Leary was in Montreal to host the "Nasty Show," at Club Soda, and Colleen was coordinating the talent so she was standing backstage when she heard Leary doing material that sounded incredibly similar to old Hicks riffs, including his perennial Jim Fixx joke: ("Keith Richards outlived Jim Fixx, the runner and health nut dude. The plot thickens."). When Leary came offstage, Colleen, more stunned than angry, said, "Hey, you know that's Bill Hicks' material! Do you know that's his material?" Leary stood there, stared at her without saying a word and briskly left the dressing room.
Denis Colin Leary was born on August 18, 1957, in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Roman Catholic immigrant parents from County Kerry, Ireland. His mother, Nora (née Sullivan) (b. 1929), was a maid, and his father, John Leary (1924–1985), was an auto mechanic. Being the son of Irish parents, Leary is a citizen of both the United States and Ireland. Through marriage, Leary is a third cousin of talk show host, Conan O'Brien.
Leary has been married to author Ann Lembeck Leary since 1989. They met when he was her instructor in an English class at Emerson College. They have two children, son John Joseph "Jack" (born 1990) and daughter Devin (born 1992). Ann Leary published a memoir, An Innocent, a Broad, about the premature birth of their son on an overseas visit to London. She has also written a novel, Outtakes From a Marriage, which was published in 2008. Her second novel, The Good House, was published in 2013.
Leary earned fame when he ranted about R.E.M. in an early 1990s MTV Sketch. Several other commercials for MTV quickly followed, in which Leary would rant at high speeds about a variety of topics, playing off the then-popular and growing alternative scene. One of these rants serves as an introduction to the video of "Shamrocks and Shenanigans (Boom Shalock Lock Boom)" by House of Pain. He released two records of his stand-up comedy: No Cure for Cancer (1993) and Lock 'n Load (1997). In late 2004, he released the EP Merry F#%$in' Christmas, which included a mix of new music, previously unreleased recordings, and some tracks from Lock 'n Load.
For many years, Leary had been friends with fellow Comedian Bill Hicks. When Leary's comedy album No Cure for Cancer was released, Leary had stolen Hicks's act and material. The friendship ended abruptly as a result. In April 1993, the Austin Comedy News remarked on the similarities of Leary's performance, "Watching Leary is like seeing Hicks from two years ago. He smokes with the same mannerisms. (Hicks recently quit.) He Sports the same attitude, the same clothes. He touches on almost all of the same themes. Leary even invokes Jim Fixx." When asked about this, Hicks told the magazine, "I have a scoop for you. I stole his [Leary's] act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did".
On December 3, 1999, six firefighters from Leary's hometown of Worcester were killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire. Among the dead were Leary's cousin Jerry Lucey and his close childhood friend Lt. Tommy Spencer. In response, the Comedian founded the Leary Firefighters Foundation. Since its creation in the year 2000, the foundation has distributed over $2.5 million (USD) to fire departments in the Worcester, Boston, and New York City areas for equipment, training materials, new vehicles, and new facilities. Leary won $125,000 for the foundation on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Leary has close ties with 107.3/WAAF, which in 2000 released the station album Survive This! Part of the proceeds from this album were donated to the Leary Firefighters Foundation.
A separate fund run by Leary's foundation, the Fund for New York's Bravest, has distributed over $2 million to the families of the 343 firemen killed in the September 11 attacks in 2001 in addition to providing funding for necessities such as a new mobile command center, first responder training, and a high-rise simulator for the New York City Fire Department's training campus. As the foundation's President, Leary has been active in all of the fundraising. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Leary donated over a dozen boats to the New Orleans Fire Department to aid in rescue efforts in Future disasters. The foundation also rebuilt entire NOLA firehouses.
During Leary's 2003 Comedy Central Roast, Comedian Lenny Clarke, a friend of Leary's, said there was a carton of cigarettes backstage from Bill Hicks with the message, "Wish I had gotten these to you sooner." This joke was cut from the final broadcast.
As a Boston Red Sox fan, he narrated the official 2004 World Series film (Q Video/MLB Productions, 2004). In 2006, Leary and Lenny Clarke appeared on television during a Red Sox telecast and, upon realizing that Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis is Jewish, delivered a criticism of Mel Gibson's antisemitic comments. As an ice hockey fan, Leary hosted the National Hockey League video NHL's Greatest Goals. In 2003, he was the subject of the Comedy Central Roast of Denis Leary.
After graduating with the Emerson Class of 1981, he took a job at the school teaching comedy writing classes and maintained the job for five years. He received an honorary doctorate and spoke briefly at his alma mater's undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 16, 2005; he is thus credited as Dr. Denis Leary on the cover of his 2009 book, Why We Suck.
He received Emmy Award nominations in 2006 and 2007 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Rescue Me, and in 2008 for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for the HBO movie Recount. Leary was offered the role of Dignam in The Departed (2006) but turned it down due to scheduling conflicts with Rescue Me. He provided voices for characters in animated films, such as a fire-breathing dragon named Flame in the series The Agents, a pugnacious ladybug named Francis in A Bug's Life and a prehistoric saber-toothed tiger named Diego in the Ice Age film series. He has produced numerous movies, television shows, and specials through his production company, Apostle; these include Comedy Central's Shorties Watchin' Shorties, the stand-up special Denis Leary's Merry F#$%in' Christmas, and the movie Blow.
In his 2008 book Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid, Leary wrote:
On March 21, 2009, he began the "Rescue Me Comedy Tour" in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The 11-date tour, featuring Rescue Me co-stars Lenny Clarke and Adam Ferrara, was Leary's first stand-up comedy tour in 12 years. The Comedy Central special Douchebags and Donuts, filmed during the tour, debuted on American television on January 16, 2011, with a DVD release on January 18, 2011.
Leary was the star and co-creator of Rescue Me, which ended its seventh and final season on September 7, 2011. He has starred in many films including playing Captain George Stacy in Marc Webb's film, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cleveland Browns Head Coach Vince Penn in Ivan Reitman's film, Draft Day, and as the voice of Francis in A Bug's Life and Diego in the Ice Age franchise.
He is an Executive Producer of the documentary, Burn, that chronicles the struggles of the Detroit Fire Department. Burn was the winner of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award.
He created a television series for FX, in which he also stars in the lead role, called Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. A 10-episode first season was ordered by FX, which premiered on July 16, 2015. The show was renewed for a second season, which was broadcast in the summer of 2016, and was canceled after the broadcast of the second season. Leary has been the narrator for NESN's documentary show about the Boston Bruins Behind The B since the show began in 2013.