Denis Leary: The TV Squad Interview
Denis Leary probably wouldn't like you - that is, assuming you're fat, addicted to "coffee flavored coffee," unable to take a joke ... oh, and American. I'm pretty sure he likes me, but that's only because I recently spent half an hour on the phone with him, and I think he kinda, sorta, got to know me ... a little. His hugely successful FX firefighter dramedy Rescue Me can be described as politically incorrect with a heart of gold, and his best-selling first book, Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid is ... well, the title says it all, doesn't it?
Denis Leary is a man with opinions - wait, let me rephrase that - Denis Leary is a man with lots of opinions and as he points out in his book, most of us seem perfectly content to just let Oprah shame us into doing whatever she wants. With that in mind, it was nice to talk to someone with a wealth of personal passions and as much hate for Heidi and Spencer as I have. See? He got to know me ... a little.
I'm just going to jump right in, because I know a lot of fans had an issue with season four of Rescue Me. Critical reception wasn't that good. Previously, for the first three seasons, you guys had always been renewed mid-season. Four ended in September '07. Then you had to wait until November before FX renews and suddenly, they throw 22 episodes at you. Creatively, was there ever a concern with doing that many?
No. We work in a vacuum. So we don't know what the audience or critical reaction is gonna be until it starts airing. So we didn't think that season four was considered any worse than the other seasons because we were still working organically. I think that's where we had to go with Tommy in terms of his sobriety and it getting darker so it could then go to the next level. I think some people didn't like it, but there must've been some parts that were good because we still got a couple Emmy nominations. But we can't operate that way. Like right now, everybody is loving all the new episodes and we felt good about them the same way we did when we were doing season four. Sometimes people wish that you're going some place that you just can't go.
What about the fact that the 22 episodes were initially going to be split up like FX had done with Nip/Tuck and The Shield? After the writers strike, they committed to airing them all consecutively. Did that affect how you plotted out the season?
It would have been the same run, but we really liked the way that it worked out. The actors loved following these arcs and being able to track things without a break. We only write two episodes in advance, so we react to the story as we see it being performed. As writers, it's great for us because that lack of time off really focused our attention. We're going to do the same thing for the next eighteen episodes. I dunno if season six will air uninterrupted, but we are going to shoot them at one time when we go back in September.
Have you guys wrapped on five already?
Yeah, just about a month ago. Shooting and editing are finished.
9/11 has always been there as part of the show, but in past seasons, saying it was forgotten is perhaps too strong a word, but it's not far off. Now, though, you're tackling it head on in a way that these characters have never experienced. What brought that on?
In real life, and this is kind of human nature, it had gone away. Firefighters are back at work and not really touching on it, but when we were getting ready for season five, we knew we were only a few years away from the tenth anniversary. We heard a story about writers and filmmakers making the rounds to firehouses getting ready for their 9/11 tenth anniversary pieces. It really upset a lot of the firefighters we worked with on the show. Plus, the conspiracy thing had started to rear its head in a couple of firehouses that we have access to, and some of the younger firefighters were starting to say, "well, I think this..." So after I heard both those things, I said to Peter [Tolan, Rescue Me co-creator] that we gotta go with this. It was really rich territory.
I've seen you mention before that you know how the show is going to end. Since you only work two episodes out, is it possible that season six could be the last if it starts heading that way?
I think we're gonna play it by ear. We don't want to overstay our welcome, and I'm a firm believer... I just think it's great to leave the audience wanting more. It's hard to gauge on TV because some may not be satisfied yet and some are. We'll go in and feel it out, and then we'll make a decision.
Anything you want to tease for the rest of the season?
Maura Tierney has a great arc coming up, playing a character she's never played before. People are gonna say, this is not the Maura Tierney we know and love. The last three episodes do have some big surprises. Quite a few.
Creatively, this season has allowed you to tackle a much wider range of scenarios that we normally wouldn't expect on Rescue Me. I've seen up to episode 15 now, and there's a handful of musical numbers featuring Steven Pasquale, as well as a really creative sex scene between Tommy and Sheila featuring multiple costume changes. As one of the writers, what's that been like for you, having more episodes to toy with this type of stuff?
We love our actors. We give them a lot of freedom. They own their characters, they improvise things, they add, they take away. So as we watch things play out, we really get a sense of what's working based on the way they alter a scene. Then you go, "Well that's interesting, we hadn't thought of that." Even if FX hadn't asked us to do 22 episodes, I'm glad we did because unlike some productions where what's written is written in stone, I think that closes off a lot of the creative process. I've worked with some fucking horrible actors who're big stars and think everything that comes out of their mouth is gold, but when you work with great actors, and they really know how to control their character, it makes you look like a great writer.
Speaking of writing, you wrote a book. The thing that struck me about the few chapters I've read, is that when someone says to you, "Denis Leary has a new rant," there's an expectation about what a Denis Leary rant will sound like, and you translated that expectation perfectly on paper. Reading it, it feels like you were yelling at me. Was it a conscious decision to write it so that it sounded like a stand-up routine?
Well, they paid me a lot of money to do the book [laughs], so they wanted a certain thing. But when you talk about paying someone millions of dollars for a film and then my son says "I'm sick of so-and-so because he always does the same character." Well there's a great Martin Scorsese quote, "If they pay $20 million to be a dancing gorilla, when the movie comes out, you better be the dancing gorilla." Studio movies or a book contract, they want what they're buying. I did get to do some things in the book that they wouldn't have expected. But if you keep reading, there are other elements - a section about my mother's recipes and there are parts that go above and beyond.
Is there going to be a follow-up?
Well, I have a contract for it, and now that the first one has been so successful, they're gonna want the same thing [laughs]. I'm gonna want to do something different and they'll want Why We Still Suck. I had a lot of fun doing it though, and I tried to avoid using any of the book material on the Rescue Me Comedy Tour, so it forced me to keep being creative on stage.
I was actually at the show back in early April, the one you did at Radio City in NYC? It was amazing – I never expected to see "Asshole" or "Traditional Irish Folk Song" performed live.
Oh cool, glad you liked it.
Really, it was great and you did this hilarious bit where you threw pictures of celebs that were in the news up on the big monitors, like Octomom, and then you went off on them. Now that was about two months ago and a lot's happened since then. Mind if I pick your brain?
You can try.
Susan Boyle. Go.
I think she's a hobbit. The no expectations aspect was fantastic. I kind of wanted her to be the person who not only could sing, but was gonna tell everyone to fuck off and would become the new sex symbol. I hope she comes back fucking crazy like Judy Garland on acid. I'd like to feed her a lot of booze and pills and just let her sing beautiful songs and threaten people from the stage.
What about Jon and Kate and the infidelity scandal?
I don't watch the show, but Kate and Octomom are definitely having a battle of the bulge. The first thing I always think about is the kids, because they don't have any choice in this whole being famous thing. You've got eight monsters, man. Eight potential Susan Boyles coming up. Plus there's Kate's haircut – it's extraordinary. If it were a movie, you would have to convince an actress so hard to wear her hair like that. It's like an old hockey haircut.
Like Gordie Howe?
What about Heidi and Spencer? You hear how they up and quit I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here? Practically screwed their charity out of any money. [Author's note: at the time of this interview, Speidi had yet to apologize and return to the show.]
That is awesome. I'm so proud of them. Why are these people famous? That's fantastic. Not only do we not care about the charity, but we're not even going to pretend to care! Man, they're such morons. There's already a Baldwin. They should fly in all the Baldwins and just have them beat the crap out of Heidi and Spencer.
What would you call it?
I'm a Baldwin, We're Here to Kill You.