Rich Collier of Subway Q&A

Interviews | Oct 30th, 1999

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Subway Q&A is an Emmy-winning program on the Metro channel in New York that has garnered both a cult following and critical acclaim. The idea is simple – go onto subway platforms, ask riders various questions, and take a few out for an activity in the big city. But the result is much bigger – it humanizes New York, peering into the heart of a city known for its coldness, but beloved by those who live in it. We spoke with Rich Collier, Q&A’s charismatic host.

What were you doing before Subway Q&A?
I was in Menudo for a short time. Nah, I was a writer and a producer. I wrote and produced for lots of bad tv shows before Subway Q&A.

Which ones?
Ones you haven’t heard of (laughs). There was a show called The Home Show in LA, which was the cutting edge of arts n’ crafts. We did segments like how to make earrings out of cheese, how to breathe new life into boring leftovers, how to get crayons off of linoleum…

You’re like the original Martha Stewart!
I guess so! So I did a lot of bad morning tv programs. I did a show called House Party for NBC, which apparently the numbers were so low, they say that Nielsen called to make sure we were being broadcast. We got nothing. And I worked at Lifetime as a producer, a fitness show there, A&E, all the network affiliates in Boston – ABC, NBC. I was a producer for the Jon Stewart Show on MTV. VH1 – I was a head writer there.

Are you from New York originally?
I was hatched on the west coast, raised in Westchester in Irvington. I’m sure you’re too young to remember, but my dad did the Mike Douglas Show. Which was kinda like the Rosie O’Donnell but in the 70s.

Yeah, I just remember that John Lennon and Yoko Ono would cohost.
They always had these surreal combinations on the Mike Douglas Show…you’d have Dr. Joyce Brothers, a conventional bland shrink, with Sly and the Family Stone and some Borscht Belt comedian, all doing a pretty good stir fry together. And it was great, horrible tv.

Was he your inspiration for going into television?
I dunno.. I think most people don’t want to do what their parents do. So I didn’t, but I somehow stumbled into it. So, Westchester, Irvington, Manhattan (went to high school here).. Moved to Rockport, Massachusetts, a small town north of Boston near where the Perfect Storm took place.

Did you move back to NY from Boston because of this show?
No, right before this show I was a head writer at a little show on the USA Network called “USA Live”. And because we couldn’t afford to hire actors, I was one of the players on that show. So I was here, I’ve been here for a few years working on shows. And then my boss at USA got a job as an executive at Metro, and called me, and I created a teen show called “School’s Out” on Metro. And then, more or less, Subway Q&A fell in my lap, and I’ve been doing it for four years now. It’s been a blast.

Are you into punk rock at all?
I grew up on Devoto and Shelley and the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, Clash, Sex Pistols… So at the time I always wanted to look like I was in Bauhaus, but I ended up looking like I was in the Romantics instead. I was hoping people would see me as an emaciated heroin addict, but it never worked out for me.

We mention it because we’ve noticed the Ramones and Misfits have been on Subway Q&A a couple times. So we were wondering how that happened.
That’s our producer, Evelyn Malo. She’s friends with the Misfits and Marky Ramone, so she gets them on regularly. And it’s funny because she’s a great producer and a sweet woman, she’s wholesome and straight-laced, and you just wouldn’t imagine that she’d love the Ramones as much as she does.

How did the idea for Subway Q&A come about?
Metro executive Greg Moyer asked us to a do a show in the subway, but we, umm, had very little money… So a group of us went down there and put our heads together, and we came up with this idea. But the idea is really simple – it’s just Man on the Street. But we’re real fortunate to have the subway, it’s this great melting pot with stockbrokers and crackheads and homemakers… it’s a leveling field. Everyone’s down there and it’s a great place to corner people and ask them embarrassing questions.

How did you get the MTA’s approval?
They were great about it. One of our producers, Matt Kells, had done some work with the MTA before – he had done a documentary down there. And they developed a good relationship, and when this came along, the MTA let us do it. And we’re fortunate that they don’t watch every show. (laughs)

Do they ever get peeved at anything you’ve done?
Yeah, they’ve called a couple times. But I don’t think they watch all that often. We’ve done things like… we had a Revolutionary War reenactment in the subway. People were chasing each other with muskets. I know if they had seen that, it would’ve been a bad thing. We had assembled a group of kids to be party planners for us, and we had people blindfolded and smashing pinatas with baseball bats on the platform. So we’ve gotten a few calls, but again, I think they’re watching Suddenly Susan instead.

