Even on a big Broadway stage, Colin Quinn comes across as a knockabout Brooklyn guy who's the funniest person in the room – and, if you listen closely, quite possibly the smartest.
Not that he's showing off, or anything.
The blunt comedian hopefully will get the big audience he deserves Saturday night with the premiere of his HBO special, "Long Story Short," a taped version of his Broadway show tracing the history of the world in 75 minutes. The one-man effort elevates Quinn from earthy comic to a stand-up philosopher for our times.
Quinn's take is that little has changed over the centuries. He's adept at drawing unlikely connections, likening Caesar to modern-day gangsters and comparing Antigone's agony over the loss of her brother to Snooki weeping over the loss of her cell phone.
"We haven't changed since time began. That's why it's the same stories in the Old Testament and the New York Post," he quips.
The conceit, as clever as it is, seems on the surface unlikely to propel a whole show, either on TV or Broadway. But Quinn craftily builds on the concept, firing off layered one-liners like, "While the Greeks were busy thinking, the Romans came in, conquered them and said, 'What do you think about that?'"
We've always liked Quinn, whose stint as "Weekend Update" anchor on "Saturday Night Live" in the late 1990s didn't get the recognition it warranted. He may have suffered in some eyes for approaching the gig like a stand-up comic going off on tangents based on the news, rather than sticking with the familiar fake-news format.
But a more nuanced variation on his “Update” shtick works well in “Long Story Short,” in which he’s unafraid to take his time getting laughs as he power walks through history.
We suspect the show, which we enjoyed on Broadway with its minimalistic set featuring faux-stone Roman Coliseum-like steps, will translate well to the small screen. That’s due in no small part to the involvement of Jerry Seinfeld, who directed “Long Story Short” in its various incarnations. Seinfeld’s observational humor sensibility meshes well with Quinn’s, who adds some rough edges and the twist of juxtaposing past and present.
"When Socrates died, one of his last statements was, 'I know now that I know nothing' – kind of a d--- move, right?" Quinn asks.
We might not know much, but the long and the short of it is that Quinn's funny and insightful trip through time is well worth the 75 minutes.
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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.