Nearly a decade ago, Comedy Central made the ill-advised move to pull the plug on perhaps the greatest unscripted television show of all time: Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.
From 2002 to late 2004, Colin Quinn, one of the most well-respected comic minds of this or any generation, hosted a raw, unrehearsed and, above all, real nightly roundtable covering the news of that particular day. The series, which aired after The Daily Show, before Stephen Colbert was given his spinoff, was probably the most honest television show in the history of the medium.
Even on a show like Real Time with Bill Maher, throughout all the clashing opinions and controversial comments, the panelists are aware of how they'll be perceived once the episode airs. And that consciousness means that certain comments will be withheld, that there's preemptive damage control being done internally.
On Tough Crowd, the panelists were mainly stand-up comedians who truly didn't give a shit what anyone thought. And this was a very genuine, almost visceral brand of "I don't give a shit." These mainly East Coast comics were ferocious, often predatory and entirely unedited. Names like Jim Norton, Rich Vos, Nick DiPaolo, Keith Robinson, and the late Greg Giraldo weren't worried about protecting a public persona. They were worried about the laugh.
When remembering Tough Crowd, Quinn—a veteran comic who's gone from MTV's Remote Control to Saturday Night Live to award-winning one man shows—immediately seems overcome with nostalgia, almost like Dr. Frankenstein remembering his monster.
Aside from the regular panelists, names like Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis Black, Artie Lange, Dave Attell, Will Ferrell, and even the legendary George Carlin all joined in at one point or another. But of his regulars, Colin reminisces, "Here's the thing, in the old days, the biggest criticism of Hollywood was that everyone was phony, that everyone was constantly complimenting each other, that everyone was trying to be charming. With the Tough Crowd crew, they weren't t trying to win you over with their charm, because they don't have any."
Of the show's roast-like dynamic, Quinn says, "Here's how it went. Someone would say something about the news that they thought sounded intelligent. Then someone else would say, 'You're not intelligent, dummy. No one cares.' Then someone else would disregard the news entirely, ripping somebody else apart, attacking for what they were wearing. That’s when the show was at it's best. When it was just a bunch of comics sitting around."
"I'm telling you right now, I'd do it in two seconds." —Colin Quinn, on reviving Tough Crowd.
And the reason that ball-busting came off as charming as it did was that, for the most part, the show's regulars were all friends, on stage and off. Whether the show was ever greenlit or not, they would still be lovingly insulting one another on a nightly basis, most likely at New York's famed Comedy Cellar. The Cellar, where the show's concept was born, is a comedian's clubhouse that often terrifies out-of-town acts. On his podcast (with guest Aziz Ansari), current TBS late night host Pete Holmes recently spoke at length about his crippling Comedy Cellar fear upon first coming to New York.
One of the reasons for that fear was the late Patrice O'Neal, a Tough Crowd and Comedy Cellar regular who was one of the most intimidatingly hilarious men to ever walk the face of the planet. Patrice was an enormous man with an attitude to match.
When speaking of his late friend, Colin, in his raspy voice, spoke of a recent Tough Crowd revelation. "In the end, I think it was Patrice's show. I was just a figurehead", says Quinn. "I didn't even realize that till about two years ago. I had very little authority. For a guy who was there every day, and fuckin' created the show, I had very little authority."
Any fan reading this will immediately see Colin's point. When Patrice was on the show, the "inmates running the asylum" dynamic was at an all-time high. He'd blatantly talk over everyone and anyone. He'd cut someone off just as they were en route to making a point. Like a hysterical, gargantuan two-year-old, Patrice demanded constant attention. "I could not control him. I fuckin' tried, believe me. I even banned him from the show once! He was just one of those guys", says Quinn. "I mean, he was a big-mouthed, know it all, but he was just so funny...I always felt like a very indulgent parent with Patrice."
And when discussing Patrice in particular, an important question comes up: Could this show exist in today's current hypersensitive media climate? Daniel Tosh was forced into a public apology over a rape joke. Gilbert Gottfried was fired by Aflec over a tsunami joke. Then, most recently, Natasha Leggero caught a world of crap for a televised World War II joke on New Year's Eve.
When aksed with the question, Colin didn't seem quite sure, saying, "Everything that was said every night would be a national headline today." And he's right. When remembering a particular early episode, Colin says, "Kevin Hart was on the show. He used to come on a lot. He was talking about black people getting traffic tickets. And somewhere in the conversation he said, 'You don’t know what we go through.' Then DiPaolo immediately chimes in with, "What? Red lights?"
Tough Crowd and Twitter never existed simultaneously. If DiPaolo said something like that on TV today, would people be up in arms? Would watchdog organizations be sitting at their computers, ready to bark? These days we live in a very literal world, for better or for worse. So many people today, and a litany of different advocacy groups, tend to think that sticks and stones do, in fact, have the same effect as words.
But even then, when asked if he ever sees a current news story and thinks how it'd play on Tough Crowd, Colin gets excited. "You're getting me wistful. I mean, the day after the Zimmerman verdict, that would have been the greatest day in Tough Crowd history. I mean, Obama getting elected. Everything, man. Everything".
Would a current incarnation of Tough Crowd be canceled in the blink of an eye? You can't be certain it wouldn't. But given the opportunity, Colin Quinn would jump at the chance. "I'm telling you right now, I'd do it in two seconds," he says with zero hesitation.
The current stand-up comedy landscape is as strong as it's ever been. Aside from the still-thriving careers of those Tough Crowd regulars who are still with us, comics like Louie, Amy Schumer, Anthony Jeselnik, Hannibal Burress, Aziz Ansari, Bill Burr, and the aforementioned Kevin Hart have all reached a certain rock-star status. That, coupled with the increasingly PC world as we now know it, would undoubtedly make Tough Crowd better than ever. Hell, in a sense it makes Tough Crowd more necessary than ever. The show created space for extreme levity, in contrast to the increasing seriousness of American society. And with The Daily Show gradually becoming a real news show, that's something that's sorely missed on a nightly basis.
Comedy Central, the time is righter than it's ever been.
Colin's in. Are you?