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The Complete Denis Leary
featuring: Denis Leary

director: Ted Demme

140 minutes (18) 1992/7
Fabulous / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
There are two acknowledged patron saints of modern American comedy. The first, Bill Hicks (Totally Bill Hicks), was without a doubt the voice of his generation. Fiercely intelligent, savagely political and always skirting the raw edge of complete breakdown, Hicks' work was that of a man all too aware of how the world was, desperately angry and yet knowing he could change nothing. He died too soon and too young, his work still spoken of fondly over 10 years after his death.

The second, Denis Leary, has had a more varied career. Starting out on the same circuit as Hicks (and still, to some extent, dogged by rumours of stealing material from him), Leary made his name as a modern day Lenny Bruce, saying what no one else would dare to say and mixing venom, bile and hatred with intelligence and moments of startling compassion. Successfully moving to film and TV work, Leary has been a mainstay of the character-actor circuit for years and has produced, and starred in, two acclaimed TV series. The second of these, Rescue Me, is still running and is a jet black comedy following a group of New York firemen through the events of 11th September and the every day horrors of their job.

Despite not returning to the circuit for years, Leary's stand up work is still lauded and justifiably so, this collection of his two shows providing the perfect opportunity to see how he started out. No Cure For Cancer (1992) sees Leary at his rawest and, of the two, is the disc that many viewers will find hardest work. This is Leary at the height of the 'shock' comedy movement and absolutely nothing is sacred. He prowls the stage like a chain-smoking Irish-American tornado; dragging everything from cold remedies to the Von Bulow case and environmentalism into one colossal storm of focussed bile. Looking at his work at this point it's easy to see why comedy briefly earned the dubious moniker of the new rock 'n' roll, backed up by Leary's flirtations with rock music that open and close the disc. Leary's on fire, utterly confident, fiercely articulate and absolutely sure of everything he said. Crucially, were that all he did then he'd be a lesser talent than Hicks or any of the other comedians of the era. Instead, after a while it becomes clear that Leary is parodying himself as much as anyone else. There's a fantastic moment early on in Cancer when he goes off on a huge rant about where American forces should go on their way back from the first Gulf war. His eventual conclusion is Canada... because they're too quiet and he doesn't trust them. As the show continues we get more and more shots of this surreal, self-deprecating fury until, by its conclusion, two things have become clear. Leary is fascinated by the beer swilling, pizza eating unreconstructed man, is proud to be one and at the same time is horrified by what he is and who he's expected to be. It's a performance of startling anger, energy and intelligence and one that's rounded off with what is surely one of the greatest comedy routines of the 20th century.

The song, Asshole, is to my mind, the only justification needed for Leary's less effective work. An amiable, acoustic ballad it sees Leary set himself up as a paternal figure, a calm, quiet average man who likes nothing more than "football and porno and books about war" only to spiral down into one of the greatest rants of his career. A screaming indictment of the sort of small minded, casually macho, emotionless approach to the world that men are expected to take, it's Leary at his absolute best, angry, intelligent and utterly, utterly focussed.

Lock 'n' Load (1997) sees an older, wiser Leary come to the fore. Here, the preening, rock-star ego of Cancer is replaced by that of a man who is as bewildered by the world, as he is furious at it. Here, Leary's everyman persona really comes its own as he casts himself, deliberately, as a man out of time and extremely angry about it. There's a wonderful, 10-minute rant about why coffee is no longer coffee flavoured which manages to take in hip-hop culture, the soul destroying evil of coffee shop intellectuals, and the lunacy of coffee that tastes like your entire breakfast. Looked at in isolation it's a fantastically funny piece of observational comedy. However, it's followed by a detailed look at why he could never be president, acknowledging how angry he gets about everything and branching off into exactly how horrific 'President Leary' would be. Leary's best work sees him making fun of himself and 'President Leary' is definitely some of his best work.

This is built on later on in the disc as Leary, the rock-star comedian, the swaggering, brash, brutally angry voice of modern comedy takes on the one force he can't defeat; his children. This set is one of the highlights of the film, as an increasingly frantic Leary pleads with his audience not to buy toys that make noise and flashes back to spending a day trying to stop his children cutting the dog's hair. It's manic without being forced, oddly compassionate without ever admitting it, and this marks a real evolution for Leary's work. The angriest man in comedy is now just a dad and, even worse, he knows it. In the hands of a lesser comedian this material would fall apart but with Leary it's a joy to watch. His love for his children is absolutely honest and cuts through all Leary's pretence and artifice like a knife through butter. He's whipped, he knows it and he kind of likes it.

Which isn't to say that Leary isn't angry. The closing section of the special focuses on the Catholic Church and delivers some of Leary's best work. His fury at the paedophilia scandals that have crippled the church in several US cities is palpable, and his blank refusal to raise his children Catholic is as angry as it is funny. This is perfectly demonstrated by Lock 'n' Load, a rant set to music about the church which lays out all Leary's problems with the church in a focussed, rage filled way that the younger Leary could never hope to achieve. This is a man at the height of his powers, a comedian who is finally at home with both his intelligence and his humanity and the result, frankly, is staggering.

If you're remotely interested in modern comedy then you need this set. Regardless of the controversy, regardless of whether or not Leary ever stole material this is simply some of the blackest, angriest, funniest and most humane comedy of the last 20 years and it demands to be seen.
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