DENIS LEARY TO THE “RESCUE”
By Paul Freeman (1997 one-on-one and 2010 teleconference)
A funny thing happened on the way to Denis Leary’s acting career - he became one of America’s most popular standup comedians.
He persevered as an actor and currently stars in one of television’s edgiest, most compelling, most entertaining series, “Rescue Me.” In June, the show begins its sixth season on FX. It’s made a lasting connection with audiences and critics alike.
However, Leary still enjoys the spontaneity of standup. Right now, he’s launching “Rescue Me Comedy Tour 2.” The headliner is joined by series castmates Lenny Clarke and Adam Ferrara. Also featured on the tour are musical guests The Enablers with The Rehab Horns. A portion of the tour’s proceeds benefits the Leary Firefighters Foundation.
Leary said, “I’ve known Lenny for 30-something years and Adam for at least 12 now. So, it’s very funny and it’s non-stop, constant bickering because all we do is insult each other and make fun of each other.”
He relishes touring. “Yeah, definitely, because you just sort of forget that there’s people out there. They’re really happy to see you, but ultimately, you get an immediate answer as to whether something’s working or not.”
Comedy is a tool for venting. “Fortunately, I’ve always had the comedy, as I’ve gotten older. So it’s sort of like a built-in therapy session.”
Leary doesn’t have to seek out absurdities in life. “Fortunately, in my life, they keep bumping into me. Like especially with my kids. I don’t really have to go out and seek it. They just keep on doing funny shit all the time. That just comes naturally with them.
“There is something about kids that sort of gives you hope. You know what I mean? But then you run into one of these kids, like the kid in the coffee store, and you realize how idiotic teenagers can be. As they get older, it gets more insane, with the body piercing and the tattooing.”
While on stage, the inventive Leary works from bullet points. “I jot down ideas here and there,” he said. “The coffee idea came from actually having been on a film set in Long Island and driving to work one morning with another actress and one of the guys from the crew and stopping for coffee and having to deal with the Maple Nut Crunch kid in 7-11, you know what I mean? You can get every other flavor but coffee-flavored coffee these days. So you take note of those things in the back of your mind and then when it comes time to write it, you just remember all the details.”
For a hint of what’s currently tickling Leary’s funny bone, follow him on Twitter. “Yeah. That’s the stuff that’s leaking out of my brain on a daily basis right now. I think it’s safe to say those are some of the subjects that will be covered live.
“But, like I said, I get out there and I have a piece of paper in my pocket or in my hand before I jump on stage. Generally speaking, it has about five ideas on it. Those ideas feed into my brain and I kind of perform on my feet. I find it as I go.
“Last year, I used very large plasma screens in the hall and on either side of the stage where I could display pictures and newspaper articles that sparked ideas for me. I’ll probably do the same thing this year. One of the things, obviously, we’ll be talking about is the Catholic Church and Ben Roethlisberger. Just the idea of talking about Ben Roethlisberger, athletes who are criminally involved in illegal pursuits, that alone could probably give me ten minutes of material. I think we can safely say whatever night you come, you’re going to be entertained.”
Leary is a competitive guy, so he doesn’t want other comics topping him on Twitter. “I started to see comedians that I know, my wife as well, doing it. I thought, ‘I think of funny stuff every day. Stephen Colbert’s not the only guy.’ Then I saw Conan go on Twitter, and I have to admit when I see Conan doing stuff, I’m always like, ‘You know, I can do that.’ I thought his stuff was really funny.
“’m thinking of this stuff anyways, because I’m not in the clubs, I don’t work in the clubs, obviously. I’m busy doing ‘Rescue Me. ‘ On the last tour and whenever I do standup, which is usually every year, I do three or four private charity events; I pride myself on not repeating any material that I’ve ever done before, except for the ‘Asshole’ song.
“You know, when I go out on stage, I run off at the mouth from these bullet points that I’ve written down, and I kind of improvise my way through it. Then, after a few weeks, it starts to form itself into a typical set. So, the Twitter, I think, is probably a glimpse into what’s on my mind. So, that’s good, it helps me focus on a daily basis on an idea that I might only sketch out. The Twitter might actually be my note page: The Vatican, Ben Rapelessberger – as I’m calling him – you know those things are probably things that are going to show up in the show when we get started.”
