Boston Comedy Icon: Denis Leary on Life, Laughs and Good Causes

Stand-up legend Denis Leary warms up for his annual Comics Come Home charity gig

There’s no way you can think about Boston comedy without conjuring up a vivid mental image of Denis Leary in full, righteously combative, fast-talking, firebreathing, no-holds-barred flow. His jet-black pearls of observational wisdom are delivered in rapid-fire clusters, each one cracked out like a sweetly struck hockey puck. The only response is to duck, cover and laugh like an overflowing storm drain. Leary’s cultural DNA is a precise match for his home city: rough-edged, sports-obsessed, allergic to fakery and phoniness.

On November 3 at TD Garden, home of Leary’s beloved Boston Bruins, he hosts the 24th annual Comics Come Home event (#CCH24) to benefit The Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. The shindig—which has traditionally drawn a raft of comedy A-listers including Jimmy Fallon, Ray Romano and Whitney Cummings—was co-founded by Leary and Neely, the former Bruins hockey star. Ahead of the event, we chatted with Leary about the meaning of life, Boston, comedy, America and his new book “Why We Don’t Suck.”

The 2017 Comics Come Home line-up

How did you first get involved with Cam Neely?

It was a long time ago, when he was still playing hockey for the Bruins, way back in the late ‘80s. A lot of those guys used to come out to the comedy clubs. That’s how it all started.

Did you pick the line-up for #CCH24?

Yeah, it’s an organic process. Everyone’s often so busy I’ve got to book a year at least in advance. It’s a mixture of people I’ve had before and people I want to break for the first time at that event. And I have to plug holes with friends of mine. So it’s an amoeba, you know.

Which breaking Boston comedy star should we look out for?

Christine Hurley. She’s a brilliant comedian, with a very original backstory because she didn’t get started until very late in life. Usually as a comedian you start out somewhere in your 20s, if not earlier, but in her case she lived an entire life and raised kids and decided at one point in her 30s ‘I think I wanna give this a shot.’ She played CCH a couple of years ago and I wanted to get her back because she’s just getting better and better and better.

Jimmy Fallon and Denis Leary

Is Boston a good proving ground for upcoming comedians?

I always thought it was the best because it’s a trial by fire—that audience does not wanna listen to you if you’re not funny. It’s very hard in the beginning but what it teaches you is when you get up there you’ve gotta grab the audience’s attention. One of the greatest things about stand-up comedy, man, one of the truths about that art form, is it’s the ultimate form of democracy. It doesn’t matter how many people—200 or 15,000—they vote with their mouths. If the joke’s not funny, they’ll let you know.

Your new book on politics and culture “Why We Don’t Suck” cracks us up. What possessed you to write it?

I wrote it because I sort of had to put my foot down. I’d been talking about it on stage right after the 2016 election and I thought, you know what, I’m going to sit down and write a book about this. Because this is just ridiculous. I was just trying to make sense of the two different sides of the coin politically, but also socially.

How would you describe Boston to someone who has never been here?

I always tell people it’s really the same as it always was, which is a great city. To me it’s the greatest comedy city. Vibrant comedians, terrific comedy scene. I’m a music and sports guy. The first two things I look at when I’m in town are who’s playing who, sports-wise, and who’s playing where, music-wise.

What can we expect from this year’s Comics Come Home?

Every single person that’s on this year’s line-up is just a killer headliner. Last year we had a big musical surprise guest—John Mayer—at the end while Jimmy Fallon was doing a lip-synch battle with me. There’s a musical guest at the end of the show this year. What we do is we make you laugh for two hours for a great cause. Your mouth and your sides are going to be hurting at the end of the night.

Leary at the mic