How do you guys come up with the questions for the show?
The questions I ask I usually come up with myself. By the way, we have a very tiny staff. One of the reasons why we’ve been on for so long is because we’re so inexpensive. So our staff has shrunk a little bit over the years. So Evelyn, the producer, generates just about all the questions that are asked that are unhosted. And every now and then, there are a lot of creative people at Metro who stick their heads in with a great question. And people email us sometimes as well, which is great.

What are some of the funnier things that have happened on the show?
So much of the stuff that’s really funny we can’t put on the air. We should put out one of those “Too Wild for TV” videos. We once asked “What’s the worst thing your partner does in bed?” And I don’t know on what planet these people think we can air this stuff… I mean, it was so filthy! I mean, we can say “asshole” – we’re not that uptight. But there was stuff that I don’t know why they’d share it with anyone, let alone on tv. It is amazing that when you have a camera, people are very forthcoming.

Have you ever been shocked by an answer?
Certain people giving certain answers surprises me. Like, if I ask a cute, little Columbia co-ed what her fantasy is, and she tells me it’s to be handcuffed and pistol-whipped by someone in the NYPD – that surprises me! We did a shoot at a large encounters meeting, and you only really see it at the end, but women kept grabbing my ass! It was very flattering and very nice, but I was… surprised that it happened as many times as it did. In many ways, pleasantly surprised. Another surprise is when I bump into crazy people, and I don’t know they’re crazy. At this point, after four years, you’d think I’m pretty good at detecting lunatics… And there are some people who think I’m being meaner than I am. Because I think in general I make fun of myself more than anyone else, or maybe I’ll make little jabs, but I don’t know how long the show would last if it was just me being a dick to everyone out there.

Has anyone gotten violent?
I’m fortunate in usually having a big cameraman. But like, just the other day, some gentleman had come back from Victoria Secrets to get some lingerie for his girlfriend, but I implied that it was for him, and it wasn’t much of a slam, but he just went off that he was going to beat us up. It’s like, relax man! I mean, what’s the worst thing I can be implying? Y’know? Calm down. But some people will go away and come back and jump in front of the camera and start cursing. People will get behind you… This crazy woman once kept following us; we kept moving from platform to platform, and she’d be behind us, thrusting her hips, making obscene gestures. We’d try to fake her out, getting onto a train and jumping off before the doors close to try to leave her there. We evenutally managed to elude her.

Have you ever regretted choosing someone for one of your adventures?
Sure, yeah, absolutely! (laughs) Because the show is only a half hour, but the shooting of the show takes a lot more time. Once we get people, we try to be real considerate because we know that we’ve kidnapped them, and they probably have somewhere to go.. So some people start off very enthusiastic and then just get miserable, and you have to continue to bribe them with treats. So we’ll get folks who are just animated and outspoken and fun for about 20 minutes, and then they’re sulking for the rest of the thing. And I’ve chosen people who’ve proven to be just a but more nuttier, a bit more insane, than I initially thought.

Like those Deliverance-type brothers you took paintballing?
THOSE GUYS! Yeah. Uh huh. I don’t know if it was revealed in the show, but they lived in their van. It was very appropriate that we were going to play paintball. Fortunately, they were on my team. I’m sure if they ran out of paintballs, they would’ve pistol-whipped the opponents into submission. But you know, sometimes people look scary but end up being the nicest people in the world. You never know.

I wanted to ask about the girls you approach on the show. Is Subway Q&A just a front for you to pick up attractive…
Yes. Yes. Don’t even finish that question. Yes, it is. I would have no social life at all if it weren’t for Subway Q&A. Subway Q&A has been very good to me.

Do you ask for their numbers?
Well, see, that would be unprofessional for me to admit that to you. (laughs)

Nice… I gotta get into tv.
Yes, you do.

