“I know a lot of you people are going to read this book and say, ‘This guy is an asshole. He’s not helping the racial divisions in this country. He is just trying to be funny and clever, and he’s neither.’”
This is how comedian Colin Quinn concludes his new book released this week, The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America. You don’t often see authors taking a shot at themselves in their own books, but this is quintessential Quinn. He has long called it the way he sees it. And Quinn’s hilarious book, which skewers every racial, religious, and ethnic group that Quinn has come in contact with in New York City, from Italians to blacks to Jews and, yes, even Muslims, will cause some to call Quinn an asshole or worse.
Even though he’s ready for the criticism, Quinn doesn’t pretend to be immune to the sting of it. As Quinn explained by phone, “I always care if people think I’m an asshole, even if it’s people who I think are assholes.”
But the truth is Quinn has no interest in being PC or tiptoeing around a minefield of what he calls “instant outrage,” because he is, on some level, trying to bridge the racial divide we see in America. Quinn believes, as do I, the best way to do that is to openly raise issues about race and have an honest discussion.
Can comedy actually help with racial issues?, I asked Quinn, who first broke out as part of MTV’s Remote Control in the late 1980s singing horrifically but hilariously. “It can’t make it worse,” he joked. Quinn then added some words of truth: “In America, we can talk and joke about every issue from war to genocide, but not race. At the very least I want people to admit that we can’t raise issues of race in this country out of fear of being labeled a racist or even getting fired from your job for it.”
Just last week Jerry Seinfeld, a close friend of Quinn who directed his one-man Broadway show, Long Story Short, which was featured on HBO, argued that college students are too PC and jokes about issues like race are not possible on college campuses. But Quinn said Seinfeld was only half right.
“Look, for 20 years college students have been too politically correct,” Quinn noted. But here is where Seinfeld and Quinn part company. Quinn believes that this PC mindset has expanded from colleges to American society as a whole in recent years. “Now people are outraged over any ‘buzzword’ that they think is offensive, which has led to a George Orwell version of ‘groupthink’ that demands conformity.”
Quinn noted that “while the language is being sanitized, feelings haven’t changed. And that is the problem with the ‘groupthink’ mentality where we can’t say certain things because some will be offended.” He added: “We should be more outraged over racist behavior, not over a joke about race that is clearly not intended to demonize any group but to raise issues about the racial divide.”
And Quinn’s new book truly seeks to do that in a way that is funny, personal, and honest. The book is in some way a cross between a love letter and a sardonic roast of the different racial, religious, and ethnic groups that make up New York City. No one is spared. And I mean no one. He not only takes on groups like blacks, Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Italians, but also ethnicities no one jokes about like Scandinavians and Albanians. (What is the last joke about Scandinavians you can recall a comedian telling?!)
He even wrote a chapter about the Arabs in his neighborhood titled “Endless Desert.” Being a mix of Italian and Arab, I knew Quinn would include Italians, but I must admit I was very happy to see Quinn featured an entire chapter discussing/mocking Arabs and Muslims. I would rather that we be included than ignored as if we don’t exist or aren’t part of the American landscape.
Quinn wrote about Arabs, “You could call Arabs a lot of things, but never passive-aggressive. I don’t think the Arabs have a word for ‘indirect’…they are the most intense people on earth.” I really can’t argue with that. Although Quinn did tell me in typical Quinn fashion that he admires Muslims when it comes to giving to charity and especially in the way some Muslim countries address crime: “I love the way they don’t fuck around with rapists—they kill them. There is something to be said for that.”
Quinn, who is featured in the new Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck, which stars Amy Schumer and opens in July, shares great personal stories in the book, such as working as delivery guy for a Chinese restaurant. (Who would want a scrawny Irish guy delivering their Chinese food?)
One of my favorite stories is his bombing horrifically at a birthday party for Robert DeNiro. The story is Quinn at his best as he takes us through in painful yet hilarious detail his dying onstage in front of a celebrity-filled audience.
Quinn has long been known as a comic’s comic. A guy who other comedians, me included, would always stop from being obsessed with our own mediocre careers or bad-mouthing other comedians who are doing better than we are to watch perform, because he was always doing something original on stage. And true, some nights he didn’t get big laughs. But as Quinn told me years ago when I worked with him at Saturday Night Live at the time he was anchoring “Weekend Update”: “If you are a comedian killing every night, you are either a hack or not pushing yourself.”
Quinn has remained true to that philosophy over the years and this book is no different—it again pushes the envelope. While it will certainly piss off some people, for others it will be a rare honest and very funny look at race in America. And maybe, just maybe, his book will spark a much needed productive discussion on race relations in our country.