Standup gives a sense of immediacy Leary misses when he makes a film. “With movies, it’s long, arduous hours, spent creating something that you won’t see the finished product of until maybe six months or a year after. And ultimately, it’s in the hands of whoever the director is, so you don’t really have control beyond that.
“With standup, I have a guy who directs the show on the stage, but obviously, on stage, with me and the audience, it’s up to me what gets said and what doesn’t get said. And it’s difficult for somebody to really mess with that. You know what I mean?”
Leary didn’t view himself as a standup until 1992’s “No Cure For Cancer, which became his first hit album. ”Up ‘til that point, I hadn’t really worked as a traveling, around-the-country comedian. I didn’t work a lot of the club circuit in the late ‘80s. I just worked a few downtown clubs in New York. I was still acting in theatre and stuff. I worked for no money, really, at that point, which ultimately, I think, was a good thing
“I didn’t have to put on a suit and tie and pretend to be Jerry Seinfeld and make money in clubs. It was sort of that disco comedy thing that was happening in the late ‘80s, where everybody sounded the same.”
The acerbic Leary stood out from the glut of comics. “At that particular time - less so now, but at that particular time - people were reciting a formula and weren’t necessarily funny people, they just knew how to learn that formula, just like disco. And at any given moment, there’s still only a certain ratio of people who are actually really funny or are able to do that job really well. That’s evidenced by the fact that so many of them dropped off the face of the Earth and the comedy boom died down. Thank God.”
His standup success opened the door to starring roles in indie films, as well as parts in major studio efforts. Leary formed his own production company, Apostle.
“It’s just one more way of making sure that you actually have your hands on things,” he explained. “kind of important, I think.
“I’ve been involved in a couple of films that started out as great projects and then, ultimately, were destroyed, either by a director who was an egomaniac or a director who was sort of sucking up to the studio people, which are the worst-case scenarios, because one is a guy who doesn’t listen to anybody and the other is a guy who listens to everybody and can’t make up his mind. And at that point, if you don’t have control, you can’t really take anything away from the person in the power position. You can’t re-edit the film.
“You ultimately have to look in the mirror and blame yourself, because Hollywood’s been that way since day one. It’s not going to change. So it’s really up to you, whether you want to get into business with those people.”
There were occasionally satisfying experiences in the film world. “On ‘Wag the Dog,’ a lot like ‘The Ref,’ there weren’t a lot of studio people hanging around the set. And all we did every day was go to work, and work from the script and try to improvise from what was already good. And nobody was there for any other reason other than to make the best possible film. And so that’s the best-case scenario. And they’re few and far between. But, you know, as an actor, at a certain point, if you keep signing up for the wrong kind of work, ultimately, you have to blame yourself, especially when you’re spending three months out of your life on each given project.”
Despite involving himself in a lot of intriguing acting projects, it took time before Leary was accepted as something other than the MTV guy or the chain-smoking comic.
“Well, i had a background in acting, which, of course, people didn’t know. They saw me as the guy from ‘No Cure For Cancer’ and MTV. It takes people a while to catch up. Critics are not the brightest people in the world. And they like to throw a beating into you, if they think you’re trying to do something you’re not supposed to do, according to what hole you were pigeonholed into. But I’d been acting since I was 13, so I knew I had that capability. And then it becomes a question of finding the right material. It’s difficult in Hollywood, because they’ll throw money at you just to be in the biggest piece of junk on the block. They don’t care. They just want some name in it. You can make a lot of money. But, ultimately, being in those kinds of projects will cost you.”
MTV provided the breakthrough, but could have been an albatross. “Only for a very short while. After ‘The Ref’ and a little bit of time and distance, that sort of went away. But it’s good, because that audience is still part of my audience.”
Leary was courted by sitcom producers, but resisted. “Unless you’re developing it yourself, it’s difficult to find something that will stand out.”
The consistently clever and original cop comedy/drama series “The Job,” created by Leary and Peter Tolan, proved to be a critical success, but didn’t get the job done ratings-wise.
