“It Was a Fighter’s Comedy Show”: The Oral History of ‘Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn’
2013 has brought an unprecedented wave of new late night shows. Most stick to the tried and true late night format of scripted segments and celebrity guests, or the faux news style of Comedy Central’s late night lineup. But years before The Colbert Report became a staple of that network, another topical show occupied its coveted post-Daily Show spot. A mix of the roundtable debates of Politically Incorrect and the unpredictability of live standup, Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn was possibly the purest form of comedy ever on television: a bunch of comedians in a room, having it out over politics, current events, and each other’s shortcomings. Before podcasts gave comedy fans insight into the inner workings of comedians, Tough Crowd captured the brutal beauty of comics off-stage. Ten years after its premiere, the show’s influence can be seen and felt in the rising generation of comedians and the lingering devotion of its loyal fanbase. Says host Colin Quinn, “A show like this you can’t really get rid of.”
After leaving Saturday Night Live in 2000, Quinn became the first Weekend Update host to star in his own Lorne Michaels-produced series with The Colin Quinn Show. Debuting on March 11, 2002, the weekly live show featured a monologue, sketches, and a discussion segment with comedians debating current events. Intended to fill a gap in NBC’s primetime schedule, it ran for three episodes.
Colin Quinn (host, creator, executive producer): Tough Crowd came from the show on NBC. This was all right after 9/11, a few months afterwards. It was like, one guy was Arab, and then Patrice [O’Neal] was trashing him, going, “Nobody cares if they stop you every day.” Three episodes of brutal, just brutal.
Mike Berkowitz (talent agent): It was right on the heels of 9/11, and being in New York, whether it was an anthrax scare or just a random day where there was a bomb threat, there was really that tension in the air, and comedy was such a big part, I think, of people getting through that.
Nick Di Paolo (regular panelist): You gotta give Lorne Michaels credit for taking a chance. We shot it right on that same stage as the SNL guys. And it was live TV. I don’t think I realized the magnitude of that until years later. NBC, live. Looking back on it, holy shit. That was something else.
Jim Norton (regular panelist): I watched Colin’s monologues recently, and they were so funny and so smart. It was such a terrible move for NBC not to pick that show up.
Colin Quinn: So we did three episodes and they never picked it up. It went really good as far as it was, but I understood why a network wouldn’t want to do that show. But cable is a different story.
Bruce Fretts (television critic): I think the problem with him trying to do a network show is that he’s truly not ready for primetime. I remember watching it and liking it, and rooting for Colin as I always do, but I kind of knew that it wasn’t gonna last. At that point, NBC was still in its heyday and had all these very highly rated sitcoms and ER. And Colin Quinn with his friends sitting around on apple boxes is not gonna hold the kind of ratings they needed.
Lou Wallach (executive-in-charge, Comedy Central): I think we all, including Colin, saw certain moments in that show of the things that he was trying to accomplish. Maybe at a different network with a different kind of expectation and different audience, there was an opportunity. And from there, the idea was, what if we really gave him kind of a circus, of which he could be the ringmaster? We all thought there was room for that on TV.
Colin Quinn: Comedy Central called me and said, “We want to do the show. It belongs on Comedy Central. But we want it to be a daily show.” I was like, “Motherfucker. A daily show?” “Yeah, we need a companion piece for The Daily Show.” So I go, “Alright, yeah. We’ll do it every night then.”
Lou Wallach: We were always trying to look for ways to give comedians a platform that looked and felt – and was – different than just another way to try and disguise a brick wall and a microphone. But this one was really organic.
In December of 2002, eight test episodes of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn aired at 11:30pm on Comedy Central, the first original series to follow The Daily Show.
The show began its first season on March 10, 2003, and retained many elements of its NBC predecessor, most notably its freewheeling roundtable discussions between comics.
Keith Robinson (regular panelist): He brought us over to Tough Crowd. Me, Jim Norton, Greg Giraldo, and Nick Di Paolo were writers.
Colin Quinn: I hired all those guys as the fucking writers. They were gonna write and perform. The amount of work they didn’t do was astounding. Because that’s how comedians are. They’re like, “Believe me. If you need something, let me know. I’m a fucking genius.” This was a fucking great opportunity.
Keith Robinson: Me and Jim had a room to ourselves. We did nothing, basically. [Laughs] We’d just sit there all day, made airplanes, and then Colin would come in and we’d act like we’re writing.
Nick Di Paolo: We were all in a room trying to come up with stuff. And Colin’s going, “Eh.” Just throwing it away, so particular. I remember, at the very beginning, us trying to come up with bits. And then it just turned into us showing up.
Keith Robinson: As it was going on, I always thought something was missing with it. What was missing from Tough Crowd was Patrice O’Neal. He was the guy that would be Tough Crowd.
