If you haven’t bothered to check out Sirens, the new Chicago-based sitcom about EMTs — co-created and executive-produced by Denis Leary — you might want to change that. Or maybe not, if a “what to do about the donkey porn on this guy’s computer” moral dilemma isn’t your idea of compelling television. But last week’s episode, which featured such a dilemma, is the one that always gets mentioned in reviews and interviews about the show, so if you’re at all curious about whether this is a big stinky bomb or the best thing Leary has done since Rescue Me, you’ll want to catch up in time for tomorrow night’s episode of the USA Network series.
I called Leary at his Connecticut home to ask about deep dish pizza, art imitating really disgusting life, and the sad neigh of a donkey porn star.
So listen, I’m from Chicago. And we’ve had a long, hard winter.
Our streets are rubble from all the potholes. They’re closing down schools. Somebody got shot outside the ice cream store a few blocks from my house. It’s been hard.
Then I watch the first episode of Sirens, and it’s telling me that our EMTs are obsessed with porn, probably more than saving my life.
What do you think that does to the Chicago psyche?
Well, hopefully it’s going to make people laugh.
Please don’t say because laughter is the best medicine.
This isn’t something that’s specific to Chicago. It’s EMTs in general. I also did a show about firefighters, and another show about cops. It’s the flip side of being in a life-and-death business. They see a lot of stuff, every day and all day long, and some of it’s really disturbing. So they develop a very twisted sense of humor about it. They have to, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to deal with it.
Your wife is an EMT, right?
She’s a volunteer EMT out here in Connecticut.
Have you ever done a ride-along with her?
No, but she’s told me things. Every night you hear the stories. I also have some close friends who are EMTs, and when we decided to set the show in Chicago, we flew out and talked to some of the MTs. One of our production executives at USA is originally from Chicago, and he has a buddy who is a paramedic there. So we were able to get some really great stories.
How much of what they told you made it into the show?
A lot. I’d say in the ten episodes we have in the first season, maybe half of the emergencies we wrote about are based on true stories. Like, did you see the one where a guy had a bottle shoved up his ass?
That happened to someone.
In Chicago. We didn’t really cover it in the episode, but when somebody puts something up their rear end and they can’t get it out, they often don’t want to go to the emergency room.
Might see somebody they recognize?
Exactly. They don’t want to be seen. So they almost always call 911 and try to get an ambulance to take them someplace else. Or just take care of the problem in their home. People don’t always call an ambulance for serious things. Sometimes it’s just because they’ve done something ridiculous to themselves.
I wonder if anybody in Chicago watched the episode with the bottle and thought, “Hold on, didn’t that happen to Uncle Phil?”
I’ve thought that, too. When you write about real life, there’s always a chance that somebody involved is going to see it and get upset. We did that a lot in Rescue Me, too, and now in Sirens. So I always wonder if somebody is sitting at home, watching these shows, and going, “Wait a minute. I wonder if that’s me.” [Laughs.]
But do they mention it to their friends? That’s the real question.
Yeah. Do you really want to be the guy telling somebody on your couch, “That guy on the ambulance show with the bottle up his ass? That was based on me!”
“The guy with all the horse porn in his computer, that was me.”
“I am crazy addicted to horse porn!”
I guess you’re not concerned about a lawsuit from a disgruntled viewer.
From the horse porn guy?
He can’t prove it was him without, you know…
Showing the judge a computer filled with horse porn. Oh man, I wish it would happen, though. I would love for that guy to file a lawsuit against us. That would be such great advertising for the show.
I read somewhere that you wanted to show a clip of horse porn but USA said no?
They asked us not to, but there was never really a chance we were going to do it. For me, it’s much funnier just seeing the guys’ reaction to it. That’s the funny part. We don’t need to see the other part of it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever accidentally seen one of those movies, but there’s nothing funny about it.
Never seen one and I absolutely don’t want to. But actually, in some ways working on this episode was just as disturbing as watching a horse porn. Because we had to come up with all the sound effects. During the sound mix, there were times when it was like, “Guys, no, we can’t have that. That horse sounds too happy.”
You can’t have an enthusiastic horse porn star?
No. I don’t think there’s ever been a horse in the history of bestiality porn who was ever into it. So we’re listening to horse sounds, and I was like, “Can we have a slightly sadder horse?”
Oh, wow. [Laughs.] Just wow.
I know, I know. This was not a place I thought I would be in my career.
And now in my head I’m trying to imagine what a sad, sexy horse would sound like.
You cannot believe how many different horse sound effects there are. There are about a thousand different variations on a horse neigh. Some of them sound like a horse having sex, some of them like a horse having sad sex, some of them sound like a horse having surprised sad sex. It’s crazy.
It’s crazy just that these sound effects are out there and readily available.
Yeah. Somebody had to record these horses. There’s enough of a demand that they need every possible horse emotion.
Was the sound mixing guy unfazed by it?
He really was. It reminded me of that Albert Brooks movie, Modern Romance, where he plays a film editor. He just sits in this booth and he’s like the saddest guy in the world. “Do you have a sad horse having sex?” Sure, let me pull it up for you. “Is that too sad?” “Yeah, that’s too sad.”
You’re an East Coast guy shooting a show in Chicago about Chicago. Has the experience helped you realize that Chicago is inherently superior?
To what, New York?
New York, Boston, whatever.
You definitely have it over us in terms of winter. I come from Boston and I’ve lived in New England my whole life and I live in New York as well, and I have never been as cold as I’ve been in Chicago. When the wind comes in off Lake Michigan, Jesus Christ…
It’s abusive! That’s the only word for it.
That’s all we’ve got on the East Coast? Our winters are chillier?
You’ve got Mike Ditka, which is kinda impressive. I’ve done a few films and projects in Chicago, and the great unifying force is always Mike Ditka. Because no matter what production