I may be coming out of the closet here, but I’m not going to fib. I love Tough Crowd, the cable television show that pits comics nightly against the day’s headlines.
I’ll concede to the show’s critics: It often devolves into crudeness, verbal depravity, and political incorrect meandering. It’s clear from the opening bell of every segment that political junkies should be sniffing in disapproval and turning the channel to a C-Span re-broadcast of Howard Dean courting farmers in Iowa, with serious analysis and your phone calls, of course.
Still, there’s something intriguing about watching host Colin Quinn’s nightly attempts to corral four comedians into something resembling a political discussion. There is an honest edge to Tough Crowd that is missing from all other “topical” television shows.
Discerning viewers these days are hard pressed to watch primetime cable news programming and not be disappointed. I abandoned cable myself right around the time they replaced Buchanan and Press with the vapid Abrams Report. I attempted to stick it out with my old favorite Hardball, but finally had to throw in the towel when Chris Matthews turned the show into, “What’s on Max Cleland’s Mind Tonight.”
SO WHAT IS IT about Tough Crowd that works? It’s not political savvy. Most of the time, Quinn sounds like the uncle who just discovered the Drudge Report. Although I liked Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher often fell into the trap of taking the show too seriously, a mistake Quinn…deftly avoids. And yet, every time the credits roll, I feel I’ve spent my time more wisely than I would have watching Anderson Cooper ooze wryness like a humorless wound.
Take the season opener a couple of weeks back. Quinn bravely faced off against four of the folks from Air America at the same time, including the wildly agitated Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo combo. Just as with every other media appearance these folks make, they walked in ready to take over and patronize, with the same bunch of junior high political platitudes they’ve been milking since they stumbled across a Noam Chomsky reader.
But Colin Quinn is Irish and from Queens. He doesn’t have much use for political niceties, so when Franken attempted to defend Andy Rooney’s comments comparing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to the 9/11 attacks, well, take a listen:
Franken: I don’t understand how someone as smart as you can’t understand what I mean when I say, Golda Meir said “We will someday forgive the Palestinians for killing our children, but we will never forgive ourselves for killing their children.”
Abu Ghraib is about us as a nation, we who love America looking at America and saying, “We can’t be doing this.”
Quinn: And I don’t understand how someone as smart as you can’t understand that 3,000 people dying and people having to walk around on a leash is comparable.
Later when Garofalo mounted her horse about the U.S. supporting Saddam Hussein in the ’80s, Quinn gave the ultimate blue collar response: “Well, right now we’re doing the opposite, so why are you objecting? We propped him up in the ’70s. We were bad. Now we’re trying to do the good thing. So what’s the problem?”
On most nights, the deck isn’t so stacked against Quinn. Both sides of any issue are represented, although usually by lunatic fringes. Even if you agree with one of the guests, he will usually take the argument a step (or eight) beyond where you would have gone.
There are no taboos on Tough Crowd. Race, sexuality, crime, marriage, religion and all the rest are dealt with in a blunt, not-for-the-squeamish manner. As an added bonus, unlike most folks on Comedy Central, the Tough Crowd regulars are actually funny.
Patrice O’Neal is fat, black and proud; Keith Robinson has got a problem with “whitey” that he doesn’t even try to hide; Italian Nick DiPaolo is as crass as he is sharp; self-proclaimed human oddity Jim Norton is very, very odd; pessimist Greg Giraldo can be cordial or a vicious take-down artist depending on how you approach him; Rich Vos is the butt of every other joke; and the giant lesbian Judy Gold gives everyone a hard time.
Occasionally, the producers throw more sane comedians like Jackie Mason or Jerry Seinfeld into the mix just to see what happens. They usually look confused or frightened, but once in a while a newcomer will find this format liberating and start talking trash himself.
WHAT I’M TRYING TO say here is that Tough Crowd is an unpredictable show, and that sort of originality in today’s TV climate is worth its weight in gold. The commercials for the show contend that comics don’t know how to be anything other than honest. I’d quibble but it’s hard to argue with the results. On Tough Crowd any problem you aren’t supposed to discuss, and any thought you aren’t supposed to think, is loudly aired for the world to ponder.
At 11:30 p.m. every Monday through Thursday television screens become one-way mirrors overlooking a room full of Tourette’s syndrome cases, all born without inner censor buttons. As a working man, I don’t stay up that late, but a new season of Tough Crowd was enticing enough for my fiancée to buy TiVo. Now if I could just get the damned thing to work, maybe I could get some sleep.