Colin Quinn: I wasn’t talking to Patrice at that time. I banned him from the first eight shows, because he had been complaining that he didn’t get enough money when I put him on the NBC shows. So we had a big fucking falling out, and then I banned him from the shows. I didn’t even talk to him. And then he came in with his mother when we got picked up for the regular series. Literally, his mother’s sitting there, “Colin, I don’t know what to tell you.” It was like they were coming up to school. And me and him, we had a screaming match in that fucking room. We had screaming matches sometimes there, in the early days. It was crazy. It was too much. But Patrice, we had to fight like that. And then I swear to God, I was leaning against these open, old windows, and I was like, “This son of a bitch is gonna throw me out this window.” He was fuming, and so was I. So I said, “Listen, Ms. O’Neal. Don’t worry about it. He’ll be back.” Because I wanted him on. I missed him the whole time; it was driving me crazy. He was perfect for the show. But he had to be a prick. He was hard to deal with. But that show was meant for him and he was meant for that show. They were too connected.
Those five comics would become the show’s regulars, each appearing at least once a week as a panelist. All regulars at the Comedy Cellar in New York City, they were masters of the fast-paced, merciless style of debate that set Tough Crowd apart.
Jeff Singer (talent coordinator): Patrice O’Neal and Nick Di Paolo and Greg Giraldo and Jim Norton and Keith Robinson, those were kind of our anchor players.
Nick Di Paolo: While Tough Crowd was going on, we’d still go down to the Comedy Cellar at night and work. It was like a real camaraderie. And we owned the Comedy Cellar. We would just destroy that place, but it was fun. There was a real close-knit group. That kind of disappeared after the show. People go to LA, and if you’re a headliner, you’re on the road a lot. But [then], it seemed like we stuck around to do Tough Crowd.
Jim David (frequent panelist): The show was based on the comedians’ table at the Comedy Cellar. Especially back when Manny Dworman, the [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.” Manny always loved to talk politics, and everybody would get into arguments. And then every so often, we would start arguing about politics and one of the comedians would say something absolutely hilarious, and just put everybody in their place.
Colin Quinn: We disagreed on everything. 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.
Nick Di Paolo: We spent every night for years before the show started, ripping each other at the Comedy Cellar. We didn’t know at the time we were rehearsing for a TV show.
Marc Maron (frequent panelist): As much as Colin was the host of the show, those other guys were just as much a part of it. It was Colin but it was really all those guys.
Colin Quinn: None of them are easy to fucking get along with. But we were bonded by whatever mentality we had. Which is nothing to be proud of.
Mixed in with the regulars were comics from many circles of comedy, from Maria Bamford to Jeff Foxworthy to Matt Walsh, and occasional big names like George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dave Chappelle. Frequent panelists like Rich Vos, Judy Gold, Marc Maron, and Jim David fit seamlessly into the show, while other comics struggled to keep pace with the breakneck speed of the discussion.
Nick Di Paolo: Other comics would come in from LA or other parts of the country and they would get fucking destroyed. They couldn’t believe how fast [it was]. I saw some comics come on that were just like a deer in the headlights.
Patrick Milligan (founder of CringeHumor.com): It was like they were getting thrown into a lion’s den. [The regulars] would team up on the new guy, and if he could handle it, then he had respect and they would shut up and let him talk. But if he couldn’t, they would just attack. That was part of the appeal. It was just New York comedians breaking balls and doing it on television.
Rich Vos (frequent panelist): What it was took was being able to take a ribbing. To take abuse, to give abuse. To be quick on your feet. These are animals, these are sharks, and if they see any blood, any weakness, they’re gonna attack.
Bonnie McFarlane (panelist): You had to not get angry. I saw a lot of people get angry, and then it really derails you. Because it would be three guys on there that were friends, that knew how to do it, and then one random person, and that person would get angry at some point, and then it’s all over. They would just descend.
Laurie Kilmartin (writer, panelist): Fear was noticeable, and you would get slaughtered if you showed fear. It was great. It sounds horrible, but it’s actually great.
Jeff Singer: Some of these guys, certainly Patrice and maybe some others, would be pretty intimidating and maybe a little patronizing to some young up-and-comers they didn’t feel belonged there. Or they were just kind of testing them out. That was hard for a new comic. But Colin was always supportive to everybody. Every single person that stepped foot on that stage, he was always very supportive.
Colin Quinn: I think the people that didn’t do as well – I can’t blame them. I blame my fucking regulars, too. And that’s being honest. The regulars could have been a little more fucking welcoming of their goddamn fellow comics. They didn’t have to be such cocksuckers. [The other comics] might not have even watched the show, and you’re supposed to go in there and start fighting with this fucking 6’4″ 300-pound black guy and fucking crazy fucking Italian with the fucking eyes and this little fucking pervert.
