One-Minute Book Reviews

January 11, 2009

If His Jokes About Autism Aren’t Tasteless Enough for You, Denis Leary Says, ‘I’ll Take Five Anna Nicole Smiths for Every Martin Luther King’ in ‘Why We Suck’

The comedian and star of the firefighting drama Rescue Me blows smoke at you in a 240-page rant

Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid. By Denis Leary. Viking, 240 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Denis Leary begins Why We Suck by thanking his wife, who’s “funnier than I am.” You’ll believe it after reading this one.

Why We Suck isn’t a book so much a relentlessly profane rant by the comedian and star of the firefighting series Rescue Me. Leary rages mostly against safe targets: greedy athletes, overprivileged children, celebrity blowhards like Dr. Phil McGraw. But he has drawn fire for saying in a chapter called “Autism Shmautism” that autism diagnoses are on the rise because parents want psychotherapists to “explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons.” He adds:

“I don’t give a shit what these crackerjack whackjobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

When that comment enraged parents of autistic children, Leary said his quote was taken out of context by people who didn’t read his book or missed his point. He was talking about what he sees as a trend toward overdiagnosis (though, of course, the larger the larger problem is that for generations autism was undiagnosed and autistic children often labeled “retarded”).

This incident tells you a lot about Why We Suck. Leary doesn’t have bad taste — he has no taste. To show really bad taste takes effort. Liberace, ayatollah jokes, “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers – you laugh in part because of the work that went into all of them. How much effort does it take to show no taste? None. If you’re Leary, you just fill your book with lines like: “I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.” Where’s the humor there? Good comedy always has its roots in truth, and you don’t believe for a minute that Leary would take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King. Or anything close to it.

Comedian Jim Norton’s recent I Hate Your Guts (Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.95) is also a profane rant that taps into the angry-white-male market. But Norton tries harder to give you truly bad taste – not that this is a endorsement — instead of no taste. So his book is funnier than We We Suck. He seems to have put more effort into a six-page sendup of the Yankees’ radio broadcaster John Sterling than Leary did into a 240-pae book.

Norton makes you laugh at many of Sterling’s catchphrases besides his trademark “The Yankees win … theeeeeee Yankeeeees winnnnn!” (“Shane Spencer, the home run dispenser!”) He also makes an apt comment in a preface that honors the late George Carlin. Norton loved that when Carlin taped of a television show late in his career, he brought notes on cards and hid them in a spot on the set that the camera couldn’t see: “He didn’t take the laughs for granted.” On the evidence of Why We Suck, Leary does take the laughs for granted – a trait that seems remarkably obtuse when you’re telling parents that their children are not autistic – “just stupid.”

Best line: “THE END.” Boy, will you be glad to see those words.

Worst line: No. 1: “I’ll take five Anna Nicole Smiths for every Martin Luther King.” No. 2: “I don’t know a living man on this planet who DOESN’T have attention deficit disorder or spends [sic] at least twelve hours of each day thinking about his penis. ” No. 3: On what he sees at the gym: “The women? Paired off on adjacent treadmills or elliptical trainers – yak yakkety yick yak yic, yic yickety, yawbeddy jawbeddy – jic jak yick. Yicketty yacketty blah blah blah.” No. 4: The autism quotes cited above. No. 5: “Which is why I walk around now just wishing I could grab every other mouthy, misbehaved, spoiled and rotten little urchin I come across in airports and restaurants and just when I’m walking down the street – kids who are throwing snit fits in public as their disinterested or seemingly powerless parents stand off to the side and let the rest of us listen to the whining – I just once wanna grab them HARD by the flesh on their twiggy upper arms, that soft flesh that really hurts – and I mean grab them bruis-inducing, five-finger-indentation-left-behind hard – and whisper Clint Eastwood–style in their dirty little ear: Listen up and listen fast, punk, ’cause I’m only saying this one ****** time: yer gonna shut the **** up right now and start doing what yer dumbass mom and dad say from here on in or a special vanna is gonna pull up one day and just pluck you right off the ****** street and drop your ass on a plane to Iraq where you will be dropped out of the sky with nuthin’ but a parachute and a bag of white rice – no cash, no toys, no more SpongeBob SquareAss – ya follow?”

Published: November 2008

Read the Autism Society of America’s response to Leary’s comments. Leary says: “The people who are criticizing the ‘Autism Schmautism’ [sic] chapter in my new book Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid clearly have not read it.

“Or if they have, they missed the sections I thought made my feelings about autism very clear: that I not only support the current rational approaches to the diagnoses and treatment of real autism but have witnessed it firsthand while watching very dear old friends raise a functioning autistic child.”

Dennis Leary calls “Autism Shmautism” his “favorite chapter” in Why We Suck in Vanity Fair interview.

Furthermore: Leary uses the name “Dr. Denis Leary” on the cover of Why We Suck because he got an honorary degree from his alma mater, Emerson College.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and novelist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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