Wait, Am I Laughing at Colin Quinn?
It wasn't during his run as the annoying sidekick on the annoying MTV game show Remote Control, which simultaneously ripped off Wayne's World's premise and cashed in on '70s and '80s nostalgia by rewarding contestants for their recall of minutia from other, only slightly less annoying TV shows. And it damn sure wasn't during his run on Saturday Night Live, where he earned the title of Worst Weekend Update Anchor Ever, an accomplishment which led his fellow alumni Charles Rocket, Norm MacDonald, Brad Hall and Jimmy Fallon to say, "Curses! Foiled again!" and twirl their handlebar moustaches. In the anchor's chair, Quinn stumbled and stuttered over every punchline, which, given the quality of the writing, may have been a blessing.
Maybe it was during The Colin Quinn Show - a three-episode NBC talk show I missed - although I doubt it. When The Colin Quinn Show was picked up by Comedy Central, tweaked and renamed Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, its first few months were spent as a decent show weighted down by its lousy host. But now, that host has become... well... good.
For those who fall asleep, turn off the TV or flip over to Letterman after The Daily Show, Tough Crowd opens with a standard talk show comedy monologue. Afterward, the host and his four round table panelists discuss the issues of the day, and it's wrapped up with a sketch or two. If all that sounds familiar, you've just picked up on what every last damn reviewer of Tough Crowd has. Tough Crowd is Comedy Central's second try at Politically Incorrect. But in a role reversal for any network, Comedy Central's redub of their first breakout hit is less slick and less ready for prime time, yet more in line with the network's focus. Gone are the party line-parroting pundits, analysts, activists and talking heads. Tough Crowd's panel is all comedians. Comedy Central has also dumped its Crossfire-in-pastel set and replaced it with one made up to look like a mid-range 12th-floor apartment in Brooklyn, or, more accurately, a New York Irish pub owner's back office in an alternate reality where the bar area is the size of a kitchenette and the office is the size of a TV studio.
And smug, smarmy, smirking Bill Maher has been transmogrified into a sweatshirt-wearing, stuttering, roughnecked Brooklyn Irishman with an English degree.
The new taste is leaps and bounds over the original formula. PI-slash-Real Time with Bill Maher's comedians typically have more insightful, or at least more entertaining, observations than predictable suits and vapid TV and movie stars with their bumper sticker ideologies, anyway. And where Maher's shows tend to feel like The McLaughlin Group with one-liners - just another obnoxious show where Ivy League-educated ideologues prove they're smarter than you by shouting down each other's (misleading) statistics, (dubious) facts and (apocryphal) stories with their own - Quinn's feels like the happy hour conversation at every watering hole in America - a round robin of intentionally subjective opinions and personal anecdotes capable of dissipating into a game of snaps at any moment.
The real breath of fresh air, though, is Jim Norton, or rather, Tough Crowd's treatment of Norton. No matter how much of a loudmouth idiot the average panelist is on any round table talk show, there is always one who is a loudmouthed, idiotic cut above the rest. John McLaughlin has Pat Buchanan. Maher has Ann Coulter. And Quinn has Norton. But everyone - Norton included - reacts to him as a loudmouthed idiot. There is no pretense that Norton "raises interesting points" (although, perhaps because there is no such pretense, he does). Maher would never say to Coulter, "Shut up, dummy," (although wouldn't it be nice to visit the alternate dimension where he does?) but Quinn says it to Norton at least three times a night. And a healthy percentage of the skits involve Quinn - usually with the help of an attractive woman - showing Norton up as the sleazy, pathetic, bigoted prick he is. But even this ragging is done in a playful sense, and Norton self-deprecates and fires back with equal vigor. As a result, the most obnoxious panelist ends up being the most endearing.
And then there's Quinn again. He still stammers and stutters and seems incapable of reading off a teleprompter, but Tough Crowd makes the wise move of having fun with that. Recent skits have shown him presenting his semi-autobiographical children's book (a la Madonna) to a half-dozen seven-year-olds, playing Kobe Bryant with an attractive audience member as Kobe's anonymous accuser and auditioning would-be hiphop artists to read his rap lyrics referencing Gustav Mahler and John Updike. At the heart of all these skits is the show's central conceit:
Quinn has no business being here.
That may be the secret to Tough Crowd's appeal, though. In a country where the court of public opinion is so easily swayed by a few people at the top, who cares what five TV personalities think? Quinn and his guests never act as though anyone should. They never pretend they have all the answers, and even if they did, they never pretend it would do anyone any good. They're just goofing around. Not for enlightenment, but for entertainment.
And for a change, that's plenty good enough.
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