Marc Maron: You had to have a relationship with them. You couldn’t be afraid to interrupt, and you couldn’t be that much of a pussy. It really just came down to jiving with those guys.
Bonnie McFarlane: This is a group of people that, to be mean to you was to be nice to you. If they were being nice to you, it was awkward and weird. So if they were slamming you, you felt like, “Aw, they like me. I’m part of the family. This is great.”
Joe DeRosa (comedian): The slams always made me laugh harder than anything else. And seeing the relationship of the comics come out through those slams. It’s like UFC fighters. This guy’s coming with this technique from this certain martial art, and then this guy’s blocking it or doing a counter move with this move from this martial art.
Jim Norton: Even if they weren’t coming after you, these guys are hard hitters and they’re hitting a topic like the Iraq War or Islam or political correctness, you better be fucking prepared or you’re just gonna sit there like a nine-year-old while really funny people do the work.
Laurie Kilmartin: An act would go by so quickly, and if you sat and waited, you were not gonna say anything. And I think that happened with a lot of people, where they said nothing the first act. Like, do not wait for Patrice to cede the floor to you, it’s not gonna happen. You have to jump in, and I think a lot of people, their first act on Tough Crowd was pure silence. And then Jeff and [producer] Liz [Stanton] would run in. “You’ve got to say something!”
Jim Norton: And we all had bad appearances too. Every one of us bombed, too.
Colin Quinn: I feel like the only mistake anyone could make was if you tried to be slick and please the crowd and try to be an entertainer, instead of just a funny fucking comedian.
Rich Vos: Colin’s main goal was funny first and politics second. Because without funny, it’s just The O’Reilly Factor. So funny came first, and then funny with a point of view, well shit, that’s two for two. Funny with a point of view and getting the flow – that’s why he knew who to keep bringing back.
Jeff Singer: There were some who were just naturally better than others, and you just had to go with the flow and let it happen sometimes. Colin certainly had that instinct. You can’t squeeze oil out of a rock, so to speak, with some of these comics. If they don’t have it, they don’t have it, and that’s why we needed an anchor who could always fill in, in case somebody wasn’t pulling their weight. Then you would have a Giraldo or [one of the other regulars].
Each of the regulars brought their unique sensibility to the show, and the format allowed for many styles to thrive: from the sharp, precise nature of Greg Giraldo, who passed away in 2010, to the stream-of-consciousness musings of Patrice O’Neal, who passed in 2011.
Colin Quinn: Greg Giraldo was the guy that did all his work. He really loved doing the show. He was a real intelligent guy, and obviously hilariously funny. He was the most beloved person on the show. Nobody didn’t like Greg. But he was tough. He had to be tough to be with those guys. It’s not like he was a just the goody two-shoes. In some ways he was like the guy that did his homework, but he had to be tough and he knew it.
Nick Di Paolo: Giraldo would be the most prepared. I remember one night going, “Ah, I didn’t have a good show last time.” And he goes, “Aw, Di Paolo, you’re too fucking competitive.” And he walks out of the room. I go down the hallway, and he’s hiding under a stairwell, two minutes before show time, making notes. I go, “Yeah, I’m competitive.” And he laughed. But he was great at it. He was so smart, like a sponge.
Keith Robinson: His preparation was spotless, because he brought his school habits to show business. Greg looked like he did all his homework. The rest of us jackasses, we’re like, “Ah boy, I’ll get it. I’ll get it done, don’t worry about it.”
Patrick Milligan: Patrice was the wild card factor in everything. He would do it on purpose too. He would throw a monkey wrench in there and just take people out of their comfort zone.
Nick Di Paolo: Patrice would try to take over the fucking whole show. He would literally put his hand in front of me while he was talking. He’d hog the fucking show. But he was so brutally funny.
Colin Quinn: Patrice would just go on these long-winded – I mean, really the whole show – monologues, but they always had something brilliant at the end. I’d have to shut him up and let other people speak, but I was like, I just want to see where he’s going with this.
Keith Robinson: Colin is better – and I mean this – than all those hosts out there. Colin is a monster. And it’s sad that the industry doesn’t get that, that this guy has so much real stuff to give. He would give us so much more than these guys are giving, with their dumb pony tricks and all that.
Nick Di Paolo: The biggest complaint was, “We can’t understand him!” Even my parents. “We love him but we can’t understand him.” But he has one of those minds that works so fast, he doesn’t finish his thoughts, he’s onto the next. He wasn’t slick, but he was so smart in what topics we covered. And he knew who to go to first on a certain subject to get it going. He’s like a sociologist. I always said that, he’s half comic, half sociologist. He was perfect for that show.
