Read Colin Quinn’s keynote speech from Just For Laughs Montreal
Colin Quinn is nothing if not a survivor. From his time on Saturday Night Live to the host of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, he’s managed to navigate the choppy waters of show business while maintaining his profile as one of the best standup and putdown comics out there. Yet he seemed bewildered as to why he was giving the keynote speech at this year’s Just For Laughs festival, and why he had to come up with a name for it (he chose “Loners In Unity”).
Much of the half-hour keynote was spent giving advice to the attendees, with Quinn giving advice to club owners and bookers, to TV networks, to the comics themselves. And in a room full of his peers and contemporaries, Quinn once again rose to the occasion.
Here’s a transcript of Quinn’s entire speech made at Just For Laughs:
First of all, thank you all for coming to this. I’m glad you got here yesterday. They cancelled my flight. It was supposed to be 11 o’clock and it was cancelled until 12:30. The stewardess was giving all the instructions in French so she could’ve been saying anything. Plus the pilot was from Brooklyn so fugghedaboutit. It balances itself out.
I would like to start by saying I saw Andy Kindler yesterday. I haven’t seen him in years. I love Andy Kindler. He comes up to me and says, “Hey man, you’re giving that speech tomorrow it’s great.” So I said thanks and he said, “I hope you memorize it.” So I laugh and he says, “no, seriously, I hope you memorize it.” So I was like, ‘go fuck yourself.’ I tell you that because it’s such a comedian personality to tell you to demand what you want from the other person. And I saw Jim Norton this morning and he tells me this, and this is a typical comedian personality, he goes, “hey, where do you get your credentials?” I’m not your fuckin’ manager! I didn’t have my credentials on, ya piece of shit. Why do I say this? I don’t know I just thought it was important.
Well, lets get down to the bare bones of it. I like the fact that, you know how old you have to be when people ask you to be the serious person at a comedy convention, yeah that sounds about right.
Well, we’ll start with my comedy roots. I started by, uh, my dream, like all of you, was just to be able to get up and do stand-up comedy, if I could just gather the balls to get up. Then you get up, you have the balls to get up, you get a few laughs, and then you’re like ‘holy shit, if I can just make money doing this and if I can just make a living doing stand-up, I wouldn’t have to worry about my day job.’ And then you get to that point and you’re like, ‘If I can get interest of people that come to see me, and they come to see ME,’ it’s at that point that you start to realize it doesn’t keep going like that. You know what I mean? You have to have ups and downs. I was on MTV, but then I was back trying to get gigs. I had to live with my mother for a year, then I was on Saturday Night Live, and then I was doing fucking firehouses in New Jersey with Bob Levy. And they were all like “What are you doing here?” and I said I don’t know what happened. I’m just saying it’s one of those businesses where my goal was the same goal that most people have, which is like, ‘I want to keep getting to a different level. I don’t want to just be doing’ – I mean I love doing stand-up, it’s my favorite thing in the world, it’s your favorite thing in the world, it gets you high, and even though it would be a nightmare for you if you were living your dream, or being some shit. You know what I mean? Like your dream is what? To get that kind of money and exposure and then you’re going to go do stand-up and everyone’s going to love you. What? Because you’re on The Big Bang Theory? You see yourself as one to five people there and you’re impressed. No you’re a miserable fucking comedian. You would be the person on the set that is yelling, screaming, starting shit with the director. That life is not funny. I can re-write that, you know.
So this is basically what happened to me. You can look at my story, for example, and say oh here’s a guy that knocked around, had ups and down, and eventually he found his niche of doing one-man discoverable- I don’t even know what to call it. That would be the dizzy version, yes, but that’s fine. I’ve also been writing like all this shit you want done and it doesn’t get done. And for various reasons. Sometimes the networks aren’t the brightest people in the world, and sometimes it’s because you sabotaged yourself. So really what I’m talking about here, why do they call it “Loners in Unity?” Because these pricks that run this festival made me come up with the title three weeks ago. I said ‘I’m a comedian. I don’t have a title or a theme.’ And they wanted me to write my speech and hand to them beforehand (audience laughter). This is what I’m saying. There is a disconnect between us and each other. Everyone loves to be at the Montreal Comedy Festival, do you not know comedians yet? I’m not writing out my fucking speech.