Do you get recognized in the street a lot?
You know, I’m so grateful and so surprised that people know the show, and that people stop me and say nice things. People are so nice and complimentary. And it’s such a little show! It really feels nice.

But it’s also garnered some Emmys.
Oh, nine!

Wow, nine? Did that boost your budget at all?
Oh, no. No, it’s the opposite. The more Emmy’s we win, the smaller our budget becomes. Don’t ask me to explain it. But yeah, three years in a row we won for outstanding entertainment show. I think we were up against coverage of the Glen Cove Girl’s Field Hockey Team (laughs). And I won for a couple of years for hosting, which is hilarious and wonderfully great. And we won for editing – our editor is a really talented guy. The whole pacing of the show, the whole vibe of the show, he’s so responsible for that. And he cuts out all my screw-ups, which is more than a full-time job.

Like what?
Oh, like me rambling on like a moron, trying to find something funny to say. There’s a certain point where you should cut your losses when talking to people, but I’ll just dig and fish, because I know you’re gonna cough up something good! And I’ll spend too much time with folks when I should move on. So, my producer and editor have to wade through all my crap. God bless them.

What are your favorite things about New York City?
Where do you start? The energy here is like nowhere I’ve ever been.You walk out the door, and whether you live in the Upper West Side or the Lower East Side, whatever you need is right there. You don’t have to go downtown to see live music, you don’t have to go far to get great Vietnamese or Thai food.

Well, unless you live in some of the outer boroughs. Which brings me to this question – how come you guys never go out to Queens?
We do! We totally do! I swear! We take the N and the R out there all the time!

I dunno.. I see you guys in Manhattan and Brooklyn…
We get a little lazy sometimes, because the station is right near the 1, 2, 3, and 9 trains. And I live off those trains as well. So sometimes it’s easy just to do that. But we go out to Astoria, we’ve had some great times at Coney Island… We go lots of places.

What time do you shoot? Because it never seems during rush hours…
Yeah, we learned from experience. You’ve got a big camera, you’ve got a little camera – and people holding them, you’ve got an audio guy, you’ve got me, and maybe you have a producer, and maybe someone helping get releases signed. And when you try to get onto a car during rush hour, you lose people. We’ve lost people all the time. And you can’t shoot – you’re shooting the backs of people’s heads. And you’re really pissing people off as well. So we try to avoid rush hour. Or when we do rush hour, we go to a platform out of the city a little bit. But between 32nd and 42 Streets people are just so unhappy that you’re in their way. I get that question often, what time we shoot.

What other questions do you get?
When do you shoot? How come we never see you down there? A lot of people think that it’s not legit. That somehow people are ringers… Someone even thought that we weren’t even shooting in the subway. Yeah, like Metro has called Industrial Light & Magic and we built a virtual subway.

What was the worst thing you’ve done on Subway Q&A?
Trying to trade tickets to Naked Boys Singing for tickets to the Subway Series. (laughs) One guy said, “I would rather see the Mets play than attend the birth of one of my children.

Awesome. Were you able to find any takers?
Uhh… no. Once we had tickets to Phantom, and we had people in the subway recreate their favorite moments from Phantom of the Opera. Let’s see.. once I went down into the subway with body armor on, and baseball bats. The only part of the armor that exposed flesh was the top of my head. So I gave people the bats, I said, “Look, it’s rush hour, it’s tough working out your frustrations, take this bat and vent. Just let it all out. Wail on me, you’ll feel better.” 90% of the people just bashed me on top of the head. I explained to them, this is the only area that you really can’t hit! They looked me in the eye and they understood, and they apologized for hitting me on the head, and then they took the bat and smashed me in the head again!

Oh my god! Aluminum or wood?
Well, plastic. But a hard plastic. It did damage! But that was surprising. I don’t know why I wasn’t communicating well that day, or what it was about the top of my head…

Did the show make you fall in love with New York? Could you ever live somewhere else?
I loved New York before the show. But I love it more since I’ve been doing the show. It would be hard for me to be anywhere else. There’s so much great music, so much great food, so much great art, so much great culture…

And Naked Boys Singing.
(laughs) Yes!

Subway Q&A airs weekdays at 7:30 pm. Visit their site here.