Man of the people

“I do not sit down with a pen and paper and think, ‘what can I do to really piss people off tonight?’ That’s not comedy!”

Lenny Clarke keeps the fire burning

This story appears in the Nov. 14, 2019 Seacoast Scene

Few comedians are as closely bound to Boston as Lenny Clarke. When a movie was made about the burgeoning late 1980s scene that produced Dennis Leary, Steven Wright, Bobcat Golthwaite and others, Clarke was both a focus and a de facto historian for the project.

One time, he even tried to run the city – and it got him into comedy.

It began when his friends encouraged him to run for mayor. “I didn’t realize that they were kidding,” the ever opinionated Clarke recalled recently. He ran, lost, then got a job with the city as a janitor. “I kept my word, because I said I was going to clean up city hall!”

One night, Clarke and his fellow broom pushers went out for beers, ending up at an old bar called the Springfield Street Saloon.  “It  was a western décor restaurant in a Portuguese neighborhood in Inman Square… they had Steve Sweeney and a couple of other comedians. The guys went, ‘geez Lenny, you’re funnier than them.’ Not Sweeney, but the other guys.”

A week later, he returned and did his first-ever set. “They loved me, and I just kept going back,” he said. Soon, he was a regular at area clubs. “I started as the Grand Wizard of Comedy; I used to wear a turban on my head and a multicolored sport coat; I had shoes that would change color when you poured water on them. I did a ventriloquist act with a skeleton; I was insane.”

Clarke parlayed his schtick into a CBS sitcom, but television success was brief. Lenny debuted in the fall of 1990 opposite Wonder Years, only to be shuffled to a new time slot a few months later. It died when the Gulf War broke out and replaced his working class character with videos of exploding buildings.

“It brought my career to a screeching halt,” Clarke said. “It was very humbling losing everything. I went from a shithouse to a penthouse. I had a Playboy model wife, servants, a mansion by the beach out in Marina Del Ray. I had it all, and I lost it all. Divorced, lost the television show, went bankrupt. I’ve been climbing back ever since.”

Clarke did all right on the rebound. His movie roles include Fever Pitch and the Boston Marathon docudrama Patriots Day. On the small screen, Clarke had supporting roles on The John Larroquette Show, The Job and It’s All Relative. His Uncle Teddy character was a key ingredient in Rescue Me’s eight-year run.

His friendship with that show’s star and creator, Dennis Leary, is one he treasures. “Dennis has helped me mentally, physically, spiritually, monetarily, he’s been an incredible great friend. I love him,” he said.

Most recently, Clarke appeared at Leary’s annual Comics Come Home benefit for the Cam Neely Foundation at TD Garden. He’s been to all but one of the galas since it began. “25 years we’ve been doing this,” Clarke said in amazement. “You do golf charities, and after five or six years, they tend to tail off.  This gets bigger every year, and I’m really excited about doing it. Plus, I’ve been to the Neely House – I actually stayed there when my wife was recovering from breast cancer for the second time. So it’s all come back 100-fold.”

Through it all, Clarke maintains a rigorous schedule as a standup. On Nov. 23, he’ll perform in Dover for the first time. He’s a regular in the Granite State, however, praising the audiences for getting his occasionally irascible act. “I find New Hampshire is much more accepting of me,” he said. “And I love the ‘Live Free or Die.’ But think about that… Live Free or Die? I’d pay a little.”

He remains ever weary of audiences that go to shows seemingly intent on dinging performers for crossing one line or another. “They’re only words,” he said. “I do not sit down with a pen and paper and think, ‘what can I do to really piss people off tonight?’ That’s not comedy! I’m just trying to make you laugh, and pointing out the absurdity of what we’re laughing at.”

Lenny Clarke

When: Saturday, Nov. 23, 8 p.m.

Where: Stand Theatre, 20 Third St., Dover

Tickets: $35 at thestranddover.com

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