When you’re attempting to explain the history of the world, it helps to have some back-up. Colin Quinn has his in no less a master jokester than Jerry Seinfeld. Somehow it works in Off-Broadway’s Long Story Short.
The two old friends — Seinfeld directing, Quinn performing — are now boldly going off-Broadway with a quixotic, one-man show called Long Story Short. It traces global events from the caveman to the digital age in just 75 minutes.
It’s a little jarring at first to hear the former host of MTV’s late-1980s game show “Remote Control” — and the guy who played morose Lenny the Lion on “Saturday Night Live” — offer his thoughts on Aristotle and the Aztecs.
But, bit by bit, the show makes sense if you connect with Quinn, 51, a likable, Brooklyn-born Irish-American standup with a raspy, jerky delivery that likely has been fortified with an encyclopedia or two.
Seinfeld, making his stage directing debut, has paced the show as a series of self-contained, 10-minute or so routines, helping provide a base for Quinn’s path through time and space.
But if you expect to see the glory days of Kramer and Co. from Seinfeld’s old sit-com, you’ll mostly be out of luck.
There’s not much of Seinfeld’s rhythms or personality (and no sign of him physically during a recent performance).
While he and Quinn share a cynical view of human quirks, the show is pure Quinn.
“With all the technological progress and scientific breakthroughs, how come we still have wars, senseless violence, man’s inhumanity to man?” he asks the audience at the beginning of the show at the Bleecker Street Theatre.
His answer? We are basically all the descendants of nasty, nasty people — the fittest, perhaps, but also those sharp-elbowed folks who nab subway seats from right under you.
“Our ancestors were not the people who starved to death waiting their turns,” he says.
That observation sparks Quinn’s daffy journey from the dawn of civilization to the Greeks and Romans, to India, China, Russia, Africa, Europe and, finally, America.
This is ambitious stuff: It takes a certain fortitude — Sarah Palin might use the term “cojones” — to make jokes about the Holy Roman Empire.
“If you look at a picture of St. Peter’s Basilica from 1500, it looks like a Death Row record release party from 1991,” he cracks at one point.
As each historical epoch passes, Quinn tries to find a modern hook — the British Empire, for example, he says erred when it made franchises too aggressively, “making bad versions of itself, like Canada.”
Of the Israel-Palestine crisis, Quinn has found a root cause: “Abraham had a child with his mistress and banished them to the desert.
“So Abraham was the first deadbeat dad and that child became the Arabs. That’s why you can never solve the Middle East — it’s not about land: It’s about father issues.”
Quinn delivers it all either walking the stage or sitting in an upholstered chair.
Behind him, images from paintings, photos and tapestries projected onto an enormous screen follow his global hop-scotching. He dresses casual for the event, one recent night in jeans, a T-shirt, Chuck Taylors and an untucked collared shirt.
Does it work? For the most part, yes.
Is he guilty of overreaching? Oh yes indeed, kind of like a long-lost drunken frat buddy who suddenly reappears after 20 years quoting Marcel Proust and Edward Gibbon.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You might learn something from that old, morose lion. The show runs through Sept. 4.
Mark Kennedy covers Theater for The Associated Press