Beyond rescue

As his book "Why We Suck" hits the shelves, Denis Leary talks about lazy parenting, the media storm surrounding his views on autism, and the omnipotence of Oprah.

Published November 20, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

Denis Leary is anything but apologetic. From the hapless machismo of his character on "Rescue Me," the fireman drama he created and writes for FX, to the title of his new book, "Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid," Leary has a knack for pushing buttons with brash views that sometimes feel like empty provocation. Cast even a cursory glance at the chapter titles of his book -- "I Had Sex With Kathie Lee Gifford (And She Was Amazing)," "Matt Dillon Is a Giant Fag," "Autism Shmautism," "We'd Hate You Even If You Weren't Black" -- and you'd assume that the entire tome is filled with nastiness and ignorant, insensitive opinions.

But Leary's book and his views are a little more informed and evenhanded than they first appear. Although activist groups have taken issue with Leary for suggesting that autism is caused by bad parenting, in his book Leary very clearly takes on the parents of kids who aren't autistic -- autistic kids are smart and industrious, not lazy and stupid, he points out -- but who seek out the diagnosis as a means of explaining away their kids' flaws and their own ineptitude.

The funniest, most colorful passages concern his family, from a brother whose standard greeting when they were little was "Hey faggot!" to a mother who still enjoys pointing out the gruesome ways that each of the people in her old photographs died. In another chapter, Leary scratches the surface of the Oprah phenomenon, only to find himself overwhelmed by the wealth of information Oprah has to share, her enormous range as a host, and her sheer, unquestionable power.

Leary called from his home in New York City to talk with Salon about George Carlin's legacy, the culture of permissive parenting and the controversy surrounding his book. Far from the violent frat boy he portrays on his show, Leary not only referred to himself as a "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" but said that he considers himself a feminist. Still, he insisted that if no one is pissed off, that means he's not doing his job.

When you're used to writing stand-up or dialogue, is the process of writing a book difficult?

Well, I mean I hate to say this because I think real writers will be upset, because [with] comedians, it's kind of a cheat. We're thinking these things anyways. Yeah, it's work to put it down on paper as opposed to just getting up onstage and saying it.

I was just down in Washington last night for the George Carlin tribute [Carlin was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, announced four days before his death in June] and there's a roomful of all these comedians, most of these guys have already written a book. Bill Maher was there and Lewis Black has written a couple of books now, and Jon Stewart. You know, they were all making fun of me because I was the last guy to come out with a book.

I interviewed Carlin last year, and he said that he didn't become a real writer until about halfway through his career, and it really improved his stand-up routine.

It makes you sit down for four hours a day and formalize your thoughts. There's a rhythm to it. The kind of comedy I do anyway is sort of an observational, satirical take on whatever -- politics, society, behavior -- but there's a rhythm to comedy that's kind of musically oriented. When I had to read these things out loud, it [made me want to] go back and rewrite it and find the right word. I liked it, I can't wait to do another one.

Do you count Carlin as an influence?

Oh yeah. I didn't know anything about Lenny Bruce until I discovered [Carlin's album] "Class Clown" in 1972 because the Catholic Church bulletin had a thing that said "Banned Books and Records" and they named "Class Clown," and that's what made me buy the record because that's just the kind of guy I am. And as soon as I heard that record, I said, "I know guys like this. And I'm an Irish guy. Maybe I could do this."

You're sort of following in Carlin's footsteps in terms of provoking a big reaction in the press. You've already caught some flack from autism activists about the chapter "Autism Shmautism." But you've said that your words were taken out of context.

If you read the book, you know that they [reacted to] the exact opposite of what I was saying. I never said that autism didn't exist. I never said that parents caused autism. I wasn't defining autism, I was discussing it as a comedy doctor, not a real doctor. I was pointing to a real issue that exists, which a lot of people who deal with the issue and have children with autism have since e-mailed me to say they not only identify but agree with. Which is people who are, believe it or not, seeking out low-level diagnoses of [autism in] their kids to get a special needs recognition or to explain away the behavior. There's no comedy point of view in saying there's no such thing as autism, which is why I didn't say it. The comedy point of view is to point out the ridiculousness of wishing away your child's behavior by saying, "Oh, my kid's special." And that's what I set out to say.

You wrote that the autistic kids who you know are smart, and if your kid is really lazy and stupid, that's probably a sign that he's not autistic.

The issue really is about lazy parenting and about the ridiculousness of seeking out or self-diagnosing yourself into that category. I did feel that when they pulled the words out, they did it without telling people what the chapter was about. I don't blame people for being upset, because if I had read that, I would've been upset, too.

You weren't exactly taking a cautious stance with this book, of course. You also wrote, "Please drug your children" and "You have to hit kids, you have a responsibility to do so." Do you want to explain either of those?

You could also take something out of the "We'd Hate You Even If You Weren't Black" chapter and make me look like a racist, I guess, if you wanted to approach it that way.

