Over a career of 30-plus years, Lenny Clarke made movies, had a Boston variety show and starred in his own network sitcom. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he hosted the open-mike night at the Ding Ho in Cambridge, a weekly event that launched the careers of Steven Wright, Denis Leary and others — “It was Sodom and Gomorrah with a five-dollar cover,” Bob Goldthwaite, who also got his start there, is quoted as having said.
It was a time, Clarke said recently, when comics were “rock stars. It was unbelievable …the best tables, best champagne, women, drugs, you name it. It was the greatest years of my life. It will never be copied.”
But befitting Clarke’s hometown, referred to in the documentary When Standup Stood Out as “a full-fledged metropolis with a first-rate inferiority complex,” the 57-year-old comic never got comfortable with his success. “In my eyes — I’m a working-class background, poor family — I still haven’t made it,” he says. “I’ll be working ’til five minutes before I drop dead.”
When the interview begins, he’s just come from a charity golf tournament, where his partner was hockey legend Bobby Orr.
“I took up golf just to meet him,” Clarke says, and when the two were introduced, it turned out Orr was a big fan of the comic. “I ended up doing 45 charity golf events … he saw me at the end of the year and he said, ‘Lenny, I didn’t mean ALL of them!’”
When the short-lived Lenny Clarke Late Show was on the air (one season, 1980) he invited several of his fellow comics on as guests. Among them was longtime friend Leary, who returned the favor a couple of decades later by casting Clarke in the FDNY dramedy Rescue Me. Earlier this spring, the FX series completed filming for its seventh and final season — the last episode airs on September 11, 2011.
After the show wrapped, Clarke, Leary and fellow cast member Adam Ferrara hit the road for the second Rescue Me Comedy Tour, an experience he says felt more like a vacation than six weeks of work.
“A bunch of middle-aged guys driving around the country doing standup like snake oil salesmen,” Clarke muses. “I said to Denis at one point, if we had this bus 20 years ago, and he goes, ‘Stop right there. If we had this bus 20 years ago we’d be dead.’”
Ending the series was, says Clarke, “incredibly sad; I wasn’t there the last day of shooting and to be honest, I’m glad … I’ve been through the ending of a show and you never get used to it.”
It feels good to go out on a high note, with good ratings and a solid product, Clarke says.
“Denis and I have been friends for 35 years now, and every day I respect his intelligence more and more, because that guy is brilliant. To write, produce, direct — he does it all. It was his baby, and he developed that with Peter Tolan, another genius. It was a fun ride.”
As for the future, “I’m doing the standup until I get another job. Hopefully I’ll get something — I’ve had some offers that unfortunately I’ve passed on because I didn’t care for the stuff,” he says. “I think the days of me being a lead in a sitcom are probably gone because of my age — they want younger and hotter. That’s all well and good, but they need a sexy grandpa, don’t they?”
Scouting for roles leads inevitably to L.A., something that Clarke, to put it mildly, doesn’t relish. “The bullshit, the people there! They lie right to your face,” he says. “I am flattered and honored to be in this business but it’s horrible, because you work when they want you, not when you want to work.”
At times, Clarke sounds like he’s auditioning for a role as the next Dennis Miller, a comic turned conservative pundit. Early in his career, he ran for mayor of Cambridge — “if I was drinking a bit more, I probably would have won,” he says. He nearly made a run for the U.S. House of Representatives until Joseph Kennedy jumped in the race and Clarke’s father talked him out of it.
Clarke stumped for Scott Brown during his successful battle for Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat, and lately he’s been campaigning for Massachusetts gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker. Get him talking politics, and the one-liners start flying. Clarke fires shots at President Obama (“free healthcare for everyone but it’s not going to cost you another dime — what bullshit!”) and other Democrats (“I’d like to see Barney Frank knocked on his big fat queen ass”), and finally takes up another hot-button issue. “It’s not that’s I’m against people coming to this country, but what about the people that have been trying to get in here for 10 years legally? Why screw them?” asks Clarke. “I’ve got nothing against illegal immigrants, I’m against line jumpers! How about a 10-grand, two-job cover charge to get in?”
Clarke’s bluntness is part of his appeal.
“You know why I’m a comedian? I’ll tell you exactly why,” he says. “I would go and speak my mind to anyone that would listen and people would roar with hysterical laughter, thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s so funny.’ I didn’t have the heart or the nerve to tell them I was serious.”