The Gag of Recognition: 'Long Story Short'

Colin Quinn’s quick and laugh-heavy sprint through history and philosophy ties everything back to America: "the bouillabaisse of fallen empires".

Long Story Short

Director: Jerry Seinfeld
Cast: Colin Quinn
Distributor: Video Service Corp.
Release date: 2011-12-06

It’s no surprise that Jerry Seinfeld’s name was plastered all over the advertisements for Colin Quinn’s surprise hit one-man show Long Story Short. The signs helpfully reminded everyone that Seinfeld directed this 75-minute history-based standup routine done by one of his good friends. They came up with the idea over breakfast. After all, putting the name of the man behind one of the era’s last widely recognized great sitcoms all over the posters for a show that started out on a little theater on Bleecker Street before graduating to Broadway just made good business sense.

There are people out there who own Seinfeld DVDs and may even consider themselves students of comedy who have never heard of Colin Quinn. That this is a travesty can be attested to by anybody who’s followed Quinn’s career in standup or his too-short stint on Saturday Night Live.

But beyond making good business, putting Seinfeld’s name out there also made a certain amount of sense. Because even though Quinn ranges further afield than Seinfeld’s more domestic material, it isn’t too far – Seinfeld confines himself mostly to the home and the personal, while Quinn ventures down the block to the corner bodega at least and makes a point of having read the newspaper. They are both experts at squeezing sprawling issues down to the mundane, which is an important attribute when you’re trying to cover the history of humanity in less than half the time of a Survivor season finalé.

Quinn takes the stage with his usual pained grimace, looking with his square-cut hair and air of dyspepsia like a Chicago beat cop who used to club hippies but now can’t be bothered. He stands before a half-circle of steps meant to evoke a Greek amphitheater, with maps covering the wall behind and images from the Hubble telescope swirling on the screen above. Quinn gets to the heart of it quickly, announcing that as much as the details of history change over the ages, the general thrust of it can be seen to not have changed at all since prehistoric times, if one knows to look for the patterns.

That’s what Long Story Short is, a gluing together of themes from the Greek philosophers to the Holy Roman Empire that, for all the superhuman leaps in time, specifics, and occasionally logic that it takes for everything to adhere, can make a goodly amount of sense. And if it doesn’t, then well, Quinn’s comparison of the Roman Empire to the mob is still inspired, if for no other reason than being one of the better riffs on Good Fellas ever done (“what Caesar really liked to do was steal”), even if the audience didn’t seem to quite grasp it.

No matter the time period that Quinn is learnedly grousing about – echoing at times a more downbeat and less rage-prone Lewis Black – he comes back to the thesis that all of human history is the same story “in the Old Testament and the New York Post. He notes the insanity of annual conferences of learned economists who don’t manage to grasp the financial tsunami bearing down on the world and posits that it could be because they meet in places like Davos, Switzerland, where everything must always seem… fine. If such conferences gathered in Haiti, instead, Quinn imagines a different outcome.

It’s a cheap shot like most of the best jokes and probably underestimates the power of people to delude themselves, but still manages to carry something of a kick. Even the gags that are transparently done to evoke a modern trash-culture icon (saying that, based on paintings, gatherings of clergy in the Middle Ages in St. Peter’s Basilica featured more gaudy jewelry than a Death Row party) work because there is a certain truth at work there.

Quinn’s pugnacious intelligence starts from some fairly basic historical precepts and, after pumping them up with the proper amount of exaggeration and cliché, spins comic gold out of many of them. They mostly involve personalizing the national, turning Britain into a contemptuous fop who conquers the world due to overcompensating in order to win the hand of that vexing tart France, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq into a bar fight that goes ugly.

The show – which is hardly well served by a too-basic DVD that includes only a slapped-together behind-the-scenes and some commentary (the latter of which at least has Seinfeld and Quinn riffing on new material while imagining what chip-munching insomniacs were actually listening to their commentary) -- ends in a kind of shoulder-shrugging warning. In Quinn’s flattened, cynics’ history, the supposedly greatest system of government ever created (American democracy, of course) still ends up having only one more electoral choice than the worst (fascism).

Calling America a “bouillabaisse of fallen empires”, Quinn manages to be both critical and celebratory, mocking the various flavors of the country’s ethnic stew while, yes, celebrating them. Just paying attention to the overbearing, arrogant, crumbling disaster of a nation around him is enough for Quinn to get laughs (and few comics would bother drilling down far enough to be able to work the French basis of many West Africans’ educational systems into a spectacular joke), but he weaves those gags into a grousing, wizened monologue that is just recognizable enough as reality to make it linger after the laughter fades.


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