For the past 25 years, Comics Come Home has been an unofficial kickoff to the holiday season. Host Denis Leary will gather friends new and old Saturday night at the TD Garden and renew traditions — singing Leary’s “The [Expletive] Song,” speculating about what outrageous outfit Lenny Clarke will wear, welcoming a new Boston comic — this year it’s Kelly MacFarland — into the lineup. It has become as much of a social event for the comedian as it is a charity event that raises money for the Cam Neely Foundation.
“We have such a blast, the comedians backstage, ‘cause we never get to see each other,” says Leary, who has invited Bill Burr, Robert Kelly, Pete Holmes, John Mulaney, Steven Wright, Joe Yannetty, MacFarland, and Clarke to this year’s milestone show. “It’s usually the same time all year that we’re all in the same room. The event itself has such a good feeling about it. It’s still such an unusual night, you know? There’s no television cameras, so no one’s worried about what their set’s gonna play like on TV. Everyone feels free. And then afterwards, everybody’s getting together at the after party. It’s work, it’s a concert, it’s a show. But we have a great time, not just onstage.”
“It’s a home,” says Wright. “You’re connected this, to the city, and to these comedians. I’ve known Leary since college [both are Emerson alums]. You’re connected to it.”
In a phone interview to promote the 25th anniversary of the show, Leary and Boston Bruins president Cam Neely trade oft-told stories of shows gone by. Neely remembers a crew of local comics like Wright and Steve Sweeney helping to kick off the show in the early years. Then it was staged at the Orpheum Theatre, before moving to the Agganis Arena and most recently to the TD Garden. Leary remembers the late Patrice O’Neal inciting the crowd after a Red Sox World Series win by wearing Yankees gear onstage, and Jon Stewart giving a heroic performance before succumbing to food poisoning in the backstage bathroom at the Orpheum.
“He went out and he had just a killer set,” Leary says of Stewart’s performance at the first Comics Come Home. “Brought the house down. Got basically a standing ovation at the end of the set and said, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ And went to the bathroom and puked.”
They have so much fun, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it is indeed a charity event, raising money for the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care and the Neely House, which provides cancer patients and their families homelike accommodations during treatments at Tufts Medical Center. “That’s the reason we do the whole thing,” says Leary. “So whenever I think about what we’re doing on the show and how great that is, I can’t tell you how powerful it was just to walk through the Neely House with Cam and his family.”
Some of the performers have dealt with cancer in their own lives. Yannetty appeared at Comics Come Home in 2014 after beating Stage 4 squamous carcinoma. “Not only does he do material about having been affected by it,” says Leary, “but he’s still doing new material about having cancer and kicking its [butt] and surviving it, how that has changed his life and made him look at things differently.”
Yannetty remembers convalescing in a reclining chair and fighting through the haze of his pain medication. His doctor was urging him to “stop wallowing” and get out and do something. That’s when he got an e-mail from Leary. “Dearest Joe Yannetty, you cancer-beating [expletive],” Yannetty reads. “I am pleased to invite you as a fine example and one of the funniest guys I know to join the cast of Comics Come Home number 20.” That was the motivation he needed. “Denis asking me to do that just really got me up and out of bed and going and recovered a lot faster than I would have without it,” he says.
Clarke’s wife has fought breast cancer twice. The second time around, they stayed at the Neely House while she was undergoing radiation. “When your wife comes down with cancer, or someone you love comes down with cancer, you’d rather it be you than them,” says Clarke. “The fact that I could stay at the Neely House was amazing. Because it’s such a beautiful, beautiful place. It’s better than my house.”
Clarke, who frequently performs at various benefits, is convinced that a cure for cancer can be found, and that events like Comics Come Home can help. “I’ve done so many events, and after a few years, they die down,” he says. “But this one just seems to generate more steam every year.”
What Clarke will be wearing this year remains a secret. He has made a habit of donning loud-yet-stylish duds at the show. But this is the first year he’s asked Leary to sign off on his choice beforehand. “I know but I’m not telling anybody,” says Leary. “You’ll see.”
“It’s the 25th, it’s gotta be something special, right?” says Clarke.
The bill for Comics Come Home has often included one local veteran making his or her debut on the show. This year, it’s MacFarland. She’s played just about every kind of stage, large and small, in New England, but never one this big. That only makes her anxious when other people bring it up. “I’ll get nervous for just a brief second, and then I remember, oh yeah, you’ve been doing this every weekend for 20 years,” she says. “So it’s OK. They hired you to do your jokes, so just show up and do that.”
MacFarland says she’s excited to join a show that’s such a Boston staple and to be helping a cause like the Neely Foundation. "I feel like there’s a lot of times when I’m doing comedy, and we’re not doing any good,” she says with a laugh. “We’re helping the drinks go down and we’re helping people have a fun night. This is something that is going to be a fun night and we’re doing a lot of good.”
Another Comics Come Home tradition is the moment after the show when Leary and Neely decide whether to do it again. “Every year, we look at each other, at the party, usually, and we say, ‘What do you think? One more?’ ” says Leary. “We’re basically just making it official, but I think that approach has always benefited us. We don’t take anything for granted.”
Neely knows the show can’t go on forever, but he’s not ready for that day yet. “As long as people still come and want to support the show and the cause,” he says, “and Denis is still willing to do this and the comedians are still willing to give up their time, hopefully we’ve got a few more years in us.”
COMICS COME HOME 25
With Denis Leary, Bill Burr, Lenny Clarke, Robert Kelly, Pete Holmes, Kelly MacFarland, John Mulaney, Steven Wright, and Joe Yannetty
At TD Garden, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets $50.50-$151.50; 800-653-8000, www.tdgarden.com