First let’s look at the managers, actually let’s look at bookers. We’ll get to the managers later. Bookers, here’s the thing, if you’re booking a comedy show, stop trying to craft the fucking TV set. Your shows are uneven to begin with. Every late-night show is an up and down. By the time we actually come on, it’s a breath of fresh air. Even for me. I know all the comedians and I’m so happy. Why are we responsible for all of our sets where there’s no fat left – meaning no flavor- it’s like having a meatball but cooking it in the sauce for four hours. And then you take it out and decide, ‘this meatball is good it didn’t need the sauce.’ Part of what makes every comedian that’s here funny, is not always the straight line, fat-free version so you are destroying yourselves. Nobody believes you when you say standards and practices. What a coincidence they had the same note you had three weeks ago.
Okay, for networks, this is just a quick thing for networks, follow the plan that fails 90% of the time for the past 70 years (audience laughter). Because there’s other meanings after doing what we do for so many years. They’re just sitting there going “our audience-“ first of all, we play for your audience every night you stupid motherfuckers. We play audiences all over the country. That’s what we do. We’re test marketing every goddamn night. If you had a 50% success rate I’d be like, ‘Hey at least you know something.’ I’m just speaking from what I’ve done. My whole career was like I’m not going to try and get money from outside or work within the system, I am the fucking system. I’m like ‘hey, everybody knows me,’ it just never worked that way. Maybe it’ll work for you. Once in a while you get lucky, Louis C.K., but for most people, it’s not going to be that way. Just think, Patrice, Giraldo, they never found shows for those two. Those large personalities, and they couldn’t get a show for them. So think about that. Norm MacDonald, and this is not a slam on Comedy Central, sure it’s not, [sarcasm] this day has been coming for a long time. And Norm MacDonald is one of the most Renaissance mad minds, hosting a goddamn sports show. That’s called putting someone in a harness. He’s hosting a goddamn sports show. He doesn’t even like sports, he just likes gambling. I hope your next sports show is hosted by Aaron Hernandez. And there’s a lot of great shows on Comedy Central, I’m not trashing, but stop test marketing to fucking 14-year-olds. Here’s the way it’s supposed to work, you’re doing it backwards, adults influence kids. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, not the other way around. By the way, anyone at this festival who is in the industry part of this business who judges one set you saw someone do at this festival, you’re not part of the industry, you’re just another person who was at the show who goes, “hey I thought that person bombed.” Stop judging by audience response, I know that sounds stupid, but if somebody bombs five times in a row, there’s a problem. But one bad set you can’t be judging the rest of their career on that.
Comedy Central Roasts – stop having celebrities on and stop writing jokes for people. Nobody writes their own shit. It takes away the organic thing. And that takes me to a quick digression about To. Here’s the thing about Tough Crowd, I created that show and I brought that show from NBC to Comedy Central and here’s what bothers me, they tried to replace the show, without me, after the show left. And this goes to point something out. You can’t just replace sh*t. Every comedian is individual. I’m not the best fucking host, I’m not even the best host of Tough Crowd, it’s a creative business. You have to hire comedians as consultants. You can’t keep hiring crowd-pleasing hacks and don’t get a panic look on your face when someone is doing a new piece for three minutes and isn’t killing it every night. It’s not a problem, it’s a fucking process. You’re architects of your own destruction. You hire hacks, you make sure the five people that are heckling get taken care of, not the 150 people that are horrified by the five people ruining the show so they can’t hear the comedian. That’s a good way to run a business. I’m just saying, you’re chasing people out of your clubs every time you let these fucking idiots in.
