You may not notice it when the second season of Denis Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll premieres this Friday (June 30) on FX, but unlike season one, the bulk of this one was filmed across the street from a 19th century cemetery in Queens, New York.
Sure, there are newsier things to focus on in the comedy about a washed-up rocker reuniting with his old bandmates and trying to help his estranged daughter live her rock n’ roll dreams. For starters, this season features a Hamilton parody — or perhaps more accurately, a send-up that predicts the glut of Hamilton knock-offs sure to come. True to his own heritage and biting sense of humor, Leary’s Hamilton-inspired musical is a hip-hop retelling of the Irish Potato Famine featuring real-life Broadway royalty Campbell Scott.
But the 160-plus-year-old graveyard next to the Queens studio seems to inform, or at least reinforce, the omnipresent gallows humor on set when I visit Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll toward the end of its season 2 shoot. It’s hard not to have an edge when a sea of battered headstones greets anyone who wanders outside in search of fresh air or a smoke.
“If you love a good corpse, this is the place to be,” Liz Gillies (who plays Leary’s onscreen daughter Gigi) drolly says of the nearby boneyard. Somehow, the middle-of-nowhere setting less than two miles from Manhattan seems to fit this particular cast.
“We’re all so cynical,” 22-year-old Gillies says of her middle-aged co-stars, who just a few minutes prior to our conversation had been joking that Leary’s next project would probably be a porn, perhaps a sci-fi affair entitled Robot Pussy. “We never stop saying off color things to each other. This is the first day my mom could come to set, for sure. I do a lot of questionable things this season that I would love to not have family present for. Today was a safe day — I mapped it out.”
Gillies’ mom — who has watched her daughter shed her Nickelodeon past (Victorious) and find a new home on the offbeat comedy-oriented FX network — isn’t the only parent on set when I visit. John Ales (Rehab) welcomed his mother on set that day, and both mothers are treated like visiting dignitaries. That kindness even spilled over to me, with Bobby Kelly (drummer Bam Bam) offering a knish within minutes of my arrival.
But while the cast trades Spinal Tap references and hums ELO songs between takes, creator-writer-producer Leary (who also stars as Johnny Rock) is clearly in charge of every detail on the meticulously constructed sets. When a crew member suggests he deliver a line differently, Leary unhesitatingly declares, “No, I wouldn’t play it that way.” There’s no malice or defensiveness in his voice, but he says it firmly enough to make clear that any follow-up debate is unwelcome.
Later, after two subtly different takes on the same line, Leary smiles and exclaims, “I was fucking great” for the whole room. While he’s playing up his bravado as a joke, he’s not totally kidding, either. One thing is for certain — as a longtime TV veteran with a vision (Rescue Me was one of the few people-in-uniform dramas on TV with a cohesive tone), Leary knows what he wants before the cameras start rolling, and he gets it.
When I ask costume designer Jeriana San Juan — a veteran of Saturday Night Live, Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet concert tour and Smash — whether current-boss Leary or former boss Madonna is easier to please, she laughs me off with a diplomatic comment about how they’re “equally challenging and equally rewarding.”
She does, however, offer an illuminating example of Leary’s attention to detail. “For season one I had seven pairs of vintages sunglasses — one of which was originally worn by Elvis — and Denis edited out some of them for this season. He said, ‘Johnny does not wear those glasses anymore, he’s trying a new look.'”
That theme of old fogeys grappling with a changing pop culture landscape helps set the tone for the series’ Hamilton parody, a six-song affair that will probably predict quite a few tone-deaf Lin-Manuel Miranda rip-offs in the future.
“It was my favorite thing I saw us shoot this year,” Gillies says. “It looked like a real Broadway show. It blew my mind — I’m a huge Broadway fan and they nailed it. It looks legit.”
“We planned the story expecting the success of Hamilton,” Leary explains. “It had just gone to Broadway from off-Broadway and we thought, ‘how funny would it be’ — because this is how showbiz works in America — ‘if everyone started doing historical hip-hop musicals now?’ And if somebody came and said, ‘I want to do a historical hip-hop musical about the Irish Famine.'”
But as The Nightman Cometh on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (another darkly comic FX series) and the peerless Waiting for Guffman demonstrated, you need to give your fake musical memorable songs in order for the jokes to land.
“We had to create real songs to get to the funny,” Leary says. “Some are real numbers — one is a dead serious song about dying. And there’s a serious trip-hop tone poem that opens it. The actors in the show had to go to actual dance rehearsals — the choreographer from the Baz Luhrmann show The Get Down [which filmed at the same Queens studio] did it for us.”
Leary explains that an additional layer of hilarity and legitimacy it brought in by guest star Campbell Scott. “Because of Campbell Scott’s theatrical legacy — he comes from a deified theatrical family [his parents are George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst] — it gives him legal tender in the theater. He saw Hamilton 10 times, he loved it. So we brought Campbell into the studio and he said, ‘Give me two passes in the booth [to rap], I want to see if I can do it.’ He went in and improvised this rap that was fucking hysterical. He knows enough Shakespeare, because he’s done those plays, and he makes it sound important and pretentious while taking the air out of it at the same time.
“We opened and closed a Broadway show in a week,” Leary recalls with a degree of astonishment. “I can’t believe we pulled it off.”
Cautious disbelief is a hallmark of Leary’s style, and one that carries over to his take on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’s future. While he’s clearly proud of his crew’s work on the Hamilton parody and similarly supportive of his cast — “John Corbett [Flash] is the first guy to say ‘I can’t improv,’ but it’s not true. I’ve gotten him to do fantastic improv” Leary shares without prompting — his enthusiasm for the show’s potential third season is more measured.
“I have a third and a fourth [season] planned, but I’m a worst case scenario guy. I’m an optimistic pessimist. I expect the worst and I look forward to it happening. Which is good in show business, especially in TV now. Which I understand — I’m watching multiple episodes at a time, I only have a certain amount of time, so you need to grab my attention and keep me there.”
Even so, Leary allows a sliver of hope to set the stage for his show’s season two premiere. “My experience has been the second season — The Job, Rescue Me — is the really fun part. Even as a viewer, my favorite shows are ones where you can tell the writers have learned to work with the actors and vice versa, and the premise gets some room to breathe. And we’ve had a fucking blast this year.”