During a taping of James Corden’s Late Late Show back in August, Denis Leary dove way back into his own personal comic archives. Despite dressing the part of Donald Trump in a drab suit and shabby wig, Leary, now 60, didn’t look a day older than he did when he shot No Cure For Cancer, the vinegar-soaked one-man show that launched his comedy career 25 years earlier. And judging from his performance alongside Corden, unshaven and decked out in a white pantsuit as Trump’s favorite political target, Hillary Clinton, the special’s material has aged almost as well.
When Leary penned No Cure For Cancer’s waltzy novelty hit “Asshole” alongside Chris Phillips, it was never meant to take down heads of state. But reworking the song’s verses around the countless follies of our current Blowhard in Chief, the song proved to be as much sanguine fun today as it was in 1992. “Asshole” is still a sneering indictment of first world slobbery and modern man’s vices, but it’s probably more on-point now than Leary could have ever imagined. “Asshole” remains an unflattering portrait not just of the common American man, but unbelievably the most powerful man in the free world. In 2018, it’s Trump who has the hard-on for football, porno, and war (books about the subject, probably not). And with roughly half the country in the president’s pocket, he’s hardly alone these days.
No Cure For Cancer’s caustic spirit not only hasn’t waned in 25 years, it’s been heightened considerably. That fact is both a credit to the special itself and also a damning criticism of contemporary America. It’d be nice to think that we’re less selfish, more worldly, and altogether more well-adjusted than we were when Leary was satirically taking American sloth to task. But it’s almost painful to admit that many of us are actually worse. We’re not less selfish, we’re more so. Instead of more worldly, America’s only become more closed-off and nationalistic under a president that casts delusional dispersions on just about anything outside of the country’s borders.
Your thoughts, Denis?
“Canada, I don’t trust them,” Leary says in the special. “They’re too nice and they’re too quiet and they live right above America, OK?!”
If Leary’s politically incorrect everyman persona was just that, it at least was a character he was born to play. He grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, “heroin capital of the Northeast,” as he referred to it in the introduction of the book No Cure For Cancer, a transcription of the one-man show. His earliest forays into comedy saw him co-found and teach a comedy workshop at his alma matter, Emerson College, as well as open up for Boston mainstays like Steve Sweeney and Lenny Clarke. But while the 1980s were a buoyant time for stand-up comedy, Leary never found his footing as a traditional stand-up comic. Instead, he used his working class, Irish Catholic upbringing as fodder for a darker, more personal brand of comedy.
“Once I decided to dwell on the demons in my psyche and let them roam about the stage there was no going back,” he wrote.
That philosophy sets the table for No Cure For Cancer, recorded live at New York City’s Irving Plaza in October 1992. One part stand-up comedy and two parts antisocial carnival barking, the hour-long special plays like a nicotine high with punch lines. “Ladies and gentlemen, due to illness tonight, the part of Denis Leary will be played by Denis Leary,” a voice announces over the PA. From there, Leary lets his street smart, blue collar id wildly out of its cage. His targets are many: smoking, booze, drugs, sex, health, celebrity, music. You name it, Leary lets it all rip with the fury of an old-school guy who fears the world is leaving him behind. No one and nothing gets a pass in No Cure For Cancer. Leary, leather jacket, cigarette perpetually lit and talking a mile a minute, has a hard line for everything. He has no time for therapy….
“There’s therapy for you, mowing the lawn and crying at the same time.”
“I love to smoke and I love to eat red meat and I only eat red meat that comes from cows that smoke.”
…or much of anything else. Don’t get him started on shitty music.
“Here’s 10 bucks, bring me the head of Barry Manilow. I want to drink beer out of his empty head. I want to have a Barry Manilow skull-keg party in my apartment, okay?”
No Cure For Cancer is loaded with these kinds of crazed comic fever dreams, from kids driving bongs down FDR Drive to a man with a neck full of tracheotomy rings. But Leary’s on-stage mania has more to offer than simple shock value. It speaks to the anger that lives in all of us to varying degrees, whether it be right on the surface or maybe somewhere in the subcockle area. It’s an anger that’s alive and well to this day. The special’s overarching thesis, that people struggle to adapt to an evolving world that’s outpacing them, still hits home with startling force. Driven largely by bitter nostalgia, Leary spends much of the special entertaining yesteryear fantasies of when men used to be men, all the while lamenting a present day where everyone has grown increasingly soft. This guy lives in your neighborhood. Maybe you’ve seen him posted up at your corner bar. You’ve no doubt read his tweets or seen him on TV railing about “snowflakes.”
Twenty five years later, it’s still Denis Leary’s world, and we’re still living in it. Leary’s anti-PC vitriol is so pronounced, in fact, that it’s easy to imagine him adapting the special to the present day. If he couldn’t stand Mötley Crüe and REM, what would 1992 Denis have to say about Kanye West or Radiohead? In a world where his precious cigarettes have largely been ostracized, where would he stand on vaping? Topics like white nationalism and immigration probably would have caused his heart to explode into a cloud of cigarette ash. And while we might cringe at the thought of what he might say, Leary no doubt would have had some strong opinions on transgender and LGBTQ issues. The topics of conversation change over time, but the asshole always needs something to dig his claws into.
The sizable bulk of No Cure For Cancer finds Leary gleefully playing the asshole role, but there’s also a part of him that speaks to the better part in us all. Near the end of the special, he talks about his upbringing as the son of a man who was the picture of masculinity, and how his father taught him the value of having a steel nerve and an iron constitution. It puts Leary’s madman antics in some real context, humanizing him in spite of his boorish instincts. He lets his hard guy exterior break even further when he talks about his then-two-year old boy, and his fear of bringing him up in world that’s growing crueler by the day. For a minute, we see the light breaking through his bleak worldview. Underneath the frustrated lunacy, there’s a soul looking to do good.
“I’ve got to get my hands on civil rights and all these things I supposedly believe in. I’ve got to get in position on the power role. Get active. March. Maraud. Get some heart behind my head so that maybe, 25 years from now, my son can live in a city without race problems. In a country without color. In a world without war. So that maybe, 25 years from now, he can turn to me one day, put his hand on my shoulder and say ‘You know something Dad, I really like this place.’ And I can honestly answer, ‘Well son, I did my best.”
“And other times I think, ‘Hey, fuck him.'”
Once an asshole, always an asshole.