Last year, Denis Leary knew he was walking into a powder keg at Comics Come Home just a few days after a divisive and ugly 2016 presidential campaign. He had already decided to write a book called “Why We Don’t Suck,” an answer to his 2008 book “Why We Suck,” which lampooned America’s dumbest and laziest habits and foibles. Things had gotten so bad, he wanted to see if he could turn things around and make people laugh about the election. That was his intention for the book, and what he planned to do at Comics Come Home.
“I generally tend to do things about whatever I’m thinking about at that time,” says Leary, who hosts Comics Come Home 23 with Lenny Clarke, Jimmy Fallon, Jeff Ross, Mo Amer, Lil Rel Howery, Robert Kelly, and Jared Freid Saturday at the TD Garden. “And I opened up with a ton of material that was anti-Trump and anti-Hillary, because that’s how I felt. And the audience was explosive with laughter. And I realized, OK, so it’s not just me. Everybody sort of feels like they do need to take a shower after this election.”
That spirit didn’t continue for the whole show. Wanda Sykes and Nick Di Paolo both stirred controversy with their sets and brought boos, overshadowing the charitable purpose of the show. “I think the audience reacted to both of them in equal kind — she was sort of going after Trump and not going after Hillary, and he did the reverse,” he says. “And the audience in both cases sort of came down on them pretty hard.”
It was confirmation that he was on the right track with the book, and that he needed to say something that might help unite people. So he changed tactics. In “Why We Don’t Suck,” which he’ll be touting at the Wilbur Theatre on Nov. 26, he still trashes celebrity worship, addiction to Twitter and Facebook, and things he’s complained about in the past, but he also targets partisan politics and talks about the brighter sides of our nature. “I have two kids who are 25 and 27 years old,” he says. “That was a landmark election for them, that process. And I just kind of wanted to remind everybody, hey, here’s all the stuff we have in common and here’s how ridiculous a lot of the stuff that we’ve all been talking about is and try to just make everybody get their senses of humor back about it.”
Charity is one of biggest reasons Leary has hope. He sees people devoting time and money to help other people, firsthand at Comics Come Home, which benefits the Neely Foundation for Cancer Care, and the annual benefit he does regularly in New York for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research. But he also sees regular folks pitching in. “Every time there’s some kind of a tragedy — this past summer with the hurricanes is an example of how quickly people in this country pull out their wallet,” he says. “If they’re giving a dollar or a million dollars, it’s always pretty remarkable.”
Leary credits Boston Bruins president Cam Neely and Fox with showing him he could do something positive with his celebrity. “I learned from Mike and Cam how you could take a tragic event or tragic circumstances and do something positive with it if you have a famous face,” he says. “You often get too much credit, because your face is the one, maybe, or your name drawing people in for the event. But at the same time, that’s one of the really good things about being famous.”
In the book, Leary talks about how his longtime friend, Comics Come Home staple Lenny Clarke, cleaned up his addictions and dedicated much of his time to charity shows. He wrote about some of Clarke’s wild past, including a bit about how he only attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting because he thought he was going to a rave. Clarke didn’t mind that, but he was wary of Leary writing so much about his benefit work.
“I had to convince him of that,” says Leary. “That’s the only part I had to convince him of. It’s the reverse of most public figures. He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine with the cocaine and the booze and all that stuff, but I don’t want you listing too many charities because it makes me sound like I’m some kind of hero.’ ”
Clarke, who has been Leary’s friend since they met at the Ding Ho club in 1979, notes he’s not quite as wild as he used to be. “When I was coming up, if you told me I couldn’t do something, I would do it anyway because I didn’t care,” he says. “I was fearless. And now, it’s like, oh boy. I still got to pay bills. I still have to work. If I didn’t have to work, I’d be insane. I’d be on the cover of all sorts of magazines, ‘The Most Hated Man in America.’ ”
His thoughts when he heard the crowds reacting to Sykes and Di Paolo last year? “I’m so glad it’s got nothing to do with me,” he says. “That was my exact thought. I thought a riot was going to break out. It was crazy.”
Considering Leary is trying to bring audiences together, he still hasn’t decided if he’ll play his traditional Comics Come Home number with the band, “The [Expletive] Song.” But it might come up in something he has planned with Fallon. “Jimmy and I are doing a lip sync battle, which he challenged me to,” he says. “So I’m still trying to figure out what song I’m going to do and how to end that portion of the show. And if it comes at the end of the show, there might be a little surprise there.”
And he has some parting advice for people who might find themselves deadlocked with friends and family over politics. “I would say get off Twitter and get off your phone and just have a conversation with the person across the table, whether it’s at work or Thanksgiving,” he says. “Just listen, you know. Just [expletive] listen.”
Comics Come Home
Hosted by Denis Leary. With Jimmy Fallon, Lenny Clarke, Jeff Ross, Mo Amer, Lil Rel Howery, Robert Kelly, and Jared Freid. At TD Garden, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20-$118, 800-653-8000, www.tdgarden.com
Denis Leary: Why We Don’t Suck Book Tour
At the Wilbur Theatre, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets $38, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.