“Rescue Me,” nurtured by FX, has been embraced equally by viewers and the media. “With ‘The Job’ at ABC, which I also did with Peter Tolan, we were doing a show that we were very proud of and we knew it was very funny. Somebody at the network decided that it wasn’t what they wanted to do and they wanted to get more family friendly. It was a one camera. I think there were only two one-camera shows back then, ‘Arrested Development’ and us. We both got canceled. Now, every half hour’s a one-camera show. It just goes to show you how times change.
“The opposite of what happened to us at ABC was being at FX where we had not only the backing of John Langraf, he bought the show because he loved the idea, but also his marketing department. We just had the conversation yesterday, because we turned in the final two scripts, the finale of ‘Rescue Me.’ John was remarking to us about how much fun it was to work with us, and blowing smoke up our very skinny Irish asses. Peter Tolan’s been in television for way longer than me, and Peter said, ‘Listen, John. It’s really to your credit that you decided that you liked the show and you stuck with it.’
“I think it’s so much easier for cable to do that and for executives to do that in cable because they can buy what they really, truly like themselves and then put it on the air and stick with it. Whereas, at network, I think it’s still the same game. They throw a lot of things against the wall. If somebody says they like it, then they have to go with it, even if they don’t think it’s what they really want to do. It’s always amazing when a show like ‘30 Rock’ squeaks by with critical acclaim and small numbers, because they don’t generally stick with stuff like that. I couldn’t be more thankful that we have worked at FX and even if I was going to do a sitcom in the future, I think it would be the first place I would go to just because I really love working there. I believe in John Langraf and his team.”
With the “Rescue Me” series finale coming up in season seven, Leary and staff had an opportunity to contemplate the dramatic resolution.
“We always had a feeling for it, obviously. I pitched several different endings. John Langraf, who’s the head of FX, always tried to steer us away from certain ideas, but we submitted the idea about a year ago.
“We just finished writing it, myself and Peter and Evan Reilly. We wrote the final two episodes. We began shooting them Thursday. Now we know. I think it satisfies people. Not that we were out to please the audience, but we wanted to do something that was organic and, obviously, fit the characters, and fit the tone of the show, which is a group of firefighters who deal with life and death all the time.
“The show has obviously dealt with the question of mortality over, and over again. So, it will deal with the mortality of the characters and it will deal with it, hopefully, in the traditional ‘Rescue Me’ way, which is with some biting drama and some really, really funny comedy.
Leary won’t leak details of the climax they’ve used, but doesn’t mind revealing rejected endings.
“One was a diner with all the firefighters sitting around listening to a Journey song, and then just cut to black. But, apparently, they did that at the end of /The Sopranos,’ so we can’t do that. Then it was going to be a group hug a la ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ which was going to be kind of an homage, but some of the guys didn’t want to be involved in a group hug. So, both those ideas went out the window.
“We have to deal with the fact that, when the show airs it’ll be almost ten years to the day after 9/11. That has been really the reason why people watch the show, I think at the beginning and throughout, has been knowing that these guys are troubled by what happened on that day. Also the fact that they’re watching the inner workings of a firehouse, what really goes on, what its heroes can be.
“So, I think the interesting thing for us is that we’re going to end up leaving the air right before the tenth anniversary of that event. That reflects really heavily on the characters and what their futures might be, individually and collectively. So, I think it’s going to be really interesting, you know?”
One important development is the return of Maura Tierney, following her cancer treatment. “We’re shooting season seven at the same time at six. Her arc will be in seven, a year from now. So, her episodes are a year away, but she’s really great. I can’t say enough about her. We love her. She worked on a movie with Peter called ‘Finding Amanda’ that Peter directed.
“I’d heard for years about how great she was. She is all that. She was great. She came in at the tail end of her treatment. The story line for her character follows an arc, a cancer story arc that she was willing play.
“We’re doing a show about firefighters, but for person that’s not playing a firefighter, it’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen somebody do. Because of her experience with it and because of her talent as an actress, it’s not only heavy, it’s a very heavy story line, it’s also, in the tradition of ‘Rescue Me,’ incredibly funny.
“She was willing to play this very dark, dramatic arc that has real, real humor in it that could only come from somebody who had the experience of going through treatments for cancer. I just can’t say enough about the performance that she gives in the show. I wish it was actually coming on this summer because we’re so excited about what she did. It’s really great. And she’s a lot of fun, she really is. I can’t tell you enough about her.”
