Published Jul 21, 2017Anyone who has sat through the theatrical experience of a one-man-show might cringe at first blush of Colin Quinn: The New York Story. After sepia-toned opening credits, which the concert film's director Jerry Seinfeld scores with Odyssey's soft rock hit "Native New Yorker," Quinn takes the stage in a hoodie and jeans on a set made to look like a tenement building, the New York harbor, a deli/bodega, and a bar. Alarm bells may start going off for our reticent one-man-show attendee at this point, as The New York Story looks poised to become one of those, "I grew up with a lot of crazy characters in my life" theatrical experiences that are interminable. Thankfully, it's not that. Not really.
Outside of New York, Quinn is perhaps best known as the stopgap Weekend Update anchor following absurdist Norm MacDonald's abrupt firing and preceding the Jimmy Fallon/Tina Fey renaissance. This engaging special proves his talents were far underutilized at SNL. He wasn't a great newscaster, but he's definitely a showman. After breathing new life into old tropes of New Yorkers versus Los Angelinos, Quinn gives us a history lesson about New York's original inhabitants, from the Lenape Indians ("We take them at their word that they were the first people here, but we don't know") to the Dutch, to the Irish.
As he moves forward chronologically, Quinn covers more New York ground by discussing various cultures and ethnic groups he encountered growing up in New York, like Puerto Ricans ("You never see just one, they always travel in groups, always a celebration") to his black schoolmates, to the differences between shop owners depending on their country of origin. What makes these characterizations work is how subtle they are. Colin Quinn knows he's not an impressions guy, nor does he go for any easy laughs here. Instead, he changes posture and voice just enough to evoke a character and, perhaps because none of the jokes are cheap or mean, it all works well.
For his part, Seinfeld (who directed the off-Broadway run of The New York Story as well as the filmed special for Netflix) guides Quinn with a very steady hand. Much like the verbal acuity of his standup, Seinfeld's shots and cuts are meticulous, from wide to medium to close while never distracting or detracting from Quinn's efforts. One thing Seinfeld does not do (and whether this is due to his own preference, or the convention of not doing this for filmed play performances I couldn't say), is cut to an audience laughing at Quinn's jokes. We know they're laughing because we can hear them, and Seinfeld knows we don't need to see them doubled over. This is something other directors of comedy specials could learn from.
Quinn tries to close The New York Story with a Polish joke, but the joke ends up being that he can't actually get to the joke. It seems sexist to assume it's a Polish man, why not a Polish woman? Why not a Polish man who self-identifies as a woman? Why not a Polish person of the LGBTQ community? In fact, why must the person be Polish at all? Colin Quinn says of New Yorkers, "When you're careful and nice and sincere, it's not funny." Likewise, his takes on the different cultures, eccentricities and peccadillos of New York life (although anyone who's taken public transit can relate to his turnstyle bit), are honest and true, without being one-man-show saccharine or hacky insult comic mean. Quinn is foremost a storyteller, and The New York Story is worth hearing about.
Exclaim! is reviewing every standup comedy special currently available on Netflix Canada, including this one. You can find a complete list of reviews so far here.