MOST stand-up comics mine such topics as relationships and parenthood for laughs. But Colin Quinn has much bigger fish to fry.
In 2010, Quinn, 55, debuted "Long Story Short," his hit one-man Broadway show that took a jaundiced - but hilarious - look at world history. Now, he's journeying through the past again with "Unconstitutional," which Philadelphia Theatre Company is presenting today through July 6 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
In case the title doesn't tip you off, "Unconstitutional" is a humorous examination of the four-page document - conjured here in Philly, in 1787 - that sets forth how America is to be governed. According to Quinn, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, the Constitution makes sense as a subject for him because it's pretty much the one thing universally revered by We the People of this hopelessly and maddeningly fragmented nation.
"It's the only thing that everybody in this country loves," said the Brooklyn native in his familiar gargle-with-razor-blades growl.
"There's a psychological/ideological civil war [going on in America] and nobody agrees on anything, but everyone loves the Constitution. So I said, 'Wow! That's a powerful thing. Everyone hates everything, but everybody loves the Constitution.'
"There are different interpretations of it, but everybody loves it. And that's pretty impressive to me. So, that's what made me want to start going into it."
True, but as a source of comedy? What's so funny about the Constitution?
"Just the fact that our country was created in Philly should tell you everything you need to know about why it's funny," Quinn ragged. "Let's face it, [Philly] is maybe the most psychotic functional city in America. You seem to function; Detroit doesn't function."
On a more serious note, Quinn is genuinely impressed with what he interprets as the real concerns of those who framed the Constitution.
"One of the things that struck me is the fact that it's . . . about the tyranny of the majority," he explained. "[The Founding Fathers] worried about not just making sure that the government didn't oppress you; [they made] sure the people don't oppress each other. And the fact that it's not supposed to be a full democracy where every citizen's vote counts completely - if every citizen was Socrates, you would still have problems.
"They were saying: human nature is not good. They weren't saying: if the people are in charge, everything works. They were saying: human nature has to be regulated all the time, that power corrupts everybody all the time. Not just the government, but everybody."
It stands to reason that jokes based on historical facts can be funny only to people familiar with said facts. Which is why, Quinn admitted, not everyone got "Long Story Short," which covered such topics as ancient Rome (which he brilliantly conflated with the story portrayed in the film "Goodfellas") and the British Empire. And he lamented the lack of emphasis on history in present-day education. But, he added, "Unconstitutional" isn't as dependent upon the audience's knowledge of the past as was "Long Story Short."
"This is more of a psychological story than 'Long Story Short,' he said. "It's more like personal mentality based on the Constitution, so I feel that it's easier for people to understand this one. If they don't have any historical knowledge, it almost doesn't matter.
"I kept all the language out of it, because the language is kind of boring to me. It's more about the mentality, so I think it's more understandable in that sense."
But, he added, "I would love it to lead people to reading [the Constitution] so they can understand what it means."
Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., $49 & $54, 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Thanks to reader Jimmi Shrode for pointing out that in last week's review of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Academy of Music, I referred to the storm that propels Dorothy and Toto to Oz as a "hurricane."
Obviously, it's a tornado that sets the story in motion. My apologies to Jimmi, Hurricane Schwartz and anyone else who might have been offended by my meteorological faux pas.
On Twitter: @chuckdarrow