The country is breaking up with itself.
According to comedian Colin Quinn, who brings his new show, “One in Every Crowd,” to the Wilbur Theatre in March, America’s divorce is inevitable, the concept of this particular union flawed from the start. “I think ultimately the premise of a country based on vigorous debate and disagreement is a [bad] idea,” he says. “There is too much bad blood and partisanship in the country, and technology was the stake in our collective heart. Once social media happened, you could just see it divide. And it was over.”
Quinn originally floated this idea in his 2015 show “Unconstitutional.” Even then, he couldn’t have predicted the rancor that marked the 2016 presidential election and continued into the Trump presidency. Now letting America split up into smaller nations seems like an even better idea to him. It’s not just a comic premise — he sounds wistful rather than gleeful. “When I was doing ‘Unconstitutional’ I would talk about it and people would be like, ‘Aw, don’t say that!’ ” he says. “And now people just look at you like, ‘Yeah, that’s happening.’ ”
Going back to his stint as the “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-’90s, Quinn has been a thoughtful but sarcastic observer of current events. “To me, comedy is about seeing the hypocrisy, seeing the contradictory, in everybody, including yourself,” he says.
For the past decade, Quinn has been writing and starring in one-man shows, off-Broadway productions turned comedy specials with a theme and story arc. He took on the Founding Fathers in “Unconstitutional,” examined his own childhood and the history of where he grew up in “The New York Story” in 2016, and, ambitiously, all of human history in “Long Story Short” in 2011. The traditional stand-up format of performing an hour’s worth of unrelated five- or six-minute chunks of material no longer suits him. “I feel like I don’t want to go back to it because I like doing themes,” he says. “I just like it better.”
The format allows Quinn to roam wherever he’d like, whether the topic is today’s headlines, his old neighborhood, or the fall of Rome. He is a master of the humorous story — as Mark Twain once defined it — as a work of “high and delicate art” that “may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular.” Quinn might work in conceptual themes, but please don’t call him polished — he considers that a derogatory term. He remembers hearing stories from wardrobe assistants about Bill Murray, that you could put him in an expensive, tailored suit and within 20 minutes it would be wrinkled.
“I feel like that’s how my comedy is,” he says. “No matter how I try, I get sidetracked, I start digressing in the middle of my act. I just start thinking about something else and I’m like, ‘I have to put this out there right now!’ It just becomes an obsession where I just start blurting out something else. And then the polish is gone.”
On the current tour, he’s still working out the details of what that next one-man show will be. “It’s about too much stuff,” he says. “That’s probably the problem.” It starts with the breakup of the country, and then explores what eventually destroys even the best of systems. “I talk about that one [jerk], like one toxic person in every job, every school, every place,” he says. “There’s always one. Then I talk about how they set the tone. They set the tone nationally, politically, and everywhere, in every society. And then they lead to the downfall of that society. That’s where I’m trying to get to.”
If that premise doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, know that Quinn considers himself a comedian above all else. “If you can’t deliver laughs and you just think you’re delivering uncomfortable truths, I wouldn’t call that a comedian. Because I know a lot of people that speak uncomfortable what they consider truths, they’re not comedians. So rule number one, you’re getting laughs.”
Not every comedian has to bare his soul or tell brutal truths — Quinn points to Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg as undeniable masters of the craft who were working on a completely different level. But to him, personally, comedy needs a bit of strife to breathe. “Sure it does,” he says. “The whole point is to stand up and say, ‘No, I don’t agree with that.’ And everybody’s going, ‘No, what?’ Like you’re almost stopping the room in some way. And calling out someone.”
That’s what made his old Comedy Central show, “Tough Crowd,” so appealing. It was a panel of comics, many of whom knew each other well, battling it out in a four-person debate with Quinn as moderator. The comics got the topics ahead of time, but no one knew what anyone else was going to say, which made for a raw and sometimes explosive conversation. It was the perfect show for Quinn, who often talks about how political correctness is the enemy of comedy. He remembers a favorite line New York comic Jack Simmons used to deliver when he heard an audience groan. Says Quinn, “He goes, ‘Hey, come on, folks, it’s comedy. Somebody’s got to get hurt.’ ”
Don’t expect a “Tough Crowd” reboot. Two comedians central to that show’s dynamic — Patrice O’Neal and Greg Giraldo — have died since it went off the air. Quinn wouldn’t consider bringing it back without them, though he still likes the concept. “It would be fun to do something that was striving for the authenticity and honesty of that show,” he says. “Especially in light of, there’s like hundreds of new comics now. That are funny. So it would be an interesting time to have done it. But even that seems like it’s almost past, you know?”
At the Wilbur Theatre, March 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $27-$35, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.