“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” –Walt Kelly, Pogo
With his gruff delivery and an exasperated everyman take on the current events, Colin Quinn’s persona and observational humor are firmly grounded. He fine-tuned them on Saturday Night Live during a years-long stint in the writers’ room and as a featured player. He even anchored the Weekend Update desk for a few years. Now he’s back onstage, returning after a few years away with a limited (but recently extended) run of his new show, Red State Blue State, playing at the East Village’s Minetta Lane Theatre.
Even when he was a young man, Colin Quinn was a bit of an old curmudgeon. It’s a role that fits him like a weathered glove. An approximate contemporary of Dennis Miller and Bill Maher, Quinn spent much of the 1990s pulling apart political scandals for social commentary. He even hosted his own political panel show, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn. So this is familiar territory. While Miller and Maher strove to project solid personas of the oft-deride “coastal elite,” Quinn’s temperament and delivery made him a better candidate to attract and connect with viewers across America.
If there’s one thing the show’s title makes clear it’s this: Quinn isn’t using the show to take a side in the bizarre political situation in which America now finds itself. If anything, he’s taking the opportunity to point out how a two-party system was a highly imperfect one, and that time has proven it to be vulnerable to attack. Returning to Democracy for the first time since the collapse of the Roman Empire was a risky proposition. George Washington himself stated it was a susceptible system, but could offer no alternative. And he was one of the better men to have helmed the ship of state. Of course, there has been no worse man to occupy the office as the current inhabitant, but that isn’t Quinn’s focus.
In Quinn’s estimation, Democracy has played itself out, devolving over time as its players have strived for personal gain instead of the good of their fellow citizens. As the cynical adage goes, it’s the worst system there is — except for everything else. And what can we do about it? No idea. But at least we can look at where we are, accept the fact that everything is a mess, and perhaps, by identifying failings on both sides, can strive to do better.
So what are the other options? If Democracy is dying, would we turn to true Capitalism? Socialism? Even, gasp, Communism? We know from experience that these things don’t really work because, as Quinn points out, you can’t go a few hundred miles and expect the people to be the same as where you started, even now. No single system of government is going to make all people happy, so maybe the best we can do is keep it local.
One way Quinn proves this point, one of the highlights of the show, is a listing of American states and proposed new mottos for each. This may be funnier for the better-traveled among the audience, but even without the lived experience it’s a good laugh. The segment also highlights the simple but effective stage dressing, a red and blue paint-splattered collection of planks and boards backlit in an ever-changing range of purple lights. It’s surprisingly calming, which isn’t a bad thing in these times.
If Quinn’s show falls short, it’s for a brief period, toward the end, when he looks back at the country with all the nostalgia of a Christian white man. The ‘good old days’ weren’t, not for a lot of people, and for someone in his line of work to suggest as much is at minimum a lack of perspective, and at worst professional negligence. It limits the audience with which he can connect to those whose experience he shared. For everyone else, it evokes hard days spent struggling against prejudices and systemic abuses. But perhaps that is a bit heavy for an 80-minute comedy show.
What Quinn does well is show anyone and everyone with enough brains to listen that they are not perfect, their party is not perfect, their ideas are not perfect, and none of those things will ever be true. So what we have to do it look around with eyes open, to recognize the truth of our ridiculous lives, to help people when we can, and always find ways to laugh.
Red State Blue State
Written and Performed by Colin Quinn
Minetta Lane Theatre
Top photo: Courtesy of Colin Quinn: Red State Blue State
Middle photo: Monique Carboni