You seem to be taking a stab at the culture of permissive parenting.

Well, I think we all know that there are reasons that you tell kids yes and there are reasons that you tell kids no, and that's part of good parenting. It's become really an exercise for a lot of people in this country. They don't have the time or the desire to pay attention to their kids, so they just yes their kids to death, and what you end up with are kids that are dying to have someone tell them no. And the reason that there's a good smack on the ass is because it kind of works sometimes.

Have you had any backlash from your own kids when you were too harsh with them?

I think we've been pretty evenhanded with our kids. We ended up with two smart kids who would kind of tell us when we were being a little ridiculous with the punishment. But it's like the whole issue of "We don't want our kids watching this stuff on TV." Well then, you're going to have to actually watch your kids while they watch TV. At a certain age, they'll find whatever they want. But if they're in your house, you can pretty much control what they do and how they do it and when they do it, if you're paying attention.

Are you in New York or L.A.?

I'm in New York.

I ask because I sometimes see parents giving in and taking the path of least resistance here, and I wonder if it's a California thing or maybe an urban thing.

I think it actually happens all over the place. Because my kids were raised primarily in the country, and I certainly witnessed a lot of it out there, too ... And then there's the whole self-esteem thing, where everybody gets a trophy and we're not gonna keep score. Well, you don't really learn anything from that, except I should get a trophy every time I do something, whether it's right or wrong, good or bad. That system doesn't really work, and you end up with 30-year-olds who go, "What do you mean I have to have a job?"

Actually, quite frankly, I think you get people like George Bush [from that approach], you know? Where they're so convinced they're right and they can't believe that anything's going to go wrong, because God's telling them [what to do].

You say at some point in your book that kids should stay home with their mothers. If Mom's a Nobel Prize winner and Dad works at Taco Bell, should Mom quit her job to stay at home while Dad leaves to man the sour cream gun?

These are general rules, not hard and fast rules. I think the majority of [parents] realize that most of the time, kids want their parents to be a yin and a yang. And they almost always will expect more from their mom than they will from their dad in certain circumstances. Obviously if someone is the breadwinner and someone else is the stay-at-home person, the situation can be switched. But in general if a kid falls down, they want their mom.

It made me wonder if you think that daycare is bad for kids.

No, I think daycare is great for people who have to work two jobs. My problem is with people who are dropping kids off at daycare because they want to go out and spend the day golfing or getting their nails done. You know what I mean? That's not why they invented daycare.

Have you heard from any of the people you mention in the book? Has Kathie Lee Gifford given you a call, for example?

Yeah, she did. She booked me for a show next Thursday.

That's funny. And Matt Dillon, he's a friend of yours, but how did he feel about his chapter ("Matt Dillon Is a Giant Fag")?

I passed that chapter by him before I used it, because he's a friend of mine. But that's one of those things that actually makes Matt look great. It's one of those ones that, if I changed it to another guy friend of mine, they would've been fighting over being the guy who got mentioned.

Have you been criticized for using the word "fag" at all?

No. I really didn't expect to, because the word is used in the book the way it's used in real life, at least among the guys I know. But I did an interview with The Advocate, and they loved the book. I don't think anybody uses the word "fag" more than the gay guys that I know, quite frankly.

You say that you don't believe the power of words. Can you explain what you mean by that?

I saw it explained last night by George Carlin because I introduced the clip where he did his original routine of the Seven Words [You Can't Say On Television]. Part of my introduction was about how it's still being argued by the Supreme Court this week, 40 years later. As George described it, there's a bunch of words that we all decided we can't use because they mean certain things, which is good, because without those words, there's no power in the use of those words in the occasions when you do want to use them. "Motherfucker" and "tits," all seven of those words, they have great sound and they have great meaning, whether it's good or bad. They're great words. So if the Supreme Court said tomorrow, "Everybody can say them," they lose their power, whether the power is good or bad, because they'd be on "Friends" at 8:30 at night on network television. So there wouldn't be the fun and the edge that they have.

Your wife wrote a novel and Gawker wrote that one of the characters appeared to be modeled after Elizabeth Hurley. What's your take on the media guessing about such things?

Well there's not much you can do about it. It's sort of the nature of the beast. There are times when it gets ugly and there are times it makes no sense and there are times when there's a sliver of truth to it. There's nothing you can do about it.

You don't seem to censor yourself either way.

It obviously pisses me off and angers me when they get it wrong, but you know, I have enough public access. Because I'm a comedian I can get up onstage or on a talk show or into an interview and defend myself or say what I want in response, so it doesn't really worry me.

And any skeletons that are in my closet, I talk about anyways, you know? I'd never run for public office, but, it's kind of like when they were saying that thing about Cindy McCain, when they were talking about her prescription drug abuse during the campaign, and somebody said, "Well, why doesn't somebody talk about Obama's cocaine abuse?" Well, he wrote about it! It's in his book! So I kind of feel like, what do you want me to do? Nobody can make more fun of me than I already make of myself. Whatever they wrote today, it's like that great line in that Elvis Costello song about how the newspapers are wrapping up fish the next day anyway.