Managers and agents, first of all, telling people they need more Twitter followers is pathetic. But the truth is, we know we need you, we can’t function without you, we couldn’t have all gotten up here without you. I’m in a sick relationship with you. I acknowledge there’s two sides to this shit. We’re not the easiest people. With the managers, we’re like the jealous, possessive psycho. You know, you bring us bad news and we explode and blame you. And you seduce us when you meet us. You flatter us and make us feel like we’re the only one, but you push us aside when somebody else shows up. But here’s the other thing for managers, quit using agents as excuses. But we’re a couple, lets come out and admit it. We need both of you. You get to be with a fun person but have to deal with the bullshit on the way home. But that’s part of my whole theme, don’t worry I do a theme underneath it all, believe me.
Openers, you stink but you think you’re great. I stunk and I thought I was great for years and that’s the only thing that keeps you in this business. It’s part of the make up of stand-up and it takes five years to really know. People doing it five years, it takes ten years. But here’s my little other notes for stand-ups, not that I’m Mr. Performance, but I’m just trying to tell you when you’re doing stand-up, I see so many funny stand-ups on Comedy Central and everyone is standing there, ironically, not moving. Move around. You’re going for your life right now. The only one that can pull that off for more than ten minutes without boring people is Todd Barry. Everyone else needs to move around in a circle a little bit. The only thing that accomplishes is one of your drunk audience members will think, “wow he’s a great writer.” People, just move, walk, open your body, yell every once in a while, it’ll save your goddamn career.
This is to my fellow comedians, all of you people that are up here. First of all, don’t be a dick to the new people. They’re annoying and they want to drain you of your knowledge and use you for whatever they can, but that’s what you did to people and that’s what people do to people because it’s human nature. Just play along, don’t be a cranky bastard.
The rest of this is more or less to us. First of all, what I’m saying is, what I tried to do was go the normal route. When I was on SNL, I pitched the shows, I wrote the shows out, I took the screenwriting classes, went there, met people, “we love Colin, we love him, you know what I mean? They’re going another way but they love you, they want to work with you.” Like I said, if you’re lucky and you can pull that off, good for you. In the meantime, you’re gonna have to work on your own. Work with each other. The people in networks are never going to think what I think is funny, they’re just not. It doesn’t work that way. You have to work with each other. So here’s what I’m saying. First comedian advice, then I’m giving you my industry advice. First of all, we’re the only people around that I can see that are actually saying something. So say something, say something. You know what I mean? I feel like everyone just gets locked into one thing like “oh this is what my guy would say.” No. You’re the one person to say whatever you think that’s interesting to you. Whatever your outside interests are, you should be bringing them onto the stage. Look, even my things I’m doing right now, everyone can do that kind of stuff if you just focus in on one thing and then do it. Anyone that can be thematic, and you don’t want to but at a certain point you have to be that person that people go “oh he’s that kind of personality.” You kill every fucking night but it’s arbitrary and people just forget because people have to sink their teeth into what you’re doing. Yeah it was pretty boring but it was something I had to say. And when you say something funny, please be funny. If you’re gonna preach, fine. If you’re a preaching comic, preach fucking funny. If you have more pause breaks than laughs, you’re a pandering fucking populist.
I love these new fundamentalist speech monitors. I thought we were the ones that were going to slide behind this politically correct fucking nightmare. Apparently we’re just watching and blogging about that shit too. First of all, here’s why it’s so infuriating. Sam Morrow, the original great joke controversy of this year, it was a comment on how people accept rape jokes. That was the thing, it wasn’t even a rape joke, it was a comment on rape jokes. The don’t even know what they’re raged about, its just so infuriating to me. But that being said, don’t get fucking lazy and just write whatever the most shocking shit is. Because shock can easily become the new hack. Edgy comedy can easily become hack. Here’s the other thing, headliners, when you start headlining, don’t become a cheap fuck. You know how many headliners turn into fucking assholes? Once people start headlining, the industry exploits us and they tell their friend to work with them for 58 bucks. “They’re coming to see me.” That was fast, you turned into everything you hate. You shouldn’t have more than 64% of your set be dick jokes, or else I don’t want to hear any complaints. 64% I think I’m being very fucking liberal here.
