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Colin Quinn opens up about Norm Macdonald and why he ‘sabotaged himself’ on ‘Saturday Night Live’

Wcritics attempt to rank the best “Weekend Update” anchors over four and a half decades of Saturday Night Live, Colin Quinn is constantly falling to the bottom, or almost. He understands.

“I would self-destruct, as you can see if you watch it,” says the man who is ironically also regarded by his peers as one of the best comedians of his generation in this week’s episode of The last laugh Podcast. And his self-sabotage has a lot to do with how he got the gig.

Quinn was hired as a writer for season 21 of SNL in 1995, when the show was in one of its many phases of rebuilding and was subsequently promoted to “Star Player” status, mostly performing short stand-up tracks on “Weekend Update” with then-host Norm Macdonald .

Two years later, in the middle of Season 23, Macdonald was abruptly fired for making too many jokes about Don Ohlemeyer’s friend OJ Simpson. (I’m assuming there were three victims that night. Nicole Simpson, a waiter and I, “Macdonald joked in an interview a few years ago.)

Lorne Michaels put Quinn in as his replacement and it was more or less all downhill from there.

In the excerpt below, Quinn breaks down exactly what happened and explains how he sees his SNL heritage. You can listen to our full conversation right now by subscribing to The last laugh on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

So did you audition to be part of the cast and they hired you as a writer? Or were you just hired as a writer?

I got hired as a writer and that was the year the show almost died. The year before there was the big article, “Saturday Night Dead”. So there was no one left except Norm Macdonald. And David Spade. Everyone was new.

Is that when they fired Chris Farley and Adam Sandler?

Yeah, I know, it’s crazy, right? But they left David and Norm because they were relatively new. But that was the first year for Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, everyone. So it was a whole new band and I was a writer. But then I was doing these little “update” features. One of the writers put in an “Update” feature, so I started to put those “Update” features, like the lion and this guy Joe Blow.

You had a St. Patrick’s Day which was quite memorable.

Yeah. And people thought I was really drunk, you know? So I should have stayed with those, because I was writing, but really I had the best work on the show. I would do these “update” features and that was it.

Did you also write sketches or did you really have to do the “Update” thing?

I wrote a few sketches, but not really. Not so much that happened.

So how did you make the transition from writing to casting?

My manager was just like, hey, put him in a cast as a star player. And they put me in the cast as a star player. But in retrospect, you know, everything is 20/20 in retrospect, I would have just stayed as a writer, I did my little “Update” features and that would have been it.

And you would have been happier?

Yeah.

And why is that? Did you not have a good “Weekend Update” anchoring experience?

It wasn’t what I should have done. And my instincts knew it, but I didn’t. Even then, I had refused so many things. I was like, if I say no to these opportunities, what does that mean? Am I going to kick myself?

It’s a shame, do you know what I mean? Because it shouldn’t go down like this [at SNL]. But it did.

Do you think part of the problem with “Weekend Update” was the circumstances of Norm Macdonald’s departure and that there were bad feelings there?

Until about three years ago, I didn’t really understand how much I had sabotaged him because of it. I was so scared – I’d never been in a position where people would think I’m the nice boy who walks in when this guy does his. So in every episode I wouldn’t smile, I would just throw it all away. And so really I’m self-destructing, as you can see if you watch it, even more than I normally would, because of it.

Have you talked to Norm about this over the past few years to find out how it was going for him?

No. I mean, we knew each other really well then and after, but we never really discussed the details about it. But, you know, I can’t imagine having this heart to heart with Norm. This is not how we are. I mean, I’m sure he has people he’s like that with, but I’m not one of them. But we are friends, we respect each other and we work together all the time. But yes, we would never have that discussion.

So overall, it seems it wasn’t the best experience being the anchor for “Weekend Update”. But are there any good memories from the series that mark you?

The first half of my time on this show was my dream come true. The second half wasn’t fun for me, neither for the crowd, nor for Lorne, with me. I mean, imagine I’m from New York, taking the D or the F everyday, just under 30 Rock, getting up and going into 30 Rock and working out Saturday Night Live as a writer and doing my little performance, standing things. Take the train after the show, after rehearsal, get off at the Comedy Cellar a few times a week, stand-up. I mean, you know, for what I am or for what a lot of people like me are, you couldn’t ask for anything better. It was a dream. And I was already in my thirties, so I wasn’t expecting that. It was amazing. It was great. And then, you know, like anything else, be careful what you want.

What did you like or dislike about appearing in the sketches, which would you do once in the cast? Was it fun for you to play in sketches and play characters?

No! No. Like I said, I was not going to refuse it. It was great. But when I did, I was like, I don’t like it at all. I think that as a stand-up you are used to working a certain way. And you want to write your own material and you don’t want to do other people’s crap. And I didn’t have time to go to the Cave and work standing up. The first half was so amazing and the second half was fair you know… but I wouldn’t admit it to myself back then because how can you admit that stuff doesn’t make you happy so what is everyone’s ultimate goal?

Since you didn’t enjoy the second half of your experience there, were you a little relieved when it ended and they asked you not to come back?

Yeah yeah. I mean, I was. And it’s a shame, you know what I mean? Because it didn’t have to go down like that. But it did. And you know, I just have to watch my part, which was a big part. And my attitude and everything. And that’s a shame, but that’s how it happened. SNL It’s such a big thing in some ways, but no one comes out of it without a bit – like a knee injury when it rains.

There is this great moment in the SNL 40th anniversary special where these are the four “Weekend Update” guys. You, Norm, Seth Meyers and Kevin Nealon and you introduced Chevy Chase. What was your experience that night?

It was my first time back. So this whole night was weird for me. It was the first time that I really started to think back to those days. So for me, this moment was nothing compared to just all night. I feel like it was a very emotional evening for a lot of people, especially people like me who hadn’t been back for so long. If you go back to a place that was a part of you, you feel sad but happy at the same time, you know? There was a lot of that, like of course you’re still going to cry for days when you were younger. It’s like when I listen to a band, I’m like, “Oh my god, I love this band!” But do I like their or do I like what I was when they were what they were? And it was the same. But I was blown away the whole night.

Next week on The last laugh Podcast: Comedian and star of the Netflix special “Tout va bien”, Sarah Cooper.

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