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.All Talk, No Sense

Colin Quinn's new one-man show takes aim at the age of misinformation

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THE PONTIFICATOR: ‘Opinion has become our driving force,’ says comedian Colin Quinn.

From where stand-up comic Colin Quinn sits, the American paradox circa 2020 is pretty clear: We are drowning in opinion, yet starved for honesty.

Like the sailor in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner—”water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink”—Quinn and his fellow Americans have reached the high point of the age of free speech, but enlightenment seems more distant than ever.

Talk, talk everywhere but not a drop of trust.

“Opinion has become our driving force,” says Quinn, who brings his new show, The Wrong Side of History, to Stanford for four performances March 13 and 14. “Free speech, exchange of opinion, open communication: These things are automatically thought of as evolutionary ways to get to enlightenment. But my whole show is, hey, maybe we’ve gone too far with free speech, once we have electronically made opinion this thing that everyone gives out all day, every day.”

The Brooklyn born-and-raised Quinn first came to national prominence as the host of “Weekend Update” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, providing a satirical slant on the news during, among other things, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and before Jon Stewart brought on a revolution in satirical news at The Daily Show. After hosting a talk show on Comedy Central called Tough Crowd, Quinn began writing long-form performance comedy pieces and touring them around the country.

Quinn’s shows are unique on the stand-up circuit. There are plenty of jokes in his one-man performances, but they are thematically based. His shows, which are usually presented in small theaters rather than comedy clubs, have a point to make—George Carlin meets TED talk. The Wrong Side of History, in fact, can be seen as the third installment in a kind of trilogy of performances about the current American moment, following Unconstitutional in 2015, and last year’s Red State, Blue State. The former focused on the legacy of the rights and liberties outlined in the U.S. Constitution and how they translate to the messy world of modern life. Red State was more like an intervention in a family brawl, trying to make sense of the vast cultural divide between Red and Blue. (Both shows can currently be streamed on Netflix.)

Wrong Side is brand new for 2020 and the subject of discussion here is discussion itself.

“This is really about the history of opinion,” Quinn says. “Just as a context of how we got here, we look at the history of communication from messengers in the old days and drums and smoke signals. We talk about art. At one time, the only place you were allowed to give your opinion was in art, through your paintings or whatever. And now, we’re full circle, back to the emoji. We’re back to cave paintings, basically.”

Quinn says that he has to put comedy at the forefront of his performance. The joke always gets the priority over the philosophical insight. But he’s convinced he delivers both.

“All this stuff I do, I work out in the clubs,” he says. “I’m in the clubs all the time. But when you find what works and you put it all together, it has to be in more of a theater environment, so people will understand that there’s a beginning, middle and end.”

The Stanford performances will put Quinn, at least symbolically, in front of the same class of entrepreneurs and technologists who created the cacophonous world his show bemoans. But those looking for him to light into the social-media companies for destroying democracy are likely to be disappointed.

“It’s not their fault,” he says. “This is just the way it went. That’s like yelling at Alexander Graham Bell for how people behave on their phones.”

Still, Quinn stresses that humanity is struggling to adapt to a world in which everyone has a megaphone and the old structures that created a consensus worldview have fallen apart.

“I did this thing on the Seth Meyers show the other night,” he says. “I asked the audience for a suggestion of something. People were there from a bunch of different states, so I said, ‘Just yell out a state.’ So everybody starts yelling out their home state at the same time, and I literally couldn’t hear anybody say anything that sounded like a state. That is the internet, my friend.”

The Wrong Side of History
Mar 13-14, 7pm & 9pm, $40 general
Bing Studio, Stanford


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