The Laugh's On Us

Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short is a very familiar experience—a combination of listening to a jokey guy inveighing about the State of Things in a friendly bar, or of following the manic lecture of a comic prof who affects the “common man” touch, or of feeling like the studio audience for some televised raconteur who knows how to spice up his talk with laughs should things get too quiet. What’s it not like, much, is a stand-up comedian’s routine, thankfully. Quinn’s show avoids personal/confessional bits, doesn’t use random free association much, and represses non sequiturs, all because this monologue, unlike most comedians’, has to get somewhere. It’s a fast-moving history of the world or a “how we got where we are now” and that means the audience has to be ready to sprint along as Quinn takes us on a whirlwind tour of some of the highspots of what was once known as “Western Civilization.” The set is simple: two curving blocks of fake stone meant to replicate the seating of ancient Greek ampitheaters and, above, a big screen on which images—mostly architectural reference points like the Colosseum or Hagia Sophia—flash and morph and hang. Beneath the video, Quinn wears contempo-casual and waves his arms a lot. The piece is directed by Jerry Seinfeld, but what that amounts to more than, like, advice on where to stand (“it would be cool if you kinda, y’know, slouch against the wall when you’re pretending to be French”) would be hard to imagine. It would help if someone would get Quinn to slow down a little—a bit more faux professorial tone might help, to create the illusion we should be taking notes—and enunciate a bit more clearly.

But that’s being fussy, I know. Quinn’s charm is that he sounds like a Brooklyn bus driver simply sounding off on whatever occurs to him, and there’s a fair amount of sotto voce mumbling and self-amused asides to punctuate the patter. The general manner could be said to have fallen out of Robin Williams’ pocket, but Quinn is never so desperate to be “brilliant” as Williams often is, and he’s not nearly so deliberately irreverent. He’s more Everyman than Genius and that helps sell his talk because most reasonably educated people would probably come up with many of the same reference points in producing a pocket-size summary of “our” history, and the stress on how silly history is keeps us all in the game. Those unable to laugh at history are doomed to see in it reruns, or something.

This is, though, “our” history, and you might begin to wonder who “we” are. Average white guys with European immigrants in their backgrounds, primarily. For Quinn history starts with the Greeks of the age of Pericles, pretty much, with little attention to what Egyptian, Hebraic, or Sumerian civilizations were about. Common enough? I don’t mean to say that Quinn has any reason to be comprehensive, simply noting the way the logic runs. The point isn’t really to cover history (truly harrowing things like wars are left aside, and you might wonder what happened to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment) but to characterize the world through the peculiarities of its peoples.

The Williams-like aspect of the show is in Quinn’s rapid aping of the world’s peoples speaking English. The requirement for this style of comedy is a chameleon-like ability to quickly become—in voice, tone, body language—instant stereotypes of any national or ethnic manner. And Quinn mostly manages it. The night I saw the show, the Frenchman sounded at times a little more Italian than he should. Speaking of Italians, the comic that Quinn put me most in mind of was Robert De Niro playing Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, but maybe that's because of the long passage describing Rome under Caesar, “adapted” mutatis mutandis from Ray Liotta’s speech about how the local mob worked under Paulie in Goodfellas.

Along the way, there are funny encapsulations of entire cultures—Britain’s great contribution to world history is that they invented contempt (the routines to support this thesis were some of my favorites)—religions (confessing teen “sins” to a priest who’s a jaded pedophile)—races (Arabs sound angry when happy and happy when angry)—lifestyles, like capitalism’s “anything goes” mentality (maybe “girls gone wild” isn’t the best way to woo orthodox cultures to our views)—and families (the aunt who spared one of her dying breaths to complain about the other family sharing the hospital room). It’s all served up with the brio of someone who finds where he can the comic potential of other people.

“History,” Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said, “is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” It might be better, after all, to see history as a joke that just keeps on delivering.

Colin Quinn: Long Story Short, A History of the World in 75 Minutes Directed by Jerry Seinfeld Long Wharf Theatre Mainstage August 13-21, 2011