Why Colin Quinn ‘Sabotaged’ Himself on ‘Saturday Night Live’
SNL was a “dream come true” for Colin Quinn—until Norm Macdonald got fired and he took over the “Weekend Update” desk.
“I would self-destruct, as you can see if you watch it,” the man who is paradoxically also considered by his peers to be among the best stand-up comedians of his generation says on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. And his self-sabotage had a lot to do with the way he got the gig.
Quinn was hired as a writer for season 21 of SNL in 1995 when the show was in one of its many rebuilding phases and was later promoted to “featured player” status, mostly performing short stand-up bits on “Weekend Update” with then-anchor Norm Macdonald.
Two years later, in the middle of season 23, Macdonald was abruptly fired for making too many jokes about NBC executive Don Ohlemeyer’s friend O.J. Simpson. (I guess there were three victims that night. Nicole Simpson, some waiter, and me,” Macdonald joked to me in an interview a few years ago.)
Lorne Michaels installed Quinn as his replacement and it was more or less all downhill from there.
In the excerpt below, Quinn breaks down exactly what happened and opens up about how he views his SNL legacy. You can listen to our full conversation right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
So did you audition to be on the cast and they hired you as a writer? Or did you just get hired as a writer?
I got hired as a writer and it was the year the show almost went under. The year before that there was the big article, ‘Saturday Night Dead.’ So nobody was left except for Norm Macdonald. And David Spade. Everybody else was new.
Is that when they fired Chris Farley and Adam Sandler?
Yes, I know, it is crazy, right? But they left David and Norm because they were relatively new. But this was the first year for Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, everybody. So it was a whole new group and I was a writer. But then I was doing these little “Update” features. One of the writers goes, put an “Update” feature in, so I started putting these “Update” features in, like the lion and this guy, Joe Blow.
You did a St. Patricks Day one that was pretty memorable.
Yeah. And people thought I was really drunk, you know? So I should’ve just stayed with those, because I was writing, but really I had the best job on the show. I’d do those “Update” features and that was it.
Were you writing sketches too or you really just got to do the “Update” stuff?
I wrote some sketches, but not really. Not that much stuff that got on.
So how did you make the transition from being a writer to being part of the cast?
My manager just was like, hey, put him in a cast as a featured player. And they put me in the cast as a featured player. But in retrospect, you know, everything’s 20/20 hindsight, I would’ve just stayed as a writer, done my little “Update” features and that would’ve been it.
And you would have been happier?
And why is that? You didn’t have a good experience anchoring “Weekend Update”?
It wasn’t what I should have been doing. And my gut knew it, but I didn’t know it. Even at that point, I had turned down so many things. I was like, if I say no to these opportunities, what does that mean? Am I going to kick myself?
Do you think that part of the issue with “Weekend Update” was the circumstances of Norm Macdonald's leaving and that there were bad feelings there?
Until about three years ago, I didn’t really understand how much I sabotaged it because of that. I was so afraid—I had never been in a position before where people might think I’m the good boy who comes in when this guy is acting up. So every episode I would not smile, I would just throw away everything. And so really I would self-destruct, as you can see if you watch it, even more so than I normally would, because of that.
Have you talked to Norm about it in more recent years about what that was like for him?
No. I mean, we knew each other very well at that point and afterwards, but we never really discussed details about it. But, you know, I can’t picture having that heart to heart with Norm. That's not how we are. I mean, I’m sure he's got people he’s like that with, but I’m not one of them. But we’re friends, we respect each other and we work together all the time. But yeah, we would never have that discussion.
So overall, it seems like it was not the best experience being the anchor of “Weekend Update.” But are there good memories of being on the show that stick out to you?
The first half of my time on that show was my dream come true. The second half was not fun for me or for the audience or for Lorne, with me. I mean, just imagine, I’m from New York, every day taking the D or the F, right below 30 Rock, getting up and walking into 30 Rock and working at Saturday Night Live as a writer and doing my little performance, stand-up things. Taking the train after the show, after rehearsal, down to the Comedy Cellar a couple of times a week, doing stand-up. I mean, you know, for what I am or what a lot of people like me are, you couldn’t ask for anything better. It was a dream. And I was already in my thirties so I didn’t expect it. It was amazing. It was great. And then, you know, like anything else, be careful what you wish for.
What did you like or not like about appearing in sketches, which you would do once you were in the cast? Was that part fun for you, actually acting in sketches and playing characters?
No! No. Like I said, I wasn’t going to turn it down. It was great. But then when I was doing it, I was like, I don’t like this at all. I think being a stand-up, you’re used to working in a certain way. And you want to write your own material and you don't want to do other people's shit. And I had no time to go to the Cellar and work on stand-up. The first half was so amazing and the second half was just, you know… but I wouldn't admit it to myself at the time because how can you admit that this thing is not making you happy when it’s the ultimate goal for everybody?
Given that you didn’t enjoy the second half of your experience there, were you kind of relieved when it was over and they asked you not to come back?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I was. And it’s a shame, you know what I mean? Because it didn't have to go down like that. But it did. And you know, I just have to look at my part of it, which was a big part. And my attitude and everything. And it’s too bad, but that’s the way it went. SNL is such a great thing in some ways, but nobody comes out of there without a little—like a knee injury when it rains.
There’s this great moment in the SNL 40th anniversary special where it's the four “Weekend Update” guys. You, Norm, Seth Meyers and Kevin Nealon and you introduced Chevy Chase. What was your experience of that night like?
That was my first time back. So that whole night was weird for me. That was the first time I even really started to think back over those days. So for me, that moment was nothing compared to just the whole night. I feel like it was a really emotional night for a lot of people, especially people like me that had not been back for so long. If you go back to any place that was a big part of you, you feel sad but happy at the same time, you know? There was a lot of that, like of course you’re always going to mourn for days when you were younger. It’s like when I listen to a band, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I love this band!’ But do I love them or do I love what I was when they were what they were? And it was the same thing. But I was blown away the whole night.
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Comedian and star of the Netflix special ‘Everything’s Fine,’ Sarah Cooper.