I am sure of two things after seeing Colin Quinn in his self-written solo show Long Story Short, playing now at Guild Hall. One: Quinn is hilarious (kind of a no-brainer) and two: Quinn is smart. Put those together, and you have a hit on your hands.
Quinn puts his own spin on tried and true topics—the fall of Rome, Communism, and the Jersey Shore reality show—with his own brand of perfectly timed wit. The “Saturday Night Live” alum partners up with friend and comedic mastermind Jerry Seinfeld, whose presence you feel on stage as Quinn delivers line after line of laughter-inducing snippets.
Quinn begins by stating what may be on everyone’s mind—how can a show about history be funny? (I only thought that for a moment, I promise!) He answers his own question quite well, using the fall of ancient empires (and the basic human nature to conquer all, ahem, Greeks and Romans) to that guy you flip off in traffic and that person you’re forced to ride with on the elevator who angers you simply by choosing a floor before yours. “We hate everybody,” Quinn states, “it’s programmed into us,” then he launches into a tale of visiting his aunt in the hospital. “I walked by the people in the other half of the room and waved hello,” Quinn begins, and when he goes over to greet his sick aunt she tells him, “don’t talk to those people. We hate them. We think they stole one of our chairs.” Basic human nature passed down from centuries of pissed-off people. “If we can’t share a hospital room, how can we share the Middle East?” [expand]
Quinn makes use of the crumbling ancient ruins that is his set, trotting around, sitting down occasionally to impersonate the surly Caesar or the ever-thinking scholars such as Socrates and Aristotle. He also makes use of a giant projection screen to illustrate thoughts through various maps, world scenery, Classical paintings—all adding the hilarity that encompasses this 75-minute comedy routine. He’s at his best when reducing world conflicts to the most basic emotional terms. Africa is your friend’s little sister who grew up and got hot and the continent’s civil wars are likened to six Brooklyn high schools letting out at the same time. International skirmishes are wryly compared to bickering families trying to get through the holidays.
Quinn’s historical lesson plan is a fancy way of giving shape and purpose to his affinity for ethnic humor. The British and French are skewered with snooty, sneering—and spot-on accents. Quinn likens England to a surly child, and attributes the rise of the British Empire to an Englishman’s distinct ability for showing contempt, and compares the Empire’s eventual demise to that of a company’s struggling with a franchising problem. Why do Jews say “Shalom” when it means both hello and goodbye? A dig at the long history of the persecution of the Jewish race—after all, it’s useful to have a single word for hello and goodbye.
Quinn skims the surface of thousands of years of history, making his point that we’re not that different from our ancestors, we just have different methods of accomplishing our goals. Rome wasn’t built or burnt in a day, nor was the Great Wall of China (“Who builds a wall that big anyway? America would have built about 14 feet and said ‘yup, that’s a big enough wall”). These empires were slowly annihilated by jerk-off antics that only Quinn’s quirky observational comedy is rightfully equipped to scrutinize.
Quinn calls out our founding fathers—those jerks—who had the nerve to include the phrase ‘…and the pursuit of happiness….’ “Really bad idea guys,” Quinn pipes up, “Now we’ve got Dr. Phil on our hands.” Quinn calls the U.S. “the bouillabaisse of fallen empires,” considering throughout the show how our modern world inevitably picked up bad behavior patterns throughout history.
The ending routine is priceless—all the countries, England, Italy, China, Africa, Greece—to name a few—are in a bar together discussing their problems. In the end, America is left to drive the drunken Greece home. Greece tells America how not to make the same mistakes as their fallen predecessors, how we should eat less, spend less and be happier.
“What the F@!$ is wrong with Greece tonight!?” Quinn/America laments, and drives off laughing.
Long Story Short: History of the World in 75 Minutes, performed by Colin Quinn and directed by Jerry Seinfeld, is playing in the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall now through June 26. For more information and to order tickets, visit guildhall.org.