Comedian Colin Quinn’s new Netflix special, The New York Story—directed by Jerry Seinfeld—attempts to explain how waves of immigrants came together to create what the world now recognizes as the “New York attitude.”
The native New Yorker, best known for his stint as Weekend Update anchor on Saturday Night Live—and, to younger viewers, as Amy Schumer’s dad in Trainwreck—deconstructs his city’s character by analyzing the various ethnic groups who’ve come to our shores from the 1600s through today. If you’re a Colin Quinn fan, you already know to expect a point of view that’s more Friars Club than college diversity task force. Key to his understanding: “All the people who came here were miserable wherever they were.”
Quinn took some time to talk with us about The New York Story, where to find “old-school” New York City in the 21st century and the dangers of playing basketball with Adam Sandler.
How did you develop this show?
Colin Quinn: I wanted to do something about the gone New York, the New York I grew up in. I wrote The Coloring Book, but a book is not really my medium. I like doing it in stand-up. So I started working on the show. And Jerry loves anything with New York, so we talked about it and he got involved directing and shaping it.
The show has jokes, but also historical facts. Did you do a lot of research?
CQ: Yeah. My favorite thing I found out was that Nathan Hale was hanged on the Upper East Side, and that f—k was a Dutch word [Editor’s note: Historians and etymologists aren’t 100 percent sure]. I mean, what else could you want for a New York show? I was so happy when I saw that.
When you come back here from the road, do you notice that people of different backgrounds are mixing more in NYC than in other cities?
CQ: Yes—it’s physical. There’s a mixing just by necessity, because we have the train. If you go to any other city, [there are] Somali and Sudanese and Ethiopian car-service drivers [and] Indian deli owners [and so on]. But New York is such a flopping-on-top-of-each-other kind of place. Everyone’s on the train or walking, so there’s a lot more of that.
Do you have any favorite ethnic neighborhoods in the City?
CQ: I like to go anywhere in Queens. If you take the 7 train, you’ll go through Long Island City; the Filipino part of Sunnyside; then you go through Woodside, which is Irish, Colombian, Central American; then you go to 74th Street, which is Indian; then you’re in Corona, which is Mexican. Then you go to Shea Stadium—I mean Citi Field—and there are Chinese and Korean people in Flushing. Every stop is a neighborhood. You can walk down Roosevelt Avenue and you’ve lived in a whole world.
You’re a Comedy Cellar guy, right?
CQ: We love the Cellar. We love every incarnation. They also run the Village Underground and the Fat Black Pussycat, where I’ve been working a lot lately. I just love it. Macdougal Street, the train station, the basketball courts, the [Blue Note] jazz club—everything about the area reminds you of comedy back in the day. That’s a block that reminds me of the old-school New York.
What do you like about the West 4th Street Courts?
CQ: Just watching everybody play, realizing I should be on the court dominating everybody as I limp past.
Have you played there?
CQ: I have, but never in a real game. I played on those courts when other people weren’t there.
Would you still play there now—or, with the hobbling you mentioned, are those days over?
CQ: Well, my Achilles is down. But in six months I would do that, yes. I popped my Achilles playing basketball with stupid Adam Sandler. Infuriating. But in six months I’ll be back on that court and I’ll dominate, when I come back from my physical therapy.
Where do you like to eat in the City?
CQ: I like the places that everybody loves. I love eating at the Olive Tree Cafe, of course, at the Cellar. I just like to be there because of the wings, and everybody I know [the other comics]. I like Joe’s Pizza, which is right around the corner from the Cellar. Joe’s Pizza is amazing. I go all over the place. I live downtown, so I go to Woodrow’s, an Irish bar. And I eat there. And George’s diner. I mostly go to places like that. I go to nice restaurants, too, but I don’t go anyplace I have to get dressed up for. It bugs me when I have to get dressed up for dinner. There’s just something about it. There are very few places like that nowadays—but just the idea of being in a place that everybody’s talking about is too much for me, you know? It’s too noisy.
Tell me about George’s. That’s one recommendation we don’t get from everybody.
CQ: This guy Billy runs George’s, some diner down at Rector and Greenwich Streets. It’s one of the last old-school diners, and I go there all the time.
The last thing we should ask for visitors is, as a Saturday Night Live alumnus, why would you tell them they should go see that show in person?
CQ: First of all, they’re not going to get in to see the show. It was hard for those of us who were on the show—they give you two tickets. But that said, there’s a reason it’s the hardest ticket. It’s amazing. The energy…it’s crazy how that place feels. It’s so amazing.
We’re going to tell people they should try anyway.
CQ: They can try, but they’re wasting their time.
Look, guys, it’s tough to get tickets to Saturday Night Live, but they’re free and it can’t hurt to enter the lottery. Somebody wins.
Colin Quinn’s new special, The New York Story, premieres on Netflix on Friday, November 18.