My Party Country, 'Tis of Thee
Colin Quinn exposes the rowdy Founding Fathers we never knew in 'Unconstitutional'
Was a bottomless bowl of spiked punch essential to the Constitution's creation? Did the 1787 Constitutional Convention take four months because our Founding Fathers didn't want the party on the public tab to end? Did the gathering where the right to a free press was enshrined really exclude reporters?
All those things are true, according to Colin Quinn in his latest theatrical vehicle, Colin Quinn: Unconstitutional. The one-man play, which enjoyed two successful runs in New York last summer, contains a lot of facts about our nation's past, but don't think it's just a history lesson. "My show is about the psychological mindset that got created by the Constitutional Convention," says Quinn. "It's about how our behavior is based on that document, why we are the way we are." The NRA, mass shootings, Obama conspiracies, and the Kardashians ("low-hanging fruit") are all invoked, along with news and pop-culture items, which suits Quinn's improvisational nature and love of topical humor.
In Unconstitutional, Quinn inspires attendees to ask questions and question answers, demystifying and humanizing the Founding Fathers as an extraordinary teacher might. There's the Mutt & Jeff duo of studly George Washington and tiny James Madison, Thomas Jefferson gallivanting through Europe during the convention instead of working, and the endless amusement of Benjamin Franklin's kinky sex habits.
"What provoked me to take on the Constitution was that I was sick of hearing everyone talk about how brilliant the Founding Fathers were, and I just wasn't in the loop on that," says Quinn. "I didn't relate to the Founding Fathers too much; they're too serious. George Washington was the biggest and the toughest of them all, which is why people loved him. James Madison, he was a shrimp. But he was the Constitution guy, pushed the whole thing."
Quinn's research caused him to reassess his staid take of the Founding Fathers. "Ben Franklin was the genius, the genius of geniuses," says Quinn. "At the same time, he lived the wild life, was at sex clubs all the time. Not too attractive a guy. Him at a sex club might be a chilling image to a lot of people." He describes the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention as being on a "four-month drinking binge" and shows a copy of the original bill to prove it. "We were going to be the party country, so people were drinking the entire time."
The Constitution's great merit, says Quinn, was that "it took into account human nature, not only of the people in power, but the citizenry, too." The national personality fostered by this document is "strongly believing in individual freedom. That's part of the charm of our country. That can make for selfishness, but that self-interest is part of human nature, too, so it's a fine line. That's part of what the Constitution says: 'Every man for himself, get out there. Yeah, you're part of our country, but you've got to make it yours.' Other countries don't really have that."
Unconstitutional fits a niche between stand-up and theatre: an hour or longer thematic monologue laced with jokes, rather than a compilation of comedy routines. In comedy theatre, a director usually shapes the material, blocks the action, and coaches the actor. Care is taken with set and lighting. Colin Quinn: Long Story Short, his 2010 piece on the nature of empires, was directed by Jerry Seinfeld and garnered Drama Desk and Emmy Award nominations. Rebecca A. Trent directed Unconstitutional, with set by James Fauvell and lighting by Sarah Lurie.
Bottom line, though, says Quinn, is that comedy theatre has to be funny: "It's not that different than a stand-up show in that if I'm not getting laughs for like a minute, I get paranoid. You start trying to find a way to get jokes in."
In addition to Unconstitutional, Quinn's Moontower schedule includes Saturday night's Stars in Bars showcase, alongside Damien Lemon, Godfrey, Chris Cubas, and Matt Bearden. Documentaries on the art of comedy refer to the respect that other comedians accord Quinn for his honest intelligence and merciless treatment of hecklers. Stars in Bars should be an especially feisty show. Merging business with pleasure, he's going to party like it's 1787.
Colin Quinn: Unconstitutional will be performed Friday, April 25, 7:30pm, at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress. Quinn also plays Moontower Saturday, April 26, 10:30pm, at Speakeasy, 412 Congress. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.