Puffing and huffing, Denis Leary spits out caustic one-liners


The most happening act on MTV right now isn't Madonna or Prince or the King of Pop, it's not a rocker or a rapper or a dancing diva. It's this manic street preacher who's pacing around the wreckage of a post-urban landscape, ranting about the NEA, pious rock stars, cocaine, unlimited room service and "Cindy Crawford eating Eskimo pies naked on the roof of the Empire State Building."

He's talking fast, he's talking furious, he's fully strapped with a loaded clip of take-no-prisoners opinions.

On racism:

"Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a 2-year-old kid, and you know what he hates? Naps! End of list.

"White America, this is your 1992 wake up call. In 15 years we are going to be the minority. I've got three words for white America: Como esta usted."

The series of one-minute harangues has been such a hit that Nike picked him up for a couple of ads featuring Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and the tagline -- "I think you hear me knockin' and I think I'm comin' in." His name is Denis Leary, and if you think he's in your face right now, well, three words: Only the beginning.

Mr. Leary arrived with a version of this character in "No Cure for Cancer," his one-man show that ran last year at New York's Actors' Playhouse. Showtime taped it, Doubleday is putting out the book version later this month, A&M; is doing the album early next year. He's got three movies in the can for early '93, then he'll start shooting another one while he's writing a couple more; MTV is developing a Leary sitcom, and in about a year he'll mount his sophomore solo show, "Birth, School, Work, Death."

Yes, Mr. Leary is definitely coming in. So you're expecting to meet this cranked up wiseguy wharf rat, and into the office walks a biggish 6-footer with a jock handshake. The worn leather jacket, the lank blond hair, the circle shades, and the Marlboro voice give him the ragged aspect of a midnight rocker caught by daylight. "I'm operating on like 10 hours' sleep in the last three days," pleads the 34-year-old Mr. Leary. "I feel like a 50-year-old man."

His fatigue, however, is due to long hours of work in the recording studio and the rigors of parenthood -- he and his wife, Ann Lembeck, have a baby and a toddler -- not decadence and dissipation. The sunglasses come off, and the bad boy's got baby blues. He smokes like a normal addict, and when Mr. Leary smiles, which he does often but which is definitely not part of the TV persona, it's dimple time.

Which is not to imply that the Denis the menace act is bogus, but to point out that it is an act. It's about growing up in the '60s and '70s, and the '90s payback: "We snorted and drank and rocked our way through the last 20 years and now -- sobered and surprised -- we wonder why the problems on the planet haven't been fixed."

The son of Irish immigrants, Mr. Leary grew up in Worcester, Mass., in a working-class neighborhood. He put in 12 years at St. Peters, the Catholic school one block from his house. It was a rough-and-tumble environment, but he had a guardian angel: His big brother was three years older, a football player, one of the toughest guys in the neighborlood.

"For 12 years I could say anything to anybody, and get off scot-free," says Mr. Leary. "And still do, to a certain extent."

St. Peters was a big hockey school, sent a few players into the pros, but Mr. Leary flunked off the team in his sophomore year. That's when he first went onstage, in a production of "Mame."

He auditioned for Emerson College, a performing arts school that featured one of those do-your-own-thing curricula, so Mr. Leary and his friends formed Comedy Workshop, writing and performing sketches, one-act plays, revues, and films. He was "the leader," the one who took the writing program from the page to the stage, says James Randall, former director of the writing division.

In 1990 Mr. Leary and his pregnant wife flew to London for a weekend so he could do a spot on a television show. The baby was born prematurely, and they couldn't fly home for five XTC months. Somebody suggested he put together a one-man show for the annual Edinburgh International Arts Festival. A college crony, Chris Phillips, flew over to help him shape the material, and "No Cure for Cancer" won the festival.

It's the '90s. We mix decaf in with our morning brew, which we have with bran cereal; we exercise on rat-in-a-cage machines, we're down on red meat, and we quaff non-alcoholic beer; we read self-help books, and pay therapists to listen to us whine about dissatisfaction; we only smoke when we get high, which we don't do anymore; we're oh-so-careful in our speech -- wouldn't want to offend anyone except maybe a litterbug.

"I represent angry-gun-toting-meat-eating people. OK?" Denis Leary snarls, fixing his serial killer bug-eyes on a recent live audience.

He throws cigarettes into the audience, just to torture reformed smokers. ("But honey, I had to smoke; it landed in my lap at the show.") The hand-held mike amplifies the inhale, he relishes the chestfull of precious smoke, and he lets it out with an exaggerated wheeze.

"I love to smoke and I love to smoke and I love to smoke and I love to eat red meat. . . . This country was founded on two things: meat and war. . . . Eggplant tastes like eggplant, but meat tastes like murder, and murder tastes pretty good."

But-but-but you can't just go around saying stuff like that, man, people might not get the irony.

"Those people are hopeless," says Mr. Leary. "You just have to write them off."

For the record, Mr. Leary's material is not racist, he doesn't do anti-gay stuff, he's all for free speech and equal rights for women.

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