‘Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn’ Was Bill Maher’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Except Smarter and Funnier

‘None of them are easy to (bleep)ing get along with,’ Quinn admitted
‘Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn’ Was Bill Maher’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ Except Smarter and Funnier

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In the 1990s heyday of New York’s Comedy Cellar, the best show wasn’t on the stage. That would have been upstairs at a table in the back of the Olive Tree Cafe, where comedians held court into the wee hours, busting balls and making each other laugh. The caustic comics never reached Seinfeld-level fame but were legends nonetheless — names like Patrice O’Neal, Jim Norton, Greg Giraldo and Nick Di Paolo. Comedy nerds never got a chance to witness the aggressive repartee, but they got a close facsimile when Comedy Central decided to follow up The Daily Show with Tough Crowd.

Hosted by Colin Quinn after he left Saturday Night LiveTough Crowd was everything Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect wanted to be. The rotating panel of comedians were rough-and-tumble sorts, unafraid to mix it up or voice an unpopular opinion as long as it was funny as hell. If ever there was a comedy show with no effs to give, Tough Crowd was it. (Man, Sarah Silverman is baked in the clip below.)

The show took that back table and basically filmed the arguments. “Especially back when Manny Dworman (the Comedy Cellar’s original owner) was alive, the comedians would all sit at that table, and Manny was very into politics. I would walk into the club and he hadn’t even said hello, and he would look at me and say, ‘So do you think that Palestine should be a separate state?’ And I was like, ‘What? I haven’t even taken my coat off,’” remembered panelist Jim David in Vulture’s oral history of Tough Crowd

Few topics were off-limits, including race. “We disagreed on everything,” said Quinn. “Black and white comedians sitting at the table, getting into these things every night, these racial disagreements. But still, we all go back the next night. I was like, this is interesting. This is a way to have these discussions, like they used to on All in the Family or The Jeffersons, actual discussions about subjects that were suddenly becoming forbidden for the first time in my life.”

Part of the show’s charm was the friendly but real antagonism between the comics. “None of them are easy to fucking get along with,” Quinn admitted. “But we were bonded by whatever mentality we had. Which is nothing to be proud of.”

It wasn’t an easy show for comic guests. First of all, there was no safety net if you couldn’t keep up. “Other comics would come in from L.A. or other parts of the country,” explained Di Paulo, “and they would get fucking destroyed.”

Comics fought the urge to take the conflicts personally. “You had to not get angry,” said comic Bonnie MacFarlane. “I saw a lot of people get angry, and then it really derails you.” 

Writer and panelist Laurie Kilmartin agreed. “Fear was noticeable, and you would get slaughtered if you showed fear,” she added. "It was great. It sounds horrible, but it’s actually great.”

Nothing like Tough Crowd exits today, but a couple of years ago, Joe Rogan suggested to Quinn that it laid the blueprint for today’s podcasts. Would Quinn ever consider bringing the roundtable back as a podcast? Don’t hold your breath. “Would (the comics) be able to really even speak honestly today?” he wondered. 

Rogan thinks a revival is a great idea but only certain comics would have the requisite lack of fear. “You got to have a career that's pretty locked in already, or you got to be on the come up where you got nothing to lose.”


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