When comedy was king, Lenny Clarke held court as the prince of Boston.
“The thing was, I was the man, because I was crazy,” says Clarke. “I was a nut job. I had no training, no idea what I was doing. Because of that, I blazed a trail in Boston comedy where the only rule was, there was no rules.”
Clarke hosted an open mike night at Cambridge’s Ding Ho restaurant that launched the careers of many comedians, including Steven Wright and Denis Leary. “We we’d get as many as 35 comics a night, Paula Poundstone, Steve Sweeney, Bobcat Golthwaite, Janeane Garofalo, Gavin would try out their stuff.”
Week after week, the same crowd came to watch, Clarke says. “It would force me to come up with new material.”
“The Boston crowds are what made it so good, because they wouldn’t settle for mediocrity. They would boo you off the stage.”
The Cambridge-born comic, who turned 55 Tuesday, has mellowed considerably since his mid-80’s heyday, a time when he and other successful comics were, says Clarke, “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.”
“Now I’m clean and sober for a long time, and thank god for that. But I was loony – there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try.”
These days, he’s busy with movies and television, currently playing Uncle Teddy on “Rescue Me.” When the series began, Denis Leary (who he also worked with on “The Job”) wrote the role of the chief for Clarke, but Lenny had committed to another series (“It’s All Relative”), which ended up only lasting a season.
He was slated to be in the cast of the upcoming ABC series, “Life On Mars,” but after a successful pilot episode, the show was reworked. Clarke, director David Kelley and three other actors were replaced.
“Let me tell you,” says Lenny, “I’ve had more failed pilots then the Iraqi Air Force.”
Clarke brings his stand-up act to the Claremont Opera House this Saturday (September 20). He’s looking forward to performing for a “theater crowd – I’ve worked in places with a cage, where people are throwing bottles.”
“I’m only hoping that that people want to be entertained,” he says, “where they’ll let me spin my string of pearls. People heckle me because they think they’re helping. After 35 years of doing this, I don’t need any help. Let me entertain you.”
His act covers his life – growing up, his wild ride as a comic and pals like Leary. He stays away from politics. “I’m not one of those so-called celebrities who want to shove their views down your throat. That’s why we vote in private,” he says. But he will talk about his failed run for mayor of Cambridge against Joseph Kennedy, a campaign fueled by a unique (and unprintable) slogan that ended when Clarke headed to California.
“Basically, I’m glad I didn’t win,” Clarke says. “If I did, god knows what would have happened.”
He’ll probably talk about the Boston Red Sox, and his surreal experience working on “Fever Pitch” in 2004, the year his home team finally won the World Series. Clarke worked a lot in New York City before the Sox shook off the so-called “Curse of the Bambino”
“It was torture,” he says. In “Fever Pitch,” Clarke played Uncle Carl, who early in the film warns a young Jimmy Fallon to “be careful – they’ll break your heart.”
“Maybe, maybe, maybe, aw sh*t – Bucky f’in Dent,” he says, recalling years of frustration as a Sox fan. “You know where you were when Kennedy was shot; you know where you were when Bucky Dent hit that homer.”
Clarke was at a friend’s house with two unfortunate Jehovah’s Witnesses. “We told them if they sat and watched the game with us we’d give them 50 bucks,” Clarke remembers. “When Bucky Dent hit the home run the guy who owned the place said, ‘get the —- out of my house! – and chased the poor bastards out.”
Lenny nearly missed his chance to see the Sox play in the 2004 World Series. He had a gig (booked by his brother Michael, who manages several comics and runs a club in Saugus called Giggles) for game one, and auctioned his game two dugout seats to help a firefighter friend who was battling brain cancer. Fortunately, a close friend flew him to St. Louis for games three and four. He calls seeing them win it all “one of the joys of my life.”
The comic devotes much of his time to charitable work, including the annual “Comics Come Home” event in Boston this November, which raises money for the Cam Neely Foundation. He’s done several benefit shows for Boston-area children’s hospitals, and he helps out with Leary’s New York-based firefighter charity.
“It’s the thing that makes my mother the happiest,” says Clarke. “She says, ‘it’s really nice to see your name in the papers and on TV, but it really makes me proud when you help other people’.”