Colin Quinn kills w/ The New York Story

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I can only assume that Colin Quinn spends the hours before his comedy shows scarfing down industrial-scale oxygen tanks. This has to be true, if only to explain how he can spend an hour hilariously recounting the history of New York City without ever inhaling…although perhaps projectile vomiting the Big Apple’s history is more accurate.

Ask pretty much anyone who knows me and you will learn that I am a comedy snob. It takes a lot to make me chuckle, let alone laugh out loud.

I not only laughed out loud at Colin Quinn’s latest Netflix special The New York Story (trailer), I actually clapped while laughing out loud at several observations…and this was from my futon, not sitting with a theatre audience.

And before the laughter from one bit reached its crescendo (forget fading), you were already two bits behind, such was the ferocity with which Quinn delivered his perspectives of New York.

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The first two thirds of the show were the best, as Quinn explained and contextualized the arrival of each ethnic group to the city as a way of explaining why the attitudes of New Yorkers are unlike those of any other city in the world.

The last third, where Quinn took shots at political correctness and white guilt, was less funny but still had its share of laughs. This was the part of the show that seemed more like every other show I have seen that touches on race and ethnic relations.

But it is when Quinn becomes the people he describes, taking on mannerisms and recalling each culture’s absurdities, that he is at his best. His is less the vocal mimicry of a Russell Peters and more a distillation of their essence.

And his portrayals were made all the more engaging by the stage itself, which was decorated with settings familiar to New Yorkers—a deli counter, the docks, a front stoop, a corner bodega, an Irish bar—Quinn inhabiting each as he told the story of another group’s arrival in the city.

Colin Quinn Comedy Special

Quinn’s special was directed by long-time friend Jerry Seinfeld

This choreography makes The New York Story more a one-man stage play than a stand-up comedy routine. Not surprising, given the show first got its legs in a run off-Broadway.

In broader terms, whereas I have thought for several years that Quinn is funny—in particular, I miss his panel show Tough Crowd—I think he has really hit his stride in the last couple. What this special did for New York City, his last special Unconstitutional did for American politics, and with just as much humour and wisdom.

Perhaps, however, it is less that Colin Quinn is just now hitting his stride, and more that I have finally reached a place where I can appreciate him and his humours more fully.

Either way, I am glad we have reached this place and I hope we stay here for a while.

 

See also:

In The New York Story, Colin Quinn looks to stereotypes for wisdom—and finds some (A.V. Club)

Immigrants put the new in The New York Story for Colin Quinn’s newest Netflix triumph (Decider)

Judging Amy…Schumer…in Trainwreck (a review)

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I need to disclose that I adore Amy Schumer. I think she is an amazingly funny and talented comedian who has a knack for finding every nerve in every situation. Thus, I was petrified when I heard she was going to write and star in a movie.

Obviously, it’s not that I didn’t think she was talented. More that the talent to pull off a movie is very different from the talent to perform stand-up or biting sketch comedy.

Most comedians do not make the transition smoothly, and when they do, it is largely because they have completely reinvented themselves, often after several rocky outings. And many simply make the not-particularly-safer jump to sitcoms.

There is a lot to like about Schumer’s Trainwreck, so in that sense, I am happy that she didn’t completely self-immolate. On the other hand, the film had a lot of weaknesses that simply highlighted the challenge of writing a 122-minute sketch.

The movie had a lot of funny lines and several funny moments, based on the laughter that surrounded me and periodically fell out of my own face. And the humor was classic Schumer for those familiar with her comedy.

Anatomical jokes. Sexuality jokes. Feminine hygiene jokes. A bit of racism here and there. And crap loads of jokes about what a giant slut Amy is—note that she followed long-standing comedian tradition of naming her character after herself.

And Bill Hader was amazing in the role of the sports surgeon-boyfriend Aaron, particularly as he largely played the entire movie straight. This was not one of Hader’s million oddball characters. This was Hader being a regular human being who hangs out with multi-million-dollar sports figures.

Where the movie fell down for me was in the story. In short, it was a pretty stereotypical romcom.

In this case, they didn’t go with the “I hate you, I hate you, I can’t live without you” model of Nora Ephron. This was more the increasingly familiar “I don’t know about this, gee this is nice, what the hell, I hate you, never leave me” model.

Now, as a romcom, that is perfectly fine. If you came looking for a romcom, you will leave satisfied. It’s classic Judd Apatow, who directed Trainwreck.

But this was hailed as the anti-romcom (not necessarily by Schumer). The movie that turns romcoms on their head. Yes, the commitment-phobe in this story was the woman and not the man, but Schumer couldn’t seem to commit to that, ironically enough.

Adorable couple...cue trainwreck in 3...2...

Adorable couple…cue trainwreck in 3…2…

After establishing her character as the wham-bam-thank-you-sir kind of girl, she almost effortlessly falls into a relationship with Hader. There is token resistance, but it is overwhelmed simply by Hader saying he doesn’t agree and thinks they should be dating. This isn’t edgy; it’s sweet. Even her voiceover admits that.

Not to give anything else away, but conflict, crisis, lesson learned, gritted teeth, redemption and I love you, I love you too.

Again, if you want a romcom to match all romcoms, you got it. For those of us waiting for the Amy Schumer jab-twist combo, it was meh.