Tierney has always been a very convincing actress. And ‘Rescue Me’ has, from day one, been a thoroughly convincing depiction of firefighters.
Of the show’s authenticity, Leary said, “Well, I’ve got to be honest with you, that’s always thanks to two things. One is my cousin, Jerry, who died in the line of duty 10 years ago. My cousin, Jerry, he was hell-bent on being a firefighter and he became a firefighter in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my hometown, you know, old neighborhood, downtown. Anybody who knows firefighters knows that when a person in your family gets involved with the fire department, the crew that they get assigned to, they become part of your family. So, those guys from his crew were always fixing my mother’s porch or doing her kitchen over or whatever it might be. I was exposed pretty early on to what those guys do and how they do it.
“Then one of my oldest friends in the world, Terry Quinn, became a firefighter here in New York about 1982 or something. So, I was around Terry’s crews, as well. I was kind of surrounded by firefighters. When I decided to do this show, Terry Quinn became the technical advisor and all of the guys that play our extra firefighters on the show are real New York City firefighters. So, we really can’t take a step, technically, in a fire stunt scene without one of the guys going, “No, he wouldn’t do it, he wouldn’t say that, they wouldn’t run this way, they wouldn’t go that way.’
“In terms of a lot of the funniest conversations that have ever happened on ‘Rescue Me’ are things that the guys brought in from work and said, “Last night, in the kitchen, this guy said this and then these other guys said this,’ or I’ve actually been in a firehouse kitchen and overhead guys having the argument. So, I’ve got to give thanks to the New York City Fire Department. because all of my buddies on that Department have really made the show what it is.”
Leary has long played ice hockey, one of the world’s toughest sports. But portraying a firefighter is even more physically challenging.
“Oh, yeah. It’s way tougher than hockey. When we shoot the fire scenes, it’s a combination of our stunt team and our real actors and our real firefighters. A real fire where we would be supposedly – not us because we’re chickens – but real firefighters would be running in to do the job and getting it done in a couple of hours, at most. For us, we’ve got to keep doing the same thing over and over again, so it takes sometimes 12 hours, sometimes 24 hours in two-day shifts to shoot one fire scene. Yeah, you’ve got to walk around with that tank on your back for a long time and it’s not physical exertion or anything, but believe me. we have real firefighters.
“The best story I can tell about this - We’re always surrounded by real firefighters when we’re doing our fire scenes. So, those guys obviously make us pale in comparison. We have one of our real guys who’s a big bear of a man. He’s a lieutenant in the FDNY. He came to work one morning. We knew he was working a shift the night before; he was finishing a tour. He came in and he had a bandage on his neck and a bandage on his hand. He starts telling us what we were going to do in this fake fire.
“I go, ‘What’s going on with your hand and your neck’? He goes, ‘Ah, I got burnt last night. It’s nothing.’ I was like, ‘What!?’ We hear from one of the other guys. They were on their way into a job and a pile of debris that was on fire fell on top of him, hit him in the neck, went down his sleeve, got stuck inside the sleeve of his bunker coat. He refused to go to the hospital. He fought the fire. Him and his crew put it out, then they went back to the firehouse, changed up, and came to the set of ‘Rescue Me.’ Here we are, these baby-assed actors, about to act like firemen. I’ll tell you, it really puts you in your place.”
In addition to raising funds for The Leary Firefighters Foundation, Leary helms the annual “Comics Come Home” benefit for The Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care.
Of his love for hockey, Leary said, “I started playing when I was really, really young. And I still play now, as much as I can, with my schedule. It’s my favorite sport
“I think it’s genetics. It’s ingrained in me. When you grow up in Massachusetts, there’s a rink like every 10 or 15 miles. In my neighborhood, we had a rink literally four blocks from my house. And we grew up in the era of the great Boston Bruins teams - Bobby Orr - in the last ‘60s, early ‘70s. So it’s one of those things that just sort of sticks with you.
“And it’s funny, because now, with the Cam Neely thing, I’m friends with Bobby Orr. And there’s always this thing in the back of your head like, ‘Wow, I’m talking to Bobby Orr... and he’s answering me.’
