‘SNL’ Alum Colin Quinn on Lorne Michaels’s Latest Firings and Why Trump Doesn’t Get Sarcasm
The former ‘Weekend Update’ anchor talks about how he left SNL, Donald Trump’s sense of humor, and the third season of his web series Cop Show.
A few days after the third season of his under-the-radar but consistently hilarious web series Cop Show premiered on YouTube, Colin Quinn gave The Daily Beast a call to talk about it from the Comedy Cellar in New York City, where he was set to perform later that evening. “Of course,” he joked, noting that he’s pretty much “always” there, before briefly interrupting our conversation to order some guacamole.
The stand-up comic knows a thing or two about the volatile world of late-night television, which saw more reshuffling this past week with Saturday Night Live firing Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah and Comedy Central deciding to cancel Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show. In 1998, Quinn became a midseason replacement for Norm Macdonald on SNL’s “Weekend Update” before getting the message that it was time for him to leave the show just two years later. Quinn is also a veteran of Wilmore’s time slot on Comedy Central, hosting the short-lived but much-beloved Tough Crowd following The Daily Show before Stephen Colbert ultimately took his spot.
In the years since, Quinn has chosen to focus on lower-profile but more creatively ambitious projects, such as his Jerry Seinfeld-directed one-man show on Broadway, Long Story Short, and Cop Show, in which he plays a narcissistic version of himself that takes his role on a fictional Law & Order-type drama way too seriously.
Quinn is also perhaps America’s foremost purveyor of sarcasm, which means he has plenty to say about the country’s least sarcastic presidential nominee Donald Trump, with whom he once shared the stage at a Friars Club roast of Don King.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
So, you dropped the third season of Cop Show without much warning in the middle of the night last week. Were you trying to shock the world, Beyoncé-style?
Yes, that’s exactly what the strategy was. And you know, it worked. The world was shocked into stunned silence.
What kind of feedback have you been getting on the new season?
Well, the usual feedback, which is the people who were in it liked their episodes.
Once again the season has some great guest stars. And you got Seth Meyers to play a character other than himself, which is an accomplishment.
Yeah, he was good. It was fun. He was a fan of Cop Show. Those were the only people that went on. He came to me practically begging.
And you also have Jerry Seinfeld back, playing perhaps the biggest asshole in the world. Was it hard to convince him to portray himself that way?
I don’t know if he was an asshole, just because he was a killer. But it was also bringing up the valid point of him being the inventor of hipsters. It was like, holy shit, we’ve got to give Jerry a reason to kill the hipsters. He wears sneakers, he fucking loves that goddamn DC Comics horseshit, and then he likes that kind of distanced, ironic, the “show about nothing” — it all made sense somehow.
The episodes of Jerry’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee can stretch to 20 minutes or so, closer to a traditional TV show length, but you keep yours a tight 5 to 6 minutes. Is it a challenge to winnow down what must be a lot of great material?
The director, J.D. [Amato], is a lot tougher than I am. I’d probably make them like seven minutes. But he’s more brutal than I am. He’s just like, yeah, we should cut that and then when I see it, I go, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” We don’t have the money to shoot full episodes, obviously, so better to just leave everything in that’s necessary than just put stuff in to be self-indulgent.
And do you find that works well in terms of viewers’ short attention spans?
No, I get yelled at every day. “Why are these episodes so short?” If they were long, they’d probably complain. That was the big thing on SNL over the years, like, “The sketches are too long!”
With the firings of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah this week, there has been a lot of talk about how people learn they won’t be returning to SNL. Do you have a story about leaving the show after 5 seasons?
It was definitely time for me to leave. And I wasn’t fired and it wasn’t my choice, which is really the way a lot of people leave. That’s the way you leave. It’s the summer and you hear that they want to delay re-signing you. And if you’re like me, then you’re like, “Fuck that! Then good, I’m leaving” and then you leave. And other people are like, I’ll see what happens. But it was definitely time for me to leave. Lorne [Michaels] wasn’t wrong, he was 100 percent right.
Did you hear directly from him or anyone at the show directly that they were hesitating on your contract?
No, you don’t hear from them. Nobody hears anything from anybody in show business. It’s not just SNL. That’s why managers and agents exist. So that nobody has to deal with the uncomfortable stuff directly. Every show is like that. You think that guy that got fired the other day from Criminal Minds [Thomas Gibson], who kicked the writer—even that in that case, I guarantee after the kick, three people dragged him off and then they said, go talk to your agent, he’s over there in the corner. In fact, they have agents and managers so people don’t kick each other, they’ll kick the agent or manager.
What about when you were hired at SNL? Because some people have said nobody tells you that either.
No, they told me. They tell people they’re hired. It’s a very old school place in a way. There’s a very ’70s-type vibe at SNL. And that can be good or bad. In a way, it’s very informal. But the other thing, you look at people who were on the show, I was there five years, Taran Killam was there six years. Chevy Chase was there one year. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi four years. For the most part, everyone is there for a long time. You’ve had a good run, you can’t stay there forever. It’s not a fucking union job.
Darrell Hammond’s still there.
[Laughs] Yes, he is.
There has been a lot of talk this past week about sarcasm with Donald Trump using it as an excuse for saying things like Obama is the “founder of ISIS.” Do you think he knows what sarcasm is?
If he knows what it means, there wasn’t evidence that he knew what it meant. Obviously. There was nothing in there that could be interpreted—you could say it was hyperbole or exaggeration, you could say that, but you couldn’t call it sarcasm. Here’s what he would have had to say if it was sarcasm, let’s say it was sarcasm. So basically he’s mocking all the people that say Obama’s a Muslim. If he’s being sarcastic. But then why was Hillary included?
What about the comments he made about “Second Amendment people,” do you think that was a joke?
I think that one was a joke. But it’s a very dark joke. If he said, “Hey, listen, that was a dark joke. You people don’t know me. I have a dark sense of humor. I say kill people.” I mean obviously that’s a not a joke you want somebody running for president to say. Because there’s enough people that might be going, you know, there’s a lot of truth in jest, maybe the guy wants us to kill her. At least that I could say was an insane joke, a moronic joke, but at least you could say it falls under the definition of a joke. Sarcasm is a different thing. He doesn’t know what sarcasm is obviously. I did a roast with him once.
What was that like?
He was so mean to everybody that he was funny. He didn’t have great jokes, but when he was mean, it was kind of entertaining. When he’d say these horrible things—and this was before The Apprentice—it was like, hey this business guy’s being a real prick, you know? And it was amusing in that way, kind of like now. Where in the beginning you go, this is kind of cool, he’s calling this guy “low energy.” Now he’s making fun of this guy! He gets on a roll and my analysis is, he got addicted to the laughs. He really had the metamorphosis of the comedian. First he got some good laughs on some good observations. Jeb was low energy. Then he went for shock humor with John McCain, going after a sacred target you shouldn’t go after. Then he did a bad impression of a disabled person and that was kind of an ’80s comic move, but it was still a move I’ve seen in the past. Then a couple of women jokes and that was it.
So it’s not as funny as it was in the beginning?
If he had gone from Jeb Bush and then he had turned out to be that insightful and funny on everything else, you would have said this guy’s got some charisma even if he doesn’t know how to be a politician. But it went downhill from there. He’s got a natural, funny personality to him, but the content really is not there.
Some people have pointed out similarities between Trump’s Twitter and yours, except that your exclamation points are actually sarcastic. Do you think he was inspired by you or were you inspired by him?
I feel like I’ve been doing it longer. I was on Twitter before him. So he can’t say that I stole his vibe.