If one had to pinpoint the exact moment Denis Leary became famous, most would highlight June 1992. That month, the motormouth comedian appeared in a promo ad for MTV. Sporting a black leather duster with a popped collar, Leary chain-smoked his way through a 45-second evisceration of everything from music biopics to R.E.M. The following year, his “Asshole” song, an ode to assholedom, became the stuff of comedy legend.
On July 16, the now-57-year-old stand-up comic turned actor will revisit his star-making era in an entirely different context. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, a new television series created by and starring Leary, will premiere on FX—the same channel that hosted his reinvention as a post-9/11 New York City firefighter on the Emmy-nominated drama Rescue Me.
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll centers on Johnny Rock (Leary), the lead singer of the band The Heathens. The hard-partying rockers were about to blow up in the early ’90s, when they broke up on the day of their album’s release. Now, 25 years later, Rock is broke and his star has vanished. Out of nowhere, his estranged daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), resurfaces, and wishes to “get the band back together”—only with her as lead singer, Heathens guitarist Flash (John Corbett) on axe, and Rock working behind the scenes as a songwriter. And thus, Johnny Rock’s quest for fame begins once more.
The Daily Beast spoke to the entertainingly uninhibited Leary about everything from the court confession of Bill Cosby to the recent backlash against Amy Schumer.
Who did you model your Johnny Rock on?
I studied Mick, Iggy, and Bowie. I was a huge Bowie fan and it never dawned on me: David Bowie is the most macho performer who’s ever performed, even when he was dressed androgynously. Your eyes are always on him. It’s true. In all his iterations, Bowie was the most macho person onstage.
You adopted a sort of rock star persona as a comedian, though.Stand-up comedy, to me, is the greatest thing in the world because there’s nobody else—it’s just you and them. There’s no editing, there’s no cutting, there’s nothing else. It’s very democratic, and you get that audible response. In rock ’n’ roll, you have to get a whole room of people up and dancing. That is really tough, and something I don’t think I could ever do.
Right. You see The Rolling Stones out there and I have no idea how they still do it every night.
It’s crazy! It doesn’t make any sense! They’re 70 years old and still running around the stage for two hours. Mick is operating on caffeine and health drinks, which is so funny because there’s a guy next to him in Keith who’s always been living that chemical life and sounds as good as ever.
You’ve got a fun Dave Grohl cameo in the pilot of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. Did you see him rock out recently in a throne with his broken leg over Fourth of July?
I created my own Johnny Rock throne. I don’t know if you saw the picture he drew while he was in the hospital on Oxycontin, but Dave drew a picture of what he wanted the throne to be and gave it to his guys and said, “Have them build this.” So, I drew a Johnny Rock one. Listen, dude, when you fall off the stage in rock ’n’ roll, it’s never cool. That’s a given. And that fall looked fuckin’ horrendous because that stage was so high. But the fact that he came out again that night was an amazing thing. The fact that he came out on the throne the other night? When I woke up in the morning and saw that video, I went, “You know, this guy is the be all and end all. There’s no way to stop the show.”You came up during the heyday of MTV in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and you must have crossed paths with some rockers in your day. Any wild stories?
Years and years ago, the first time I met Steven Tyler was in 1978 or 1979, so they were already rock stars and I lived in this shitty apartment building in Boston. There were these incredible apartments across the street where Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band lived with his wife Faye Dunaway at the time, and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry lived there. I’d heard that Steven was dating this clothing designer that lived on the first floor of my building—she was a cute girl. I was at The Rat, this famous punk rock club in Boston where a lot of my friends worked so I could drink for free, and I was coming home at 3 o’clock in the morning. When I open the door to the building, I hear someone literally beating the fuck out of the door and screaming and crying at the same time. I thought, “I can’t wait to turn the corner and see who this guy is,” and it was Steven Tyler! And it was Steven Tyler dressed as Steven Tyler, you know what I mean? It was 3 o’clock in the morning and the girl’s name was Angel, so he goes, “Hey, man, is Angel home?” and I said, “I have no idea.” He goes, “OK man… FUCK!” That was the first time I’d met a rock star in my life and it was so awesome. I saw him a few more times in the building and just said hi.
I didn’t meet him again until I was famous years later, and I asked him about the story and if he remembered talking to me. Steven said, “I don’t remember meeting you, but I remember fucking Angel!” I thought that was just great.
Another great story was on the Voodoo Lounge Tour. It was ’94 or ’95 and The Rolling Stones wanted to make this experimental documentary, so they called me and my friend Ted Demme, who was this great film director, and asked us to spend some time with them while they were rehearsing in D.C. for their shows at RFK Stadium. I talked it through with Mick and he said, “Why don’t you talk to Ronnie and Keith,” so we walk over to Keith Richards’ dressing room and knock on the door, and him and Ron Wood are playing the opening lick to the “Asshole” song! I was in shock. And then they both smiled, looked at us and said, “The ‘Asshole’ song!” After that, I turned to Ted and said, “I don’t give a FUCK what happens on the rest of this project, I just got the highlight of my life.
