Denis Leary's Emerson Experience
January 18, 2011
We recently caught up with author, actor, producer, and comedian Denis Leary ’79 on the set of Ice Age 4, and asked him to participate in a new series of features we are calling “The Emerson Experience.” Here is what this graduate of the College’s creative writing program had to say about his time at Emerson and beyond.
Q. What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m doing the new Spiderman movie––otherwise known as The Spiderman Reboot or Spiderman 4––as well as Ice Age 4––both of which open in the summer of 2012. Two very large projects with huge budgets that require a lot of time.
On my down days I’m writing and producing a couple of TV shows starring other people and getting two small films ready to roll through my company, Apostle.
Q. Creativity is one of Emerson’s touchstones. Was there an experience you remember that illustrates that core value?
The moment at Emerson College that made me realize just how creative the place was––outside of the massively talented students––occurred during my freshman year. I realized I may not be getting all the stage time I wanted as an actor due to seniors who had seniority and first dibs on big parts and the preponderance of musicals.
As a freshman, I’d already done Damn Yankees and I was really not interested in spending four more years singing and dancing old show tunes (I’d already done a lot of that in high school). Several other friends of mine––Eddie Brill, Chris Phillips, Adam Roth, Jodi Haffner, Katy Bolger––were interested in the same idea I was: starting our own theater group to do wholly original productions.
We didn’t mind singing and dancing as long as we were singing and dancing to our own original stuff. We wanted to do everything––sketch shows, one-act plays, huge variety revues––all written, directed, performed, lit, painted, propped up, and designed by students––and get credit for it.
I know: We were insane and reaching for the stars.
As it turned out, the theater and acting department had no interest in the idea and kind of looked down their noses at us. In frustration one day, I mentioned the idea to my creative writing teacher, Dr. James Randall. Much to my surprise he said, “Hey, why don’t you form the group, put a mission statement on paper to make it official, and I’ll sponsor you as your faculty advisor. We’ll go in front of the Student Government Association and we’ll get you the funding.”
“Can we do that?” I asked.
“It’s Emerson! You can do anything,” he said.
Not only did he back us up and get us recognized as the Emerson Comedy Workshop, he pushed through credits for all the writing we did. So while we mounted the shows and worked through the writing process, we were actually gaining full credit. It was an unforgettable and invaluable hands-on theatrical experience for all of us.
And Dr. Randall came to each and every show we did over the next three years and took the time to give us detailed breakdowns of what he thought was and wasn’t funny. He was a remarkable man. A truly heroic teacher who absolutely loved his students. That taught me how not to give up on an idea or a dream––as well as validating the theatrical process for actors who were also writers.
Dr. Randall taught us that actors can also be writers––he encouraged us to improvise in the rehearsal process and tape record those improvs, and then take the best parts and put them down on paper. He insisted on actors getting full writing credits.
Q. Were there Emerson classmates who have influenced your career?
Mario Cantone ’82 (actor and comedian). Purely by example. This guy was, and is, such a tornado of talent. When he walked into the Emerson Comedy Workshop for the first time and we caught a glimpse of what he was capable of, it took the Workshop in directions we had never imagined. He was not just a wholly original stage presence: He was a brilliant writer and he tackled all the issues of the day through his pieces and characters. He was unafraid of any subject, be it sexuality, politics, whatever. He changed the way I saw the stage and really made me a better writer simply by having him as an actor to write for. He became a great lifelong friend and a truly founding member of the Workshop.
Q. Are you professionally or personally connected to other Emerson graduates?
Yes. Doug Herzog ’81 (president, MTV Networks Entertainment Group) kick-started my career. We were friends at Emerson. As a matter of fact, Doug was the head of WERS when he banned me for life from the station after Chris Phillips and I did a bit called “Deaf Mute Cocktail Party” live on air one night back in 1978 (the bit is included on my second album Lock ’N’ Load). So when I did No Cure for Cancer at the Actors’ Playhouse in New York City in the fall of 1992, Doug saw it, as the president of MTV, and he okayed Ted Demme and I doing those revolutionary image spots, which launched my career.
My comedy band, The Enablers, is anchored by Adam Roth ’80 (musician and composer) and Chris Phillips ’80 (actor), who are both like brothers to me. We are three of the original members of the Comedy Workshop. We write all of our songs together and Adam composed most of the music on Rescue Me for the last decade.
And another brother of mine––Eddie Brill ’80––is just off-camera every time I do David Letterman’s show. Eddie is a key member of Dave’s creative staff.
The late, great Lauren Dombrowski ’79 was a dear friend of mine.
I still trade scripts and work on ideas and have long dinners full of big laughs with Mike Armstrong ’80 (comedian) and I see and laugh my ass off with Mario and Steven Wright ’78 (comedian) at least once a year.
The friends you make at Emerson not only become friends for life, but due to Emerson’s track record, you end up working together professionally off and on for the duration of your career.
And if my son or Daniel Herzog end up hiring Willem Dafoe instead of me for some future film project they do together, there will be hell to pay.
And, of course, my wife Ann ’85, who I was introduced to by Dr. Randall when he suggested she take a writing class I was teaching after I graduated. That’s right: She was a student and I was a teacher. It wasn’t the impeachable offense then that it’s become now. Besides, we didn’t start dating each other until after the semester was over. Ogling, yes. Dating, no. Dr. Randall attended our wedding several years later. Talk about lifelong Emerson connections.
Q. Any advice you’d give today’s Emerson students?
Dive in and enjoy your four years at Emerson, because it’s all downhill from there.
I’m kidding. It’s a little bit downhill. Student loan payback’s a downer.
But the friends you make at Emerson will follow you forever. I know students have heard this before but that’s only because it’s true:
Emerson students get hired all over show business.
I’ve done almost 40 films: some good, some bad (okay, 10 good, 30 bad: Operation Dumbo Drop anyone?) and two television series. In the course of those projects, I have NEVER NOT HAD at least one Emerson graduate involved at some level: as a writer or actor or PA or producer or camera crew member.
And Emerson students get hired because the show business community knows that they come highly trained and prepared.
I recently had the pleasure of watching Kevin Bright ’76 (Emerson Trustee and former executive producer of the longest running sitcom in history, Friends) lead a crew of current Emersonians through the shooting of a documentary on campus in Boston. He ran that set the way an actual set is run. The kids were working the same way a crew does in New York or Los Angeles. This from a guy who doesn’t need to be there. He could be counting his money or sitting on a beach or doing a new TV show. But instead he’s giving back. THAT’S what Emerson is all about.
The director on Spiderman, Marc Webb, was telling me the other day that he’s run into more working Emerson graduates in Hollywood than any other college by far. It’s not nepotism either. It’s talent. And training. The two things Emerson really excels at: picking the right kids to bring to campus and putting the right teachers in front of them.
Emerson alumnus Denis Leary, star and co-creator of the television show Rescue Me