Rebecca Trent (owner, The Creek and the Cave): He understands comedians, and knows how to moderate comedians in a way that only someone who loves comedians can do. And I don’t think that there’s another comedian that has that kind of reverence for the comic itself and the subject matter. He gave them space to talk in a way that a host normally can’t. And then at the end, if you got too sanctimonious, he was like, “And your shirt’s stupid.”
Lou Wallach: I think if there was another comic up there, it wouldn’t have worked. They all did it because of him. I don’t care if you were a no-name or you were Seinfeld or Chappelle, they did it because it was Colin. Colin loved being the ringleader of this kind of anarchy-ridden conversation.
Rich Vos: Unlike other hosts on television, you could trash Colin. You could go, “Shut up, you’re a jackass,” and if he was, he would laugh. You can’t call Conan a jackass. You can’t call Letterman a jackass. You can’t call Chelsea a jackass. They won’t put up with it. But that’s what made Colin in a league of his own.
Mike Berkowitz: These guys weren’t his cronies. They weren’t his gophers. I mean, he was senior to them and they had tremendous respect, but he was also their peer. And that’s really refreshing. You don’t really see that that often.
Rich Vos: I mean, he’s a rambling douchebag too. Stuttering, fucking talks too fast. He’s good if you live on one block in Brooklyn, you might understand him. And we understood him, but someone in Ohio’s going, “Who’s this fast-talking, fucking mumbling jackass?” [Laughs]
Colin Quinn: It was brutal. I’m like, “Hey, I’m the fucking host.” And they’re just, “Shut uuup.” I remember, I think it was the first official episode back on the air. Patrice, we have this big fight and then we make up, and the first episode, he goes, “Shut uuup, desperate-cause-this-is-his-last-shot.” And what can you say? What can you say to that, other than, “Okay, yeah.”
Laurie Kilmartin: Colin really is that guy who sits at the table and just says something deliberately to instigate, and just sits back and likes to watch what happens.
Lou Wallach: Colin would be most happy if they were paying him half the amount of money to go have this conversation again at a diner after a late night set. That’s where his passion is.
The heart of the show lay in its roundtable debates. Guests were given the topics in advance, but unlike many panel shows, they were not guaranteed a chance to deliver their pre-planned material. Instead, the first two acts were rapid-fire, tangent-filled discussions that often centered on topics like politics, religion, war, sex, and most of all, race.
Jim David: Colin is a genius, but he has the attention span of a fruit fly. He would go from topic to topic at the speed of light and so you had better be really listening, or you would have been thrown off. Because a lot of the time, we would start talking about, say, the president, and then all of a sudden, the conversation would devolve into, “You remember when you slept with that waitress in Cleveland?”
Keith Robinson: I think we didn’t realize we were on TV, and that’s what made it great. Colin was like, “You can’t say that!” “Shut up, stupid. We’ll say what we want.” [Laughs]
Colin Quinn: Maybe, in retrospect, it could have been a little more civilized. I could have handled things a little differently, but look who I was dealing with. I was fucking lion taming. It was a fighter’s comedy show.
Marc Maron: The show was raw; it was honest. You could feel it coming off the TV. There was something of a slightly controlled chaos to it. It was a bit menacing in its confrontational style of humor, but there’s never been anything like it.
Lou Wallach: What was important to Colin, I specifically remember, was a forum where things weren’t sanitized.
Colin Quinn: Everything on TV’s so slick and phony. Everybody’s putting on that fucking happy face. We were getting past that.
Jim Norton: Colin never did take twos on stuff. If it bombed, it bombed. You let it be unfunny, or you let it be clumsy or sloppy. It was very true to what comedy is supposed to be. It wasn’t beautiful, and that was what people loved about it.
Joe DeRosa: People like to see an organic moment. And the most endearing organic moments are mistakes, and somebody navigating a mistake with grace. And you got to see a lot of that on Tough Crowd.
Patrick Milligan: It wasn’t polished, and that’s how Colin is. He’s not a polished comedian. So it was a beautiful clusterfuck to watch.
Joe DeRosa: It was the first show I had seen on television, not just as an aspiring comic but as a fan of comedy, that seemed to be really speaking its mind. I remember on the very first episode, there being jokes about race and that type of subject matter, and the jokes were just living and breathing on their own. They weren’t polished and softened to be made hopefully palatable to somebody that may get offended. There was none of that.
Colin Quinn: I would watch the comedians on stage at the Cellar during that time. Political correctness was just starting to get even more obnoxious than usual, and I was seeing it all over these networks. They would tell you, “Don’t bring up that, don’t bring up that.” And I was watching in comedy clubs, the crowds are laughing. Every night somebody’s talking about something real and the crowd is not having a heart attack. It’s not causing race riots, it’s not causing racism, it’s not causing sexism. It’s just causing people to either laugh or not laugh, depending on what they felt.