Now, there is a Bruce Jenner joke in the pilot of Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll where your character goes, “And I wanna blow Bruce Jenner.”
We shot the pilot last spring, and you know, I don’t really give a fuck. To me, that’s a joke that’s purely about fame and not about gender. For me, in this show, this band is this big, dysfunctional family and I know Johnny gets blamed for most of it, but everybody in that band has this fuckin’ idea in their head about fame. The idea of this family that, in Johnny’s mind, never did anything and they’re all famous—including this son who walks in and is famous because he’s a DJ—it’s a perfect storm for Johnny because of his ego, since they represent the fame he couldn’t have. But it’s a year later and Caitlyn has her own television show. It’s crazy! For any human being to go through that process is a difficult one under any circumstances and you hope it makes them happy, but she’s doing it on national television! It’s crazy! I just wanna say this: If she starts a band, then I’m going to get angry.
The era of your fictional band on the show, the early ’90s, reminds me of your early MTV days. Is it a trip to see your MTV contemporary Jon Stewart become the premier political satirist in the world?
No, it was something I learned. When I first started out, I got to meet Richard Pryor and Alan King, and I got a lot of advice from those guys. One of the things they said was, “Be careful. Don’t get too trapped by some of the things that happen for you, because then you’re fucked. You’ll be hot for three or four years, and then you’ll peter out or end up in this box. You need to form a production company, get into serious acting…” and it turns out they were right. A lot of guys I saw back then at MTV, I thought, “That looks like a trap to me.”
But Jon was different.
But with Jon, the real Jon was always an angry little Jewish guy who was really fuckin’ funny and really smart, and a lot of his stuff—even back then—was based on a lot of serious political subjects and social stuff, but he had such a great way of delivering it and was so charming that people didn’t realize how cutting he was. So I actually thought The Daily Show was a natural step, because when he had the MTV talk show, I always thought he was too reined in and they didn’t let him do what he wanted. When he's lookin’ into the camera on The Daily Show and is ranting and raving about the shit that’s going on, that’s the type of shit he’d do in diners or over beers at night, so it didn’t surprise me at all. I thought that’s where he’d end up as a comedian, but I of course didn’t see him becoming this gigantic icon, which I’m glad for him, but it just fuckin’ pisses me off how many Emmys he has. He has like fuckin’ 16 Emmys!
You mentioned some classic comedians like Richard Pryor and Alan King, but how do you feel about all this Cosby insanity?
Well, listen. My favorite comedian of all-time is still Richard Pryor. I think he was the most gifted comedian. He had all the tools: brilliant social satirist, brutally honest, and could become a deer in the woods physically onstage and be Muhammad Ali and John Wayne. He had all the tools. I remember when I was a teenager and Bill Cosby was saying that Richard Pryor had ripped him off just because Richard Pryor started out working clean, and he was a black guy.
And that was ridiculous.
Right. And the truth was that as the years went by, there was a certain point in the 1980s and into the ’90s where a lot of comedians—including myself—would say that this guy was hands-down one of the top three performers. If you saw him in concert, he’d do two hours—and a lot of it was sitting down. It was flawless comedy. He was a masterful comedian, and it was all clean. I was one of the guys he criticized a few years ago—along with Chris Rock—for being dirty, but it’s weird, man. Because he was who he was, and the type of act he developed, and how his last 20 years have been him talking about his family and being a grandfather onstage, it’s really weird. It’s almost like he’s become this adopted American uncle, and now you find our your uncle has been this criminal rapist guy. It’s bizarre.
Completely bizarre—and terrifying.
The weirdest thing to me is you had prescriptions for Quaaludes? What the fuck is wrong with you! You could get Quaaludes fallin’ out of people’s pockets in the ’70s, and this guy had, what, seven prescriptions for Quaaludes? That is a creepy motherfucker. It’s just so weird, man. It’s really like Jekyll and Hyde.
It’s crazy that he got away with it for so long. You’re talking about over 40 women who have accused him of rape. So many victims.
Dude, at that point, you’re into Stalinesque territory there of wielding so much power and shutting people up. I think I can honestly say this: It’s going to be impossible for me to listen to a Bill Cosby bit again from any era. Fuck the show, the show’s dead. And fuck Jell-O. I’m never going to eat Jell-O again. No offense to the Jell-O people, but it just reminds me of him. Fuck, I don’t think I can listen to any of his classic routines because it would automatically bring me back to creepy page one.
Cosby aside, the state of comedy is interesting these days. It’s becoming very politically correct. You’ve tweeted your Amy Schumer fandom, and even someone as beloved as her is catching ridiculous heat for making an off-color joke a couple of years ago. It just seems pretty damn hard to be a comedian these days.
I fucking love her. I can’t speak for Amy Schumer, but I do a couple of concerts every year for charity. I’ll give you one example from me. When Ray Rice was in trouble last fall for domestic violence, I must have spent the first 10 minutes of my act talking about domestic violence. Some of it was really fuckin’ edgy, and some of it would probably have been considered troublesome—except I was performing in front of 15,000 people who were big fans. Even if they’re gasping at one point, if you’re making them laugh and they walk away and it’s funny, you’ve done your job. It’s like Louis CK’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live—if they walk away and it’s funny, it’s funny. That’s what comedy is. But at the same time, it could’ve happened that night where one person there took offense and wrote about it.