So here’s what happens, the good news is success in stand-up is very bad for your act. In a way I’m glad that once I got everywhere I thought I wanted to go, I just kept falling right back. Sometimes it was self-sabotage, sometimes it was the industry, it doesn’t matter. The point is this, when you reject stuff, I’ve turned down a lot of things, and sometimes I turned them down because I’m a comedian and it was in good taste. But sometimes I would turn it down because I was scared. And that’s the big thing nobody talks about, fear. Fear, ego, and control are the three things, because when you’re doing stand-up, you’re doing the one thing the whole world is afraid to do. And you’re standing up there doing it. But then when you’re put into a situation where you don’t control the room, you don’t have a mic, you don’t have an audience, suddenly people become a little bit scared. And the way it came from me, I was supposed to be in Austin Powers a long time ago, like 17 or 18 years ago. Mike Myers calls me up and says, “look I have this part, I saw you on the Larry Sanders Show, and I want you to do the same thing you did there in my movie, Austin Powers.” And I said, ‘Thanks Mike but I’m working on my own shit but thanks.’ I’m sure many of you would’ve done the same thing. He called me back and said, “Colin, you got the part.” And I said the same thing. ‘Thanks but I’m working on my own shit too.’ He laughed and said “look I don’t want to have to beg you,” and I said ‘Mike, I respect you, good luck with your thing, good luck with my thing.’ I might’ve done that because I didn’t believe in his project. It wasn’t finished, I didn’t know what the project was at the time. No one knew the juggernaut that was Austin Powers. What I’m saying is that when you do it, there’s a fear that I feel when I see stand-ups say, “I won’t sell out, I don’t go to parties.” The two biggest regrets I have in my stand-up career- it was three. One, was not keeping that energy of how I was making my living, and I should’ve kept that if I would’ve thought about what it means. Two, taping and listening to every set. And three, going to every stupid party. I feel like I spent my whole career being invited to all these big events and I’d just say ‘fuck that’ and go to all the clubs. But guess what, I could’ve put on a nice suit and gone for a half hour, and just shook hands, stayed for a half hour and then leave and go do comedy, but I didn’t do it because, ‘fuck them, I’m not going to be a part of these assholes.’ But I wasn’t afraid, I was uncomfortable to be around that, you know what I mean? Being around all these people and being uncomfortable because they have something I want and they have the power to give me what I want. And I’m sure this applies to many of you, it’s like “fuck you, let me control the crowd, let me do my comedy,” but I’m not telling you to go kiss ass, all I’m saying is if you want to get whatever it is that you are trying to get, you do have to ask somebody at some point where they have money or power. You don’t have to kiss ass or change anything about your content, but you do have to be civil, show up to a few meetings, look them in the eye, try to remember their names, how many fucking names do you forget immediately, you know what I’m saying? I can’t even tell you some of the biggest names I’ve forgotten over the years. The responsibility for us is to write, listen to your sets, but you also have to take responsibility for being around the industry.
What we should fear, is becoming a pompous ass, becoming a cheap headliner, and becoming a hack or a thief. Here’s what we do for you, being vulnerable or looking stupid, not by your own choice, you feel like you’re being muted over. Let me save us all the pressure, nobody is a fucking genius. If there’s a genius, we’ll all know about it and let you know. Even Woody Allen comes out with shit 40% of the time. What we fear the most is being silenced. That’s the fear. I mean 80% of you right now would like to grab this fucking mic and take it over for me. So all I’m saying is this kingdom of speech is a mistake but the only ones in this country that really tell the truth are right here. I love you guys thank you so much.