The New York Times Interviews HUMANITAS Winner Denis Leary

Denis Leary has always been a music guy.

As a young comedian in the late 1980s, he appeared on MTV’s game show “Remote Control,” doing impressions of Keith Richards. A few years later, he became famous for MTV commercials in which he speed-ranted against R.E.M and in favor of Cindy Crawford. In 1993, he even had a hit song (with an unprintable title) about being a terrible man.

“At that time, I was going to the MTV Awards to present and all those guys were there — Kurt and Courtney and Dave Grohl, Eric Clapton and the Stones,” he said recently. “It was crazy, and I was kind of face to face with it sometimes.”

He went on to great success as a comedian and a dramatic actor, starring for seven seasons on FX’s “Rescue Me,” about firefighters in post-9/11 New York. But his follow-up for the cable network is a little crazy, and he’s face to face with it once again — it being the three things that make up the show’s title: “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.” The black comedy, about an aging, washed-up band that gets one last chance at the big time, harks back to his MTV days, with cameos from rock stars including Mr. Grohl, and an insider’s sense of backstage drama.

In the show, which has its premiere July 16, he plays Johnny Rock, a drug-and-booze-guzzling singer who fronted a band in the early ’90s called the Heathens; the group seemed poised for greatness until it broke up on the day its debut album was released. Twenty-five years later, Rock is contacted by Gigi, a daughter he never knew he had (played by Elizabeth Gillies, formerly a star of the Nickelodeon series “Victorious”), who is an aspiring singer with enough family money to get the Heathens back together to support her attempt at stardom.

As is so often the case, there’s conflict between the singer and the lead guitar player, Flash (John Corbett, best known as Sarah Jessica Parker’s boyfriend in “Sex and the City,” and also an accomplished musician with several albums of his own). The bass player, Rehab (John Ales), and drummer, Bam Bam (Bobby Kelly, Louis CK’s brother on “Louie”), have their own issues and aggravations; Rehab has spent the last few years working on a lengthy song cycle about the Irish potato famine.

Over coffee and cigarettes in the upstairs bar at Irving Plaza — the club where some of the performance scenes in “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” were shot, and where Mr. Leary filmed his breakthrough 1992 stand-up special “No Cure for Cancer” — Mr. Leary seldom showed his smart-aleck persona. He was surprisingly sincere talking about his inspirations and intentions for the series, dropping references to old favorites like the Who and new discoveries like the Australian songwriter Courtney Barnett.

Mr. Leary, 57, took up the guitar in high school, and began writing comedy songs with other musicians at Emerson College. As those friends went on play in various bands, Mr. Leary immersed himself in the Boston and New York rock scenes.

“I got to see the guys who became famous, like the Cars,” he said, “but what was more interesting to me were the ones left behind, the ones who say, ‘That could have been me,’ the guys who would rather stand at the back of the room and criticize than take the leap. And in Johnny’s case, clearly he would be dead from the drugs if he had become successful.”

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