Nearly four years after wrapping his acclaimed firefighting drama Rescue Me, Denis Leary is back on FX in a much different role. On the comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll he plays Johnny Rock, a washed-up, substance-abusing singer whose heralded ‘90s band broke up the day of their debut album’s release. Thanks to the sudden appearance of a daughter he never knew he had, Johnny tries to get the band back together, and things unfold from there. Featuring cameos by Dave Grohl, Joan Jett, and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, as well as live performances by Leary and his co-stars, the show mines some great, true stories from rock-and-roll history and shows how dysfunctional even the not-so-famous bands can be. Vulture caught up with the 57-year-old Leary to talk about his egomaniacal character, the dangers of acting like a rock star, and how he and Jon Stewart have been fighting since they met as young comedians.
When did you decide you wanted to play a rock star on TV?
It’s a semi-long story. I went to Emerson College in Boston. I was in a theater group there that did all original shows with original music, and a bunch of the guys in the group became the show’s band. They basically left school and became rock-and-roll musicians: The guitar player, Adam Roth, played for the Jim Carroll band and the Del Fuegos, and the drummer played with Ozzy Osbourne. So I got to see a lot of that dysfunctional band behavior. When we were doing Rescue Me, instead of doing a press tour one year, I said, “Let’s do a comedy tour,” and we took the band. For the first couple dates, everybody got along fine, but gradually it started to get into that, “Why did you take that 15-second solo? I was supposed to take a bass solo.” I was like, “Oh my God. I have to do a show about a band.” I forgot what it’s like. There are so many resentments and stupid fights over almost nothing.
One episode features your aging character not being able to get through gigs without injuring himself. Were there any real-life injuries?
I got hurt more on this show than I did on Rescue Me. I recently saw Pete Townshend jump off the drum riser, doing a windmill with his guitar, and he’s 70. So one time during production, I got up on the drum riser so I could jump, spin, land, and then sing the next verse. As soon as I jumped, I hurt my hamstring pushing off. Then, when I landed, I tore it even further. Adam said, “If you want to jump off the fucking riser, we’re going to practice it first, asshole.”
Does it give you even more appreciation for how these classic rockers could pull that off when they were so whacked out of their minds on booze and coke?
Oh yeah. Are you kidding me? It’s crazy. Even just remembering the lyrics. The first time we performed, I was so worried about the moves and everything, I couldn’t remember the lyrics. Adam said, “It’s not a big problem. We’ll just put a TelePrompTer down.” Then I came out and I couldn’t fucking read the print. It was too small, so if you notice in the show, Johnny is wearing sunglasses — they’re prescription glasses so I can read the TelePrompTer.
Did you incorporate any real-life stories from the old hard-partying Boston comedy scene?
I didn’t need to, really. The Del Fuegos were a terrific fucking band, but they were a famous mess. They were like the Replacements, only slightly more organized, but they were high and drunk and that was part of the thrill of going to see them. The Replacements as well — one of my favorite bands. I’d see them one time and they’d play for three hours; the next time I’d go, they’d be in a fight three songs in and the show would be over. So I had more than enough to base Johnny on, especially because he’s not supposed to be famous. It’s even funnier because he didn’t make it.
What other outlandish rock stories would you want to include in the show?
There was a story about this guy, I don’t remember his name, but he was a fairly legendary fuck-up back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. He thought he had Parkinson’s because he woke up one day and had tremors in one hand. He was convinced for like six weeks that he had Parkinson’s and of course he didn’t have it. He had the shakes from drinking too much, but I just love that story line for Johnny because, in his mind, he’s like, “I’ll be the guy that goes on tour with Parkinson’s. That’ll make me famous!”
Johnny and John Corbett’s character, Flash, drive each other crazy but also do their best work together. Have you ever had that relationship with another comedian or actor?
Jon Stewart and I were like that. Still are, actually. From the day we met each other, which I don’t remember how long ago it was. It’s very cantankerous, but we share all the same interests in movies and sports and everything else. Every time I would be on the road with Jon, sleeping in the same room, we’d wake up and start arguing. The entire day would be a series of arguments, and half of that time you’d be laughing about what the guy just said to you.
What would you argue about?
Oh my God. The Kennedy assassination, the Mets’ pitching staff in 1986 — literally anything. When we were driving we would come up with these deals on what was going to get played for a certain period of time in the car. Halfway through, he’d want my cassette out and his cassette in. I can remember nights with him, especially when we were young in New York, we would do gigs then go out and eat. The arguments would start late at night. If we’re going to talk about the Kennedy assassination at three o’clock, the next morning at eleven, I’d call him and go, “Let me fucking point out something to you that you didn’t fucking bring up last night that I know and you don’t know, asshole,” and we would be right back into it. There was never any belief or even the threat of not being friends again. You just know you’re going to be friends forever and you’re going to disagree on everything and it’s going to be funny. But if you’re in a band, that spotlight has to be shared, especially by the lead guitar player and the lead singer. That’s gotta be a nightmare. It’s purely a human thing. “The fucking spotlight is on him and not on me.”
How did you originally meet Greg Dulli?
Ted Demme, who was one of my best friends, saw the Afghan Whigs, met Dulli, and told me, “You’re going to love this fucking band.” We hit it off right from the get-go, because he’s a funny son of a bitch. As is Grohl. It’s so galling to me, in a way. I love those guys, but the interview stuff I did with them — I went in and said, “We’re going to totally improv this stuff and shoot a ton of footage.” Those guys, it’s just like water off a duck’s back. There were a couple of moments where I was like, “I can’t fucking believe how easy this is for these guys,” because it’s really incredibly hard for me to try to do what they do. I can’t do it. When we were improvising, sometimes Grohl would get very specific then say, “You can’t put that in because the guys in my band are going to kill me if you do.” If the show works, I want them to come back. Dulli is a great foil for Johnny’s character and with Dave, by virtue of how many awards he’s won, it’s like a whole other level of hatred and jealousy.
Who else do you want to be on the show?
Bowie, of course, because I worship him and he’s a great actor. He’s done so many great comedy cameos before, I know he can handle it. And Bon Jovi, because that’s such a great story line. Clearly, if Jon Bon Jovi was ever on the show, that would be such a great episode because Johnny knows that his girlfriend slept with him, and he’s such a threat to Johnny. Johnny’s the first guy to claim that he doesn’t like Bon Jovi, but if Bon Jovi were there, he’d be the first guy to kiss his ass because he’s so hell-bent on fame. So I’m sending that message out through Vulture: I want David Bowie and Jon Bon Jovi.