Judy Gold (frequent panelist): So many shows are so afraid to put on comics. When you’re an edgy comic, you’re always kind of subtly told before you go on a TV show, “Now remember, we’re airing at 10am. Remember, it’s a family show. Remember, this is network.” Like I’m gonna go on and be like, “Fuck you, you fucking cunt.” Which we didn’t even do on Tough Crowd, but even if we did, no one would have had a freak out. It was a real safe place for us to opine.
Bonnie McFarlane: It was the closest thing to really hanging out with a group of comics than any show that I’ve ever done. It wasn’t contrived. So if Nick Di Paolo thought you said something stupid, he wasn’t like, “Well, here’s an hour preface before I tell you.” He would just be like, “That’s idiotic.” And you were like, “Okay, probably. I’m just trying to make a joke, man.”
Colin Quinn: This is as real as you could get for comedians. That’s why there was no applause at the beginning, when I did the monologue. None of that fucking cheerleading shit. Either you got laughs, or that was it. I want to get laughs. I don’t want fucking applause. That was one of the principles behind the show.
Rebecca Trent: I’m bummed that the way that Colin treated the audience, the way that Tough Crowd itself treated the audience – I wish that that had caught on. Letting the audience have an honest reaction to what you’re doing. [At] TV tapings, the part that I like the least is the part where I feel like I’m at a pep rally.
Joe DeRosa: There are so few vehicles that showcase comedians in a non-standup way. So to have a show like Tough Crowd and have standup comics being allowed to sit down and be funny in a way that showed how organically funny these people were, how they were born to be funny. You could see this was the job they were born with. It was like, “Jesus God, these guys are this funny all the time?” That was mesmerizing to me.
Bruce Fretts: You really got a sense that you were sort of eavesdropping on a conversation that you weren’t really supposed to hear. And that’s what I loved about it, but I think that’s what kind of turned some people off.
Colin Quinn: I feel like one of the things about Tough Crowd is, it’s one of those shows that people pretend they want. But people want a show like that if it’s not uncomfortable; if they agree with everything and it’s all fake political, fake edge. People like fake edgy stuff. Like going against the Church. Yeah that’s edgy, in 1960.
Bruce Fretts: He and the other comics on the show were hard to peg, politically. And I think that makes people uncomfortable because, do I agree with him? Do I disagree with him? Is he a liberal? Is he a conservative?
Colin Quinn: The network was like, “You guys talk about race every day. It’s kind of getting weird.” I was like, “Alright.” So I pick out a bunch of stories that weren’t racial and in five minutes you’d find yourself in a another racial war. But look! People can actually disagree racially and they’re not gonna fucking destroy the country. These guys can hate each other’s opinions and want to fucking kill [each other] and by the end of the show, myself or somebody else is wearing an item of clothing that doesn’t flatter a certain part of their body and suddenly they’re getting fucking skewered for no reason. It’s like life; it goes on. You have your little disagreement and you fucking move on.
One of the show’s most memorable disagreements was between Greg Giraldo and guest Denis Leary on May 7, 2003, when a discussion over North Korean nuclear weapons quickly turned personal.
Marc Maron: There’s no better moment of television that I can imagine than that moment between Denis and Greg. That moment really is a great definition of what that show was, in the sense that, there was an intelligence to what was being talked about, there were some quick-witted remarks, there was a lot of tension. And the fact that Colin sort of let that thing escalate. You just don’t see that shit.
Nick Di Paolo: That got more ink than it deserved. But that was beautiful. I love the way Giraldo handled that one.
Jeff Singer: Greg was smart and he was quick, and everyone knew that about him. Leary comes in, kind of swaggering, asserting his opinion – everyone has an opinion, that’s what the show was all about – but it was that swaggery attitude. He’s certainly a bigger star than Greg, so maybe it’s gonna hold more weight the way he presents it, and so that’s when he caught him in that vulnerable moment.
Sue Costello (panelist): They were literally, I’m not joking, they were gonna fistfight. And of course all I’m doing is going, “He’s funny. He’s funny. You’re funny. He’s funny.” And that was not me just trying to people please, that was me trying to save my life from being in the middle of a fistfight. I am not exaggerating.
Patrick Milligan: He went right to the core. He might as well call him a Bill Hicks wannabe. It was like watching a young boxer take out a heavyweight champion.
Mike Berkowitz: Leary was one of those guys – I think, he was above [the show] in his mind, because he was such a huge star. But for Greg, this was his life. Greg would wake up, get a bunch of papers, go to a bar or a coffee shop or wherever and work on that day’s material, and come up with some great stuff to say on the show. Then when Leary called him out for being prepared, it was ironic [that] Leary was trying to make fun of him for actually doing what you’re supposed to do if you go on that show. You look foolish if you just go on and think you’re just gonna wing it, because these guys, you have to be prepared just to hang in there, and to have real dialogue about the topics. But that’s a great examples of the difference between going on any other random comedy show or talk show and going on Tough Crowd.
