Denis Leary is fired up. In the halcyon MTV days it was his default setting, whether playing a hell-raising Keith Richards on Remote Control or unleashing a series of motormouthed rants to the camera in a turtleneck and duster, but since then he’s mellowed out, quit chain-smoking, and settled into life as an off-screen father and on-screen TV showrunner/star—first on the acclaimed FX drama Rescue Me and now as an aging rocker in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. But the topic of one Donald Trump has him reverting back to his trademark persona.
You see, in addition to his comedy and television bona fides, Leary is also a prolific philanthropist. His charities the Leary Firefighters Foundation and the Fund for New York’s Bravest have distributed millions of dollars to fire departments in his native Boston and the Big Apple, as well as to the families of the 343 brave firemen who perished on 9/11.
During the Republican presidential primary, Trump invoked the September 11th tragedy on several occasions to gain political points, first claiming he saw “thousands” of Muslims celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center that fateful day (there is no evidence to support this), and then alleging he somehow personally witnessed “people jump” out of the buildings from the confines of his penthouse apartment in Midtown Manhattan, over four miles from Ground Zero. Trump did all this despite referring to the Twin Towers as “not great” buildings a week after the 9/11 attacks, making zero donations to 9/11 charities as of 2015, and visiting the 9/11 Memorial for the very first time to curry favor on the eve of the New York presidential primary, four and a half years after it was erected.
“I think he’ll basically do anything to get the spotlight,” offers a frustrated Leary. “Trump will take advantage of whatever the situation, the cause, or the event might be. Where was he before this? I’ve been downtown forever and been to a lot of 9/11 Memorial events—the fifth anniversary, the 10th anniversary, others—and I don’t remember seeing Donald Trump there once.”
“It’s all built on fear, noise, bigotry, and finger-pointing,” he continues of Trump. “The guy loves to tweet. But I look at all the candidates on both sides, and I’m thinking, ‘These are the people we have to choose from? What the fuck is going on?’”
Leary’s prospects look more promising. The second season of his FX series Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll just premiered to positive notices, and contains a storyline that he’s pretty damn excited about: a parody of the Broadway hip-hop musical Hamilton.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Leary plays Johnny Rock, the lead singer of the ’80s band The Heathens. But they broke up on the cusp of hitting it big. Now, 25 years later, they’ve reunited to help foster the career of Johnny’s estranged daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), as she navigates a treacherous music industry landscape dominated by manufactured pop and EDM. So, there’s a thread this year about how bass player Sonny Silverstein, who’d previously mentioned his 29-cut Irish potato famine song cycle, is now busy adapting it into a musical on the Great White Way.
“Because of the success of Hamilton, Campbell Scott, playing a version of Campbell Scott, decides that he needs to do the next big hip-hop musical that’s going to win him a Tony, so he buys the rights to the Irish potato famine song cycle, renames it Feast, and we see the production and development of the musical,” says Leary.
In episode eight, there will be what Leary calls “a Birdman episode” where we get to see the opening night of Feast. To pull off the feat, he says the show built a huge set in a theater and hired a choreographer, 30 dancers, an orchestra, musicians, and hip-hop composers. And, while Leary himself hasn’t been able to check out Hamilton due to Rock&Roll’s relentless shooting schedule, the cast and crew used the show’s soundtrack as a model.
“I went to Campbell about it and he said, ‘Dude, I’ve seen Hamilton 10 times and it’s my favorite. I can’t wait to do this,’” recalls Leary. “So, we turned the hip-hop tunes over to him that the band had created and said, ‘Listen, these are the subject matters we want to discuss, and some of them have to be real, and some of them have to be exaggerated and what we’d expect as people in the next couple of years start to try and recreate the success of Hamilton,’ and he said, ‘I’m calling the show Familton and I’m going to come up with some hip-hop rhymes.’ And what he did was so perfectly hilarious, I can’t even tell you.”
While Leary plays an over-the-hill rocker on TV, he’s pretty clued in when it comes to contemporary music, mentioning his affection for Adele (“rock ‘n’ roll”), Kanye’s NSFW “Famous” video (“genius marketer”), and what he considers the two titans of hip-hop/R&B: “Kanye may still be getting a lot of press, but to me, it’s all about Kendrick and that next Frank Ocean album.”
In addition to Trump, one thing he can’t abide by these days is how PC stand-up comedy audiences have become. Even Jerry Seinfeld, one of the cleanest comedians this side of Jim Gaffigan, has said he refuses to play college campuses because of how ridiculously PC they are. Leary says that while it’s fine for established comedians with built-in audiences, the situation has become particularly dire for rising comics.
“You have these young kids who are trying out new material and acts, playing in clubs that only hold 75 people, and they’re being shot with people on cell phones and taken to task for pushing the envelope,” explains Leary. “To me, it goes back to jazz, man. If you don’t have the place where you can go and really test your instrument then you’re not going to find anything worthwhile and new. It’s hypocritical because you don’t really get complaints from my fans, or Louis C.K.’s fans, or Chris Rock’s fans, but it’s these young kids who are getting the short end of the stick.”
With his TV schedule, Leary’s stand-up duties are relegated to charity performances, including his big Comics Come Home event—a comedy mega-concert in his hometown of Boston that benefits the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care, and last year featured the likes of Leary, Jimmy Fallon, Ray Romano, Lenny Clarke, and Louis C.K. As far as Louis goes, well, things weren’t so rosy between them back in 2008, when Louis accused Leary of stealing a comedy bit that inspired his famous 1993 song “Asshole.” They’ve since, it seems, buried the hatchet.
“I don’t know where he’s at right now as far as his problems with the ‘Asshole’ song, but he came to the Comics Come Home concert last year and did a fabulous set, and then came out at the end while I was doing the ‘Asshole’ song and helped throw free T-shirts into the crowd,” says Leary. “A lot of it is also just aging, and the more famous all of us got, the grudges fell off to the side. On top of which: I have kids and Louis has kids, so you have a lot of work to do and a lot of people to hang out with.”
When asked about the sexual harassment rumors that have trailed Louis over the past few years, Leary says he doesn’t believe them to be true.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of them,” he says sternly. “I don’t believe that. I think that’s just dirty pool that somebody’s trying to play. Listen, I’ve known that guy since we were both not famous, and that doesn’t fit his profile at all.”
Though Leary is 58—and harbored a bad smoking habit for years—he’s somehow managed to age incredibly well. And while he misses the high he gets from performing in front of packed houses, he hopes to keep entertaining audiences on the small screen for years to come.
“There’s nothing better than the clock hitting 8, the lights coming out, and stepping out in front of a crowd of 15,000 people and making them laugh their asses off for two hours,” he says. “But I want Sex&Drugs to get picked up for Season 3, Season 4, and Season 5, so hopefully I won’t be doing another comedy tour for a while.”