun, pro-death penalty and pro-choice.” (The punch line: “I’m anti-overcrowding.”)
But six years is a lifetime in modern politics, and declaring “blame on both sides” has already gotten the current president in hot water. In Red State —directed by Bobby Moresco and running at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City through March 16—Quinn, 59, maneuvers more strategically around hot-button issues (including free speech, sex and the impending American civil war that will result in the world’s first “fat refugees”) while still offering ammunition for liberals on high alert for false equivalencies.
“What I’m saying is that there are two sides to every argument,” Quinn tells Newsweek. “Whatever right or wrongs there may be in each party, the one thing that they have in common is that there’s no nuance. I don’t believe the GOP is evil and the Democrats are good.” It’s worth noting, however, that Quinn’s brief, brutal takedown of President Donald Trump, “a compulsively tweeting totalitarian psychopath,” gets the most laughs in the new show. The bit involves an impression of Trump facing a Scarface-like demise. But Quinn also defends Trump supporters as working-class folk who “don’t like being told ‘acknowledge your privilege.’”
He doesn’t extend that same courtesy to liberals, if only because the majority of New Yorkers are already left-leaning. Quinn is frankly shocked that there are still only two American parties. A lifelong Democrat, he generally votes independent and “sometimes” Republican, but concedes that “if we went down point by point for [policy on] each party, I’d be a little more left on certain things.”
That would not include so-called political correctness. As a straight white male comedian, he’s not a fan of the new pressure to watch what he says, a trend he calls “Orwellian.” He’s also not convinced by the argument that comedians should evolve with the times—a sentiment comedy director Judd Apatow expressed in a recent interview with Newsweek.
“Judd’s allowed to think whatever he wants,” says Quinn, who has guest-starred on Apatow’s HBO show, Crashing. But to Quinn, the whole point of comedy is “to look at the culture and say what’s wrong with it. If society’s culture is the repression of the 1950s, you’re supposed to go after that. If it’s the politically correct culture of the 2010s, you’re supposed to go after that.”
Red State includes an off-color joke about sexual harassment, and, like some people his age, the concept of nonbinary gender seems to him a bridge too far. But he is also notably more careful than he was in his 2015 show, the Jerry Seinfeld-directed The New York Story, which featured Quinn’s take on every ethnic group he’d encountered in the city. That show could never happen in 2019, he says. “Now, it’s really a hardened thing—if anybody says any name of any ethnic group, everybody’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’” As Quinn sees it, he wouldn’t simply offend people; he’d be dismissed. “‘Wait a minute! There’s a white male talking about racial issues? No, thank you.’ That’s what everybody would say. It wouldn’t be worth the effort I would put into it.”
Quinn started in 1984—coming up with, among other stand-up comics, Janeane Garofalo—so he gets the pushback against “brutish” comedy. At that time “there was a lot of stupid stuff—mostly anti-women, anti-gay,” he says. “It’s not like [political correctness] came from nowhere. But once you decide, ‘OK, this is what’s acceptable comedy and this is what’s unacceptable,’ then you might as well be the parents in Footloose.”
In his early routines, he was going for a sort of barstool philosophy, which he describes as “James Joyce mixed with David Mamet. I was trying to be Mr. Intellectual, edgy.” He laughs. “It hurt me because Joyce speaks in run-on sentences, and that’s the antithesis of stand-up. You have to give the audience places where they can laugh.”
Apparently, that’s still an issue. “Bobby Moresco, my [Red State] director, is always like, ‘Will you just pause and let people hear what you have to say? This show is for people to laugh sometimes too—remember?’’
Red State, Blue State suggests the rational solution to the entrenched reality of divided ideals is to give them borders. By the show’s end, Quinn is proposing that America break up into city-states designed around ideology—lawless, gun-carrying havens for conservatives and progressive safe spaces for liberals, where all the coffee is sustainable and “the cops pull you over for cultural appropriation.” Given his aversion to taking a side, where would that leave him? “Aren’t there little islands in the middle of the Great Lakes? Maybe I’ll live on one of those.”
Red State, Blue State is running through March 16 at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City.