"...now I'm doing road work in Red States and auditioning for soccer mom roles. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook..."
Colin Quinn, with Tough Crowd ... Nov. 9nd, 2004
How shall I begin this? Typing through tears and memories and emotions... here goes nothing.
Tough Crowd's last show taped on Thursday. While I am scrambling to get another writing job, I can say without hesitation that nothing will ever mean as much to me as the position of "consulting producer" at Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.
Two years ago, someone from Comedy Central left a voicemail (I think it was Jessi Klein), asking me to send in a writing packet for Colin Quinn's show. I can't believe my name was thrown into the potential writer's hat. I had only met Colin for the first time in August of '02, during our USO trip to Cuba, and why he would want a writing submission after seeing me hack it up for the troops at Gitmo is beyond my imagination.
I never gave a writing career any consideration. I loved being a comic, even if it meant having no savings account or anything to fall back on. And I never considered myself a writer. Yes, I threw up my stupid little web diary every week, but that was more for myself than anyone else, so I could re-read about my life, forty years from now when I'm alone and confined to a hospital bed, waiting to die.
The voicemail nearly paralyzed me.
thinks I can write? Holy Mother. Ok. Well, who am I to say I can't. Colin is the Bruce Springsteen of comedy, and I was about to be Courtney Cox in the Dancing in the Dark video, except it was Colin who would pull me up from the crowd of comics. I wrote something as awkward and awful as Courtney's moves onstage, and sent it in.
I didn't get the job.
Right about now is where Colin really starts to separate himself from other tv stars. I asked if I could watch one of the test shows they were doing in the office, and he said sure. After I got a better grasp on what kind of material I should be submitting, I asked Colin if I could keep sending him ideas and he said sure. And here's where I may have separated myself from others comedians who didn't get hired the first time around. I sent him ten fleshed out ideas a day, for five or six days. I slept a few hours a day, and then I'd take newspapers and magazines to a Starbucks and read and take notes, and write and re-write, and around 6 AM, I'd attach the day's ideas to an email, and click send.
Night after night I was on a mission to be told either get lost or join the team, and one day my agent called and said I was hired to work on the second to last week of the pilot week.
Oh my God.
When I got there, there was no office for me to write in, and there was nothing for me to write. I was completely unnecessary. I think Colin mercy-hired because I was trying so hard. But I didn't care. As far as I knew, I was in. When I heard the next month that the pilot was picked up, I submitted all over again, and this time I knew what direction to push myself in, and I got hired and life as I knew it changed, completely.
The writer's team was small- Ken Ober was the head writer, Bryan Tucker from Chris Rock and Mad TV, John Marshall from Chris Rock and Politically Incorrect, and me, from every shit road gig in America. A few other writers were hired and fired, and this season, my officemate Christian Finnegan came aboard and stayed for the rest of the run.
We were the Act 3 crew. We wrote sketches, movie parodies, and monitor pieces. We did remote pieces with the Regulars and came up with new ways to corner the Regulars like rats so they were forced to joke their way out.
My first solo Act 3 was a Fireside Chat. We dressed Colin up like FDR and he gave the country a much needed pep talk as we were going off to war in Iraq. I wrote about 6 drafts, and I was terrified that each one was unfunny enough to get me canned. When I saw the set, I was stunned again. I had written, "Colin sits next to a fireplace," and Laura Brock, the set designer, built a fireplace. If I had said, "Colin takes off in a spaceship," Laura would have built a space ship.
It was exciting.
Early on, I would write a sketch with one theme, and after a read-through, Colin would, with his notes, take my sketch by its ears and flip it over, twist it, roll it and throw it against a wall. And I'd rewrite. And re-write. It was such a thrill when Colin would finally say, "it's great." That meant Ken would put it on the board, that my thing, my ide-er (to quote Ken from Boston) was going on tv.
I was so convinced I would be found out as a fraud and fired that I continued to work on websites well into June of 03. I'd code on the weekends and do spots at night. I was exhausted, and that feeling never went away.
