The Comedy Counter-Counterculture

Colin Quinn in Red State Blue State (Edward T. Morris)
Pieties of the Left take a few blows in Colin Quinn’s new show

No one gets into comedy because he has a burning desire to get up in front of an audience and say, “Respect authority.” The conventional wisdom is wise! If something seems off, accept it unthinkingly!

Hence comedy must get pulled to the right. Once, the medium prided itself on being countercultural, but today the former counterculture is the culture. Comedy, to remain oppositional, must become the counter-counterculture. For comics of the left, the sense that they’re being drawn in the wrong direction must be causing a lot of internal anguish. Any sentient observer of the cultural scene cannot help noticing the truth-denial, cant, hysteria, and absurdity that infect progressivism today, but if you’re a progressive, calling attention to any of this feels like lobbing grenades into your own trench.

Which is why so much of comedy depends on the old standby: Hey, America, get a load of what Donald Trump said today. In a few months, comedy will be starting its fifth year of nonstop Trump jokes. Anybody feel that this material is getting a bit hackish? There’s another kind of cop-out, which is to pretend that yesterday’s contrarianism is still daring. Bill Burr has a long bit in his special “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” in which he blasts Christianity. Given that the bicoastal cities and the comedy industry have been secular for decades, attacking Christianity today is about as bold and defiant as mugging an old lady.

Colin Quinn’s new standup act (it’s presented as a one-man off-Broadway show, at the Minetta Lane Theatre through March 16) is a refreshing reminder of what comedy’s aims should be. “Comedy is becoming woke,” he says. Not just that. Comics are becoming timorous and cringing and bowing to the dictates of the cultural leaders. “That’s why I came into comedy, so I could march in lockstep with society,” Quinn says sarcastically. When people asked him as a young comic what he wanted to do, “I said I don’t care, as long as I can reinforce mainstream behavior.”

The name of Quinn’s show is Red State Blue State, and on the surface Quinn is staking out some neutral territory between enemy camps in the culture war. But he isn’t really, because he understands who the aggressors in that war are. One side is begging to be left to its own ways, and it isn’t the side shouting “tolerance.” And when he defines red states vs. blue states, he says, “Red states, a little bit racist. Blue states, a little bit fascist.” The audience didn’t see that one coming. There was a sharp intake of breath at the Greenwich Village venue when Quinn noted that the Left hates free speech. The collective thought bubble over the audience’s head read, “Who, us? We merely want to destroy teens who wear unapproved hat messages and ban films that are critical of Hillary Clinton.”

Quinn throws in a couple of Trump jokes just to reassure the audience that he’s not going to wander too far off the rails, but he offers sympathetic words for Trump voters: “They’re not all Nazis,” he says, painting a hilarious picture of a down-on-his-luck guy who is baffled to then be ordered to acknowledge his white male privilege.

Making common-sense observations carries a tinge of radicalism these days. “1492 to 1992, I never heard a bad word about Christopher Columbus . . . Now it’s like Manson’s birthday all of a sudden.” A society that starts questioning its own holidays, he notes ruefully, has turned on itself. He need hardly state which political persuasion is driving this unfortunate trend, which side is on the attack, which side is eager to destroy.

Quinn doesn’t just riff on the divided states of America, though; he proposes an actual (semi-serious) solution. He calls the idea “city states,” but it’s better known as federalism. Different parts of the country get to do things their own way. Beverly Hills can leave Tennessee alone and Tennessee in return will continue leaving Beverly Hills alone. Quinn wonders why celebrities on Twitter keep lecturing so many Americans in the middle of the country. “You don’t pull up in a Lamborghini and spray people with mud and say, ‘Do better.’” Not every system fits every temperament, he says, so the remedy is for everyone to stay out of everyone else’s business: “E pluribus, pluribus.” Sounds radical, yet familiar. Remember when “Live and let live” was a thing?

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