“Cam and I had been friends back to when he was in his heyday in Boston, in the late ‘80s, just through the hockey scene up there. He used to come out for some of the comedy clubs once in a while. And once I became famous, he came to me and said, ‘Look, I’ve got an idea for a benefit for this foundation I’m starting.’ He had the idea of having a comedy show and making it an annual thing. So if Cam Neely asks you to do something, you don’t really say no, I don’t think
‘I did a couple of TV spots with Wayne Gretzky, became friends with Wayne and through him, got to know Messier and Leetch and those guys in New York. It’s kind of strange to me, to be able to say I’m friends with Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. Who woulda thunk that?”
If you’ve been thinking a lot about the new season of “Rescue Me,” be sure to attend one of Leary’s comedy concert tour dates.
“Well, last year we did this. We’re going to do the same thing this year, which is we give a sneak preview of the upcoming season highlights that are actually not shown on television. They’re only shown live in the venues that we’re performing in. Because, obviously, one of the reasons we do this is, if not the main reason, is to raise money for my foundation, but also to push the debut of the show. We have about a six-minute highlight reel of season six that shows you a tempting taste of what’s going to happen, which you can only see in the room if you’re there live that night. The audience tends to really go crazy for it.”
The audiences will also go nuts for the standup sets delivered by Leary, Clarke and Ferrara. “The bulk of our approach is always kind of whatever the hell’s on your mind, especially with myself and Lenny, who tend to be sort of rude. Not only whatever what is on our mind at any given moment, but both of us do a lot of very topical political stuff. I speak for myself, and probably the other comics, there’s no subject that’s verboten on this tour. I think everybody will find something that will either upset them a little bit or make them laugh at something they didn’t expect they were going to laugh at.”
Leary and his pals will have plenty of laughs off-stage, as well. “I’ve got to say, man, we did that tour last year. Not only was it a blast for the audience, because they loved it, but for us to be able to travel the country, four guys who really get along, and you do your set and then you sit backstage and watch the other guys do their sets, helping each other with material, it’s just a blast.
“To get paid for doing it and to make money for my foundation at the same time, it’s just kind of ridiculous. None of us are complaining about it right now.”
For tidbits on the tour’s progress, you can check Leary on Twitter. He’ll be monitoring fans’ comments.
“Oh, yeah, you bet your ass. I’m not going to Twitter and not pay attention to what they say. Hopefully, they’ll like it. If they don’t, I’m going to turn into Courtney Love and start attacking them personally on my Twitter page. How’s that for interactive?
“I find myself very competitive with Conan. I don’t know why. I really like him and I think he’s funny. I’m such a moron when it comes to this stuff. My wife’s been tweeting for a while. But I really started to get pissed off when I saw Colbert and a couple other funny guys doing it. Then I saw Conan was doing it, and I was just like, “Well, if Conan can do it, I mean I can figure out how to do it”. So that’s basically how I got started. Yeah, I would hope that while we’re on tour we would be hearing from people after the fact.”
Comedy remains an ideal way for Leary to blow off steam. “It’s like instant, built-in therapy.”
Leary is committed - on stage, on camera or on film - to quality. “if you hope to have longevity, you’ve got to find quality projects. Every actor in the world has been in bad projects. You just want to make sure you that you take a shot with one or two things that people will still want to see on DVD 15 or 20 years later.”
Official tour dates:
Date Location Venue 5/22/10 Atlantic City, NJ Borgata Casino 6/2/10 Washington D.C. Warner Theatre 6/5/10 Uncasville, CT Mohegan Sun Casino 6/8/10 San Diego, CA Humphreys Concerts By the Bay 6/10/10 Los Angeles, CA Club Nokia 6/12/10 Las Vegas, NV The Joint at The Hard Rock 6/15/10 Minneapolis, MN State Theatre 6/17/10 Milwaukee, WI The Riverside 6/19/10 Chicago, IL The Chicago Theatre 6/22/10 Cleveland, OH The State Theatre 6/26/10 New York, NY Town Hall 6/27/10 New York, NY Town Hall
A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Leary Firefighters Foundation. Ticketing info can be found on www.DenisLeary.com.