On the last show, Colin thanked everyone on the staff for being nice, and someone else pointed out that at Tough Crowd, there wasn't the political maneuvering that plagues most tv shows, and everyone who'd worked on other shows nodded. And that kindness came from the top. Colin talked to everyone, knew everyone's name and details about our personal lives. It's hard to be a stuck up dick when the star of your show isn't.
Jim Norton, Nick diPaolo, Patrice Oneal, Keith Robinson and Greg Giraldo were the official once-a-week regulars, and it was cool to watch them grow as they got more comfortable with each other and the show. By the end of this season, they were pitch perfect, and any one of them could anchor a show stacked with newcomers.
Doing the show made me a better comic. It was 26 hours of trauma. You'd get the topics and the Act 4 question at around 4 PM, the day before your appearance. Then you'd hunker down and write. And the writing was hard- the best jokes for Tough Crowd were jokes that encapsulated your real point of view on each topic. An ideal joke got a laugh and furthered the conversation. Jokes like those are hard to write. I always liked going into a show with 4 jokes per topic, and with 5 topics, that's twenty jokes, in 24 hours.
The Act 4 always killed me. I always thought the best Act 4 answers revealed something about the comic. I would spend hours on mine. Act 4 was the only part of the show where you had a measure of control. You could misfire all night, and watch helplessly as every setup was stepped on and beaten down before your punchline even rang the doorbell, but you could still end on a laugh with a good Act 4.
Tough Crowd was really a gift to comedians. Colin put tons of comics on tv, some hadn't been on a show in years, or ever. Some good comics froze, saying nothing, and some average comics stepped up and added more than anticipated. The comics who froze always wanted a 2nd chance. You could see in their eyes after the show finished, that they "got it" a few minutes too late, and wanted an immediate do-over.
At the final wrap party, just for staff and crew, we all talked about what's next, what we have lined up. Rebuild, move on, one door closes, you can parley, I hear so-and-so is hiring, blah blah blah.
I shouldn't be having these conversations.
This show should have had a ten year run. Standup comedy looks so bad on television, and each night Colin put four comics on tv, in a forum that looked natural- a conversation. It cost almost nothing to produce, and it held a decent sized audience with virtually no promotion. And no other show talked about topics, especially race, like Colin and the comics on Tough Crowd. If you went for an applause break, Colin would rightfully rip you apart. How can you ever watch another performer turn to the studio audience for attention without wanting to stab them in the eyes?
I feel like my eyes were opened during Tough Crowd. I was flailing as a comic- frustrated, not sure what I wanted to say, or who I wanted to be. I learned how to be a comic from watching Colin push himself every day as hard as he pushed the writers and the Regulars. Most days, he did a warm up set before the taping, and he always did new material. He never went out to kill or make a good impression, he always went out to break in new stuff. At one taping, I heard the early incarnation of the deNiro bit. The basic story is that Colin bombed at Robert deNiro's birthday party, in front of lots of big stars. The first version was short, just a quick re-telling of the previous night's disaster. About two weeks later, it was a brilliant, hilarious 6- 7 minute story.
Every comedian has a bomb tale, but most of us like to talk about a ten year old bomb, as if it never happens any more. "This was back in '89," we start, the subtext being, "It's been so long since I choked, I have to go back to another millenium."
Comedians are such liars. We'll tell you we killed when we didn't, we're always spinning, trying to protect our reps. In his
bit, Colin admits that even at his level, with his experience, he still makes the wrong choices and he's still crippled by hubris, like all of us. That's a real comedian, right there, that's the real fucking deal. I know open micers who won't admit to eating it, ever, and Colin Quinn does seven minutes about bombing, after 25 years in the business, in front of Martin Scorcese.
Sweet. The story is so funny and painfully honest, it just blows away whatever joke-jokes the rest of us have written down in our little Mead composition books. That's a higher level of comedy, that's Miles Davis, that's Jungleland
I learned so much from Colin, and Ken, Bryan, John and Christian. I'm not done sucking their brilliant brains dry, how can this be ending already?
Today I went on a callback to play a homemaker in a commercial. I feel like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas. I was a made man in the comedy Mafia. I made money, my friends were the funniest people ever, I wrote for the coolest show and my boss was the boss of bosses. Then we got busted. Now I'm in witness protection, doing road work in Red States and auditioning for soccer mom roles. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.