As to all of those other amazingly funny performances that everyone was raving about, I must have blinked through those scenes. It was a bigger shock seeing Tilda Swinton as a woman (and not David Bowie) than seeing her crack wise. Colin Quinn largely played Colin Quinn, who I like but did nothing spectacular here. Dave Attell wasn’t even funny.

Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton

And the various sports dudes like LeBron James and John Cena were your typical variety show variants of athletes…mostly cartoonish feminized versions of their personas.

Schumer had moments of real pathos here, so kudos to her acting chops. This wasn’t the joke-a-minute machine of her show. There is definite potential there for a film career, but like all the others who came before her, it will likely mean reinventing herself, and I’m not too sure that she’s finished inventing herself on stage or in sketch.

In fact, I sure as hell hope not, because that’s the Amy I adore.

Lady gonna do whatever she damned well pleases!

Lady gonna do whatever she damned well pleases!

Talking Comedy—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

(L to R): Jeff Biederman, Katie Ford, Joseph Raso, Andrew Clark

(L to R): Jeff Biederman, Katie Ford, Joseph Raso, Andrew Clark

This past weekend, TSC2014 convened a panel of sitcom showrunners entitled Comedy Is A Funny Business, where the panelists discussed various aspects of developing comedy for Canadian television.

The panel was comprised of Jeff Biederman (showrunner for Spun Out), Joseph Raso (showrunner for Seed) and Katie Ford (showrunner for Working the Engels), and was moderated by Andrew Clark, Director of Humber College’s Comedy Writing and Performance Program.

 

How do you know you or something is funny?

From Raso’s perspective, most people who want to write comedy typically have good comedic sense, and that it is important to trust your own instincts on what is funny. The rest of the writing process comes down to mechanics. Ford added that it is often about what you watched as a kid, the shows you grew up with.

Biederman mentioned that he had taken improv and stand-up comedy classes several years earlier, but had never really enjoyed them. He still wanted to be associated with comedy, however, so he gravitated to comedy television. Ford is an advocate of such classes, however, as she feels it gives the writer a sense of what you are up against. And Raso echoed those sentiments suggesting it also makes sure that you give actors solid material with which to work.

 

Can you discuss the seeming renaissance of sitcoms in Canada?

According to Raso, it is important to have a solid premise or conceit for a show, a distinct way to describe the core idea, because simply having ideas for individual episodes won’t cut it. One of the challenges for Canadian sitcoms, he warns, however, is that it is so hard to get networks to see beyond the first year—one and done, as he describes it—which has doomed many shows in the past. For most shows, the first season is difficult as the show hasn’t yet managed an identity or found its audience.

For writers, Biederman adds, this can be a big challenge as it can take a while for a new writer to break through, and there are not a lot of places to build the necessary skills or unique voice needed to be successful.

 

Can you describe the pitching process?

For Biederman, it is about going in with a story. Rather than try to tell jokes or act things out, he prefers to focus on why this show, what is particularly interesting about this premise. And if you already have a spec pilot script, all the better, because it helps the creator and writer maintain his or her power in the conversation and gives the network something more definitive to look at.

For Ford, it is about walking in with your logline, introducing a sense of theme, outlining a typical episode and then describing the characters. But perhaps most importantly, letting people see your passion for the project and how you connect with the subject matter.

Raso couldn’t agree more. For him, the personal angle is key.

Ford also suggests that it is vital you engage the executive you are pitching because he, she or they are your first audience.

 

Can you talk about the writers’ room?

Biederman describes the mix as people sharing responsibility for the final product, more as partners than anything in a hierarchical sense. He even brings in outsiders to punch-up the script (e.g., jokes). He describes the room as ruthless but welcoming and admits that it’s not always easy to be in the room or to run it.

Ford agrees, suggesting that it is a collaborative environment, but is by no means a creative free-for-all. Her job is to listen for the voices that add to the show. Raso, meanwhile suggests that the hardest part of the job for him is that he has to say no a lot, but despite that difficulty, it is vital that the room start off with real, honest and open discussion.

Biederman suggests that table reads with the actors can be invaluable to the writers but that they don’t always happen. Scripts for a multi-camera show can change 50 or 60 times over the course of a week, Ford adds, limiting the usefulness of table reads. And single-camera shows tend to work on tighter timelines, so again table reads are not always possible.

 

So, how does a new writer get into the room?

Biederman suggests starting as a script coordinator rather than try to get in with samples of your writing. The job will give the novice writer invaluable production experience. Ford agrees, suggesting that her own script coordinator kept things together on her show.

Ford also suggests that new writers need to be heard, to get their voice out there by whatever mechanism they can find, whether Twitter feeds, blogs, anything. It’s about demonstrating your strengths and your personality to show you’d be a good fit for the room.

According to Biederman, the make-up of the room has steadily changed over the years. It’s not just television writers, but also stand-up comedians and performers who bring unique voices into the mix.

The biggest place he sees new writers fail is in not sending their work when he offers to look at it. The fear of it being not quite perfect kills a lot of opportunities. Just send the work, he says.

 

Spec script or spec pilot?

Both Raso and Ford were adamant that they much prefer to read original work over spec scripts. According to Ford, they’re just not interested in reading yet another Big Bang Theory spec or whatever show is popular. She finds it much harder to get a sense of a writer’s unique voice by looking at a script that is trying to be someone else’s voice.

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