Jeff Singer: Denis, afterwards, he kind of respected it. He thought it was good television, first and foremost. Greg caught him. It was such a great zinger moment, and you could just see Leary’s kind of frozen there, like “Ah, you got me.” It was like one cowboy shooting the other one.
In the fall of 2004, towards the end of the show’s second season, Comedy Central announced that Tough Crowd would not be picked up for another year. Despite relatively consistent ratings over its 20-month run, it never became a breakaway hit for the network.
Colin Quinn: That fucking show had potential to be something. I feel like it made the wrong people uncomfortable; I feel like it made the media uncomfortable. Nobody would ever mention our show. The few reviews we got were fucking dismissing. “These guys are assholes.” “They’re dumb.” “This show’s stupid.” I remember a couple of reviews that were just brutal. One guy at Entertainment Weekly, Bruce Fretts, gave a pretty good one.
Bruce Fretts: I would pitch stories about the show, because I did think it was great. I did think they were doing something nobody else was doing on TV. And I would kind of get this face back like, “Ew, you like that show? That’s not one of our shows. We don’t approve of that show. It’s not witty and clever enough.” But I thought it was funnier than a lot of the shows people think are witty and clever. You know, it just made me laugh. I loved those guys, and I loved their honesty.
Colin Quinn: We never got any promotion or any press. I was never out doing press, except when it started. I’m telling you, my fucking one-man shows off-Broadway, I do 10 times more press. That was not a fucking accident. And [the network] made the ratings the issue but it was definitely the content. Believe me, I had all those conversations. They weren’t about ratings, or bringing on bigger guests. They were about, “What you guys are doing and what’s going on here?”
Laurie Kilmartin: When the network doesn’t really jump on advertising your show, you just get this sinking feeling.
Patrick Milligan: That’s something I wrote about on Cringe Humor. Why the hell aren’t they promoting this show? This is a great show. They’re sabotaging it.
Marc Maron: Who the hell knows why people cancel things on Comedy Central? They don’t know what they’re doing over there most of the time. They’re just throwing stuff up against the wall and if 14-year-olds don’t like it, they panic.
Colin Quinn: The network would have these meetings with me. The famous one was where they talked about race. “You guys talk about race. We have Chappelle for that.” I was like, “So what? Chappelle covers all of race for you? That’s fucking amazing.” And they go, “We have politics. We have Jon Stewart for that.” And I go, “Do you want me to go on the fucking air tomorrow and go, ‘Hey guys, Paris Hilton’s crazy huh?’ They’ll kill me.” I felt like they were hearing from all their well-intentioned politically correct cohorts in the business, “That show is just disgusting. This is ugly. This is not the way people should talk or think. It’s coming from a mean-spirited place.”
Jim Norton: This sounds paranoid, but in all honesty, the business would not support that thought process. There were just too many unpleasant things said on that show. I don’t think we were doing anything spectacular. We were just being honest and funny.
Laurie Kilmartin: We kind of all got that feeling that there wasn’t blanket support [from Comedy Central]. I feel like they didn’t see what they had. You can grow a generation of comics and then let an audience come to them, and then those are the people that do the hour specials where you make all your money. So even financially, I was like, “Why aren’t they supporting this?” They get to use all these regulars on television for the next 10 years, so it’s a farm system. I didn’t understand why they didn’t jump on that.
Bryan Tucker (writer): We never felt totally safe on the show. It wasn’t a ratings smash. It had a very devoted fan base – the CringeHumor people – but that support wasn’t wide. We also knew that it was a pretty different tone from The Daily Show. The two pieces didn’t fit together nearly as well as Stewart and Colbert later. It wasn’t too much of a surprise when it was cancelled.
Lou Wallach: I think everybody [at Comedy Central] loved the show. For the first time that I can remember when I was there, they were running an original premiere episode of something after The Daily Show, rather than just a repeat that they already paid for. So there was a greater burden or pressure to hit a certain rating, and the show – as much as I really loved it – it’s tonally very different from The Daily Show. The Daily Show audience didn’t really stick around for it.
Mike Berkowitz: It’s one thing to support great comedy, but as a network, they still need to sell advertising. Tough Crowd, it didn’t reach a broad enough audience. But none of those comics really did. They were just too honest. And there was no other outlet. You couldn’t turn around and say these guys have millions of Twitter followers and their clips are getting millions of hits and people love them. It was just, the numbers aren’t great and they’re talking about stuff with their New York accents and it’s a very ethnic show and maybe in Nebraska, people were tuning out.