Right. One person writes a piece, other outlets and social media picks it up, and then it snowballs into this campaign against you.
Exactly. For me, my defense is: “Fuck you.” First of all, if I was going to go down to the Comedy Cellar and work out a routine on the Bill Cosby rape thing, if I’m doing 20 minutes, I guarantee you at least five of that is going to be really not workable material, but I have to dive way over the edge to find out where the line is. That’s like telling a jazz musician he can’t go in and take the melody for Bewitched and fuckin’ play it like crazy for ten minutes. So my book is: If you don’t like it, don’t fuckin’ go to the show. If you don’t like Amy Schumer, don’t fuckin’ watch her show. If you don’t want Louis CK to do a 10-minute monologue about pedophiles, don’t fuckin’ pay attention to Louis CK. But it shouldn’t be in the comedy world. The problem is that for young comedians who don’t have power or an audience yet, it will affect their ability to get work if you have a politically correct club owner—which believe me, there are plenty of—and that’s where it becomes a real fuckin’ problem. That’s where it becomes Top 40, where you can only talk about certain things. That’s not why I got into comedy. I got into comedy because you can talk about fuckin’ anything, and you can talk about it five seconds after it happened.
I think there have always been the same dissenters, but now their voices are magnified through social media. Anyone can start a hashtag that goes viral.
Overall, it’s almost any subject, any groups—any ethnic group, it breaks down into so many different groups—where they don’t have a sense of humor about something. Well, listen, there are some things that I don’t have a sense of humor about—maybe because it was personal to me, or something bad happened to me on that subject—but I’m not going to tell a fuckin’ comedian they can’t make jokes about it! I just won’t go to that guy’s show. But with Twitter, people think they have this fuckin’ power to shut people up. When I saw Louis CK’s monologue on Saturday Night Live, I thought it was so fuckin’ hilarious. And even though it wasn’t hilarious yet while it was happening, it was so excitedly on the edge where you’re thinking, “How the fuck is he going to get out of this?” that I thought it was just fantastic. I wish the show was like that every week!
You’ve been speaking highly of Louis CK, but he’s someone who did go after you quite a bit about seven years ago, claiming you stole some bits of his—including the “Asshole” song. Have you guys made up? Because he really came after you pretty hard.
He’s actually doing my benefit concert that I’m doing in Boston this year. Listen, I think Louis still believes in his mind whatever this night was in Boston where I came up after him and did this bit—which I don’t remember, and he claims to remember. Nick DiPaolo was also there—who is one of his best friends—and said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!” And Nicky was the guy who stepped in when he mouthed off the first time seven years ago, which he didn’t say to me. He was the guy who mouthed off and said, “You’re out of your fuckin’ mind, dude,” because he knows Chris Phillips, who co-wrote the “Asshole” song with me. So when Louis said he wrote the “Asshole” song, I was like, “Dude, you’re losin’ your fuckin’ mind.”
Why do you think he thought that?
Some comedians believe everything they say belongs to them, and if anything bleeds into that area, they own it. It happens with anyone who gets famous, but I think Louis’s experience he went through with Mark Maron—where Louis got famous and Mark really backed off of his friendship with him—really tempered him a little bit as to what happens. A lot of times, people see you making it and see their own failure, and therefore want to point the finger of blame. As time goes by, especially with a little bit of success, they start to go, “Wait a minute, maybe I overreacted there and was being super overprotective.”
I read that you were offered the role of Dignam in The Departed, which eventually went to Mark Wahlberg, who was then nominated for an Oscar. Is this true?
Here’s the story: I forget what year it was, but Rescue Me was still on the air when they were shooting Departed. I knew Scorsese because there was a project we’d developed for a couple of years that went nowhere, and I heard the idea and knew they were making the movie, and he knew I was from Boston. So, they offered the role. But I was right in the middle of the Rescue Me schedule, and it was a tough schedule. I said, “Dude, there’s just no way.” He said, “Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll move the schedule around and shoot all your scenes on the weekend.” And I said, “Here’s what’ll happen: I’ll be so fuckin’ exhausted by the time I get back to Rescue Me that everyone there is going to hate me because I’ll be cranky, and then when I come to your set everybody is gonna be pissed off because here’s this asshole who comes, shoots for two days, and comes back the following weekend.” We looked at it and looked at it, and both thought there was no way to make it work. And honestly, whenever there’s something I turn down, I see the movie and think, “Fuck, this guy is better than I would’ve been,” and that was the case with Departed. When I saw it, I just thought, “Fuck. This guy hit it out of the park.”Marky Mark! Speaking of the early ’90s MTV days. He’s come a long way.
Look at him! He’s from fuckin’ Dorchester and I’m from fuckin’ downtown Worcester, Mass. Look at us now!