Is there anything you regret writing about in your book?

No, not at all. I write what I think is funny and I write from a sense of popping a balloon or a sense of injustice, whether it's about yourself, or whether it's about something else. It's my worldview, it doesn't mean that everybody has to agree with it. Last night there was a great quote from George Carlin -- I know I'm stuck on him but that's just because it's so fresh in my mind -- he said, "The comedian's job is to find where the line in the sand is drawn and then cross over it."

I've always felt like, if you were pissing people off and you were funny as a comedian, then you were doing your job, because there should be some people that are pissed off. If everybody was happy, that meant you were going down the middle of the road. There's a great quote from Paul Newman when he died, which is, "If you have no enemies, you have no character." I think that sort of describes what a good comedian is supposed to be doing.

When people meet you are they surprised that you're different than they expected? What do they expect?

Some people expect me to be funny all the time, and I'm not necessarily funny all the time.

I was a little bit surprised by your chapter on Oprah. You wrote that you expected to find her annoying, and then, slowly, her immense power and reach in the world began to reveal itself.

Yeah, I gotta be honest, I just didn't expect to see that much information on display, and I didn't know about it.

Did you watch her show?

No, I didn't. I thought I had enough information, and then when I sat down to write [that chapter], I had to get more [information], and then the more I got, the more surprised I was, and the more surprised I was, the more I kept going. Finally I was like, "Oh my God! This is crazy!" I said in the book, and I really believe it, they should have a show [like Oprah's, but] with Jon Stewart. If he did "The Daily Show," and while he was ranking on the news of the day, he also gave you the sports scores and told you about things that could possibly break your penis? Then that would be the only show guys would ever watch.

Have you ever been on "Oprah"?

No, but I'm doing her radio show on part of the book tour, so that'll be interesting.

You might have some trouble keeping your cool, being so close to such omnipotence. Every time I see her on TV, I'm amazed by her charisma and genius.

That's how I got stuck in that chapter. I got overwhelmed!

That's right. She's like a shapeshifter.

She's like a shaman.

I like the part where you say that there's Mad Oprah, Sad Oprah, Holier Than Thou Oprah, Down and Dirty Oprah, etc.

I know, that was really unbelievable. I started watching episodes and snippets and pieces and I was like, "She tells you everything!"

And she's appropriate to every moment. That chapter made me wonder, despite some other remarks you make in the book, if you consider yourself a feminist.

Yes, I do.

I thought so, but I wouldn't have gathered that from the rest of your book.

Of course not, because I'm a man. But the truth is, if you're really looking between all those lines, and I actually come close to saying it a couple of times ... It's actually serendipitous that we're talking about Oprah, because when you come right down to it, whether it's my wife or Oprah or my mom, women rule the world. And we're [men are] just sort of in it. We're in it and we're using the towels, and we're trying to remember the name of the color of the towels, and we're hoping that we get the name right. We know that you might be pissed off -- that's why I say that Jon Stewart has to become the male Oprah, you guys have your Oprah. We need to have a guy who can tell us at 11 o'clock at night what the scores are, why our girlfriend or our wife might be pissed off, and how we can make her happy and keep our penises.

You seem to imply, in your book, that men are slightly inferior to women, although you don't come out and say it.

I do think that that's true. Ultimately, especially having raised children, if guys were left alone ... I don't know what would happen, but I think we have pretty good evidence: A lot of stuff would get blown up, there'd be a lot of really stupid fights over stupid stuff. And because there are these giant weapons, a lot of the time they'd be going, "Man, I wish we hadn't blown each other up." And also, I just don't think it's possible to be civilized and have children get all the information they need without a strong female hand. It's great we've got a black president and it's really kind of imperative that at some point we get a female president, too.

You know, "24" is coming back with a two-hour special, and there's a female president in it, but honestly, it was hard not to think, "Would the country really listen to a woman in her 50s?" Because no one listens to older women, they're ignored. Ask my mom. Except for Oprah.

See, that's the thing. Oprah would be a great president. If Oprah ran for president ... which, by the way, maybe that's the next thing! Obama does eight years, and then Oprah steps in. You know, in the book, I talk about how she can shame people into things? Because she's sort of relentless. So not only is everybody going to be forced to do the right thing, but because she's so open about weight and about clothing and about her greedy desires to own stuff and her private desires to change ... She's the ultimate leader, you know what I mean?

And there could never be any scandals, like you said, because everything is already out in the open.

Yeah, there are no scandals with Oprah, because if there's a scandal she's going to talk about it.

Now we've done it. We've taken the enjoyment of having a black man as the president of the United States, and we've already discarded that, and become unhappy, and now we want Oprah!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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