Bruce Fretts: And then when Colbert came along a few years later, it was like, “Ah, okay. This feels familiar. This feels enough like The Daily Show that I can watch these two together as a block.” But when you went from Jon Stewart and his kind of arch, wry tone to this very rough, you-don’t-know-what-you’re-gonna-get package that Colin brought, I think it upset people, particularly right before bed. [Laughs] They want a nice glass of warm milk before they go to bed. And I think Jon Stewart and Colbert are brilliant at what they do, but it’s very familiar to people. And I think this was a show that didn’t feel familiar, and was kind of overlooked and rejected as a result.
Lou Wallach: Put it this way: no television network is in the business of spending that kind of money on production and promotion and opportunity costs and talent relations and anything else to say, “Yeah, let’s put this thing on the air. Meh, I hope it does okay.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s a business. It’s just the unfortunate nature of the beast. It would sadden me to think that people really believe that Comedy Central would put a show on and half-assed get behind it. That would be terrible to me.
The show’s final episode, featuring all five regulars, aired November 4, 2004.
Laurie Kilmartin: I was sobbing on the last show.
Rich Vos: When Tough Crowd ended, it almost felt like, you know the feeling when you break up with somebody? The empty, hurt, lonely, abandoned, rejected, every-negative-emotion feeling you get when you break up with somebody? That’s what it felt like when Tough Crowd ended. It really felt like I was getting divorced.
Colin Quinn: I just felt guilty. The whole staff; there was a fucking lot of people, and I felt like, “Fuck, I screwed it up.”
Patrick Milligan: We started “Save Tough Crowd” once the word got out that they were pulling it. And I had form emails where people could email [Comedy Central President] Doug Herzog directly. We started to make bumper stickers and flyers. People would print out the flyers and post them all over New York City. Just to raise hell. Like, why Comedy Central? Why are you taking this show away from us? This is a great program. On the final episode you can see, we’re sitting right in the front row and we’re holding up “Save Tough Crowd” flyers and stickers and wearing the t-shirts and shit.
Jim Norton: We all walk off and Colin’s talking to the blank room and the whole audience files out. It was really nice. It was a smart way to end the show, but it was just miserable when it happened.
Colin Quinn: I do remember the feeling a sense of deflation. Like, what the hell happened? I felt like something was going on with comedy that was good, and this was the place where people could fucking hang their hats. I just felt like something was coming out of those shows that was different, that was interesting.
Patrick Milligan: I remember shortly after Tough Crowd got cancelled, they tried to bring it back. I attended the pilot taping with Greg Giraldo. It was called The Greg Giraldo Show. It was in the same studio as Tough Crowd, it had the same stage managers, the same staff. It was creepy. You could tell it was the same set; they had the same windows in the back. Instead of a coffee table where the comedians were facing each other, it was Greg Giraldo and a panel of four, kind of like how Chelsea is set up. And it wasn’t the same. Greg was brilliant; he was sharp as a tack. But everyone was respectful of each other. No one talked over each other, no one stepped on anyone’s lines. The camera would go to them and they would talk and that was it. And it didn’t capture that essence that Tough Crowd had.
Mike Berkowitz: Someone made a joke that they should call it Angry Bunch. I mean, that really was the perfect show for Greg, because that was so much his sensibility, but it was more perfect for Colin. Colin was Greg’s mentor in so many ways. It was such a weird situation. Obviously Greg didn’t have a choice but to do it, but he felt so guilty about it and struggled with it.
Colin Quinn: I never thought it was gonna be this long [laughs] before there was another show. I was like, it’ll come back in some other incarnation. In my head, I was like, a show like this you can’t really get rid of. There’s too much going on. And then I remember how dumb everybody was, like Norton coming up to me and going, “Have you tried FX?” I was like, “Gee, Jim, no. I never thought of that. What the fuck? Of course, stupid.” He says it like he’s my aunt that’s not in showbiz. We reached out to all those places. I mean, my manager and agent said they did, and nobody was taking. [Laughs] Nobody wanted to do it.
Nick Di Paolo: It was just a little slice of comedy nirvana. I don’t know why they can’t do it again.
Judy Gold: It would be so amazing now. I mean with Egypt, gay marriage, abortion; it would just be incredible. Tell them to get that fucking show back on the air. Fucking assholes.
Sue Costello: I think every comic would wish that it would come back on the air. No doubt.
Colin Quinn: I would do it in two seconds, if they let me do it. If it’s gonna be Tough Crowd. I have no desire to be a fucking talk show host, but if it’s gonna be comedians coming on and being able to relax, physically, and say, “Hey guess what, I’m gonna say something. It might not even be that funny, but it’s a fucking joke. I wrote it, fuck you assholes on the show, and fuck your host. Fuck this crowd.” [Laughs] Then it would be great.
Jim Norton: I would love to do it again. It’d be much harder without Greg and Patrice. It wouldn’t feel the same.
Rich Vos: You could do Tough Crowd again if Colin was the host, but it would be a whole different vibe. He would put on probably younger comics, some older ones, but you could never recreate. You just can’t do it. It would be tough without Giraldo and Patrice, because they were fucking such pivotal characters on that show. Giraldo was fucking so quick and funny and brilliant, and same with Patrice. Keith was a buffoon.
Colin Quinn: There’s so many comedians now that are funny. Oh my God, it’d be great. You’d have the old-timers and the fucking young guys. It would be funny if some young guy just goes, “You guys are fucking over, and you can’t let go. Just beat it.” Because it has enough truth in it. Just some young guy going, “Beat it. You’re old and nobody wants to see you. Look at you. Look at you.”
Mike Berkowitz: I think there might have been a better home for it in a more narrowcasting industry, the way it is right now. I talked to Colin about just doing Tough Crowd, just self-releasing it. Even if it was a podcast, if it was just every week he had some of that crew over and did a format that was similar. I just think the timing is so right for it now, again.
Bruce Fretts: I think it’s possible that today’s environment might have a better chance of breaking through, but today’s environment is also much more crowded. There’s five other shows on at 11:30 that weren’t on before. It might end up being a wash if they put it on now. But I would love to see somebody try it. I would love to see Colin try it again, somewhere.
Rebecca Trent: At the very least, they could put it on DVD. They could let us superfans, who have been so disappointed, let us buy it. I would really, really love to see it. I’d put it on a loop [at The Creek].
Colin Quinn: Why did it fucking disappear? I’m not a guy that has a pre-disposition towards real paranoia, [but] if it’s really just a fucking ratings thing, why would you not release DVDs six months later? It’s a moot point now, but right afterwards, it was a little strange. And the next few years, I was like, “This is unbelievable. These motherfuckers are not gonna release this.” At least a box set, the best of or some shit? Nothing ever. Thank God for fucking YouTube.
Lou Wallach: Look, they’re always looking for ways to squeeze another nickel out of that library, in a business where they own everything top to bottom. I don’t know whether it’s because of the topical nature, [or] at what cost and what the downside would be of putting things out as a digital download or a video stream. It’s a shame that it’s not. There’s no good reason why, other than probably the original reason it was cancelled – whatever Comedy Central thinks that they need to accomplish in the next term or measured window of time is an opportunity cost, so they’re better off spending the time and resources pushing [other] projects over this one.
Rebecca Trent: Comedy Central had a meeting where comedians were asked, “What are your notes for us? You guys are the up-and-coming comics; we care about what your opinion is. What should we do?” And one of the first things that was said was, “Bring back Tough Crowd.”
Colin Quinn: That almost made me cry. It makes me so happy, because comedians are my life in a way. I love them, you know? I love them with all their fucking warts. It’s not like I look at comedians, and go, they’re the fucking best people on the planet. They’re fucking pricks, some of them. They’re unbelievable sometimes. But I love ‘em, cause I’m one. I’m just like them. If it had an influence, I’m fucking so proud and happy. When people bring it up to me, I’m always happy as hell.
Jim Norton: I never thought anybody paid attention to it. I never thought young comedians watched it or gave a fuck about it at all. And comics will tell me that they loved the show, and I’m amazed. I always think I’m speaking into a vacuum, so I’m happy that anybody liked that show.
Judy Gold: It’s funny that people do still come up to me and talk about it and how much they loved it. I really didn’t realize how impactful it was until it was gone.
Mike Berkowitz: All these young comedians watched that show and said, “I wish I could hang out with these guys. I want to go to the Comedy Cellar. I want to be a part of that world.”
Rich Vos: I think people were influenced by our whole crew. The abrasiveness, the honesty, the fun, the just smashing each other.
Joe DeRosa: It inspired me to try to become somebody that stood by his opinions, and it also challenged me. Because I knew that most of these guys were New York guys and I was gonna move to New York eventually, and I knew you better step your game up and be ready to get smacked around because these guys are clearly the funniest people on Earth, and you’re gonna be in the pool with them. And of course, I dreamed one day I could be on there.
Colin Quinn: I’m proud of it, of course. I love the fact that it made it’s little brief thing in there. I was in once in Ohio, and I was in a Starbucks or something, and these kids behind the counter were whispering to each other, and one of them goes, “Please, please, can I ask you a favor? Just tell me, ‘Shut uuup, stupid.'” So I said it to him. And those moments make it all fucking worthwhile.
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider. Tough Crowd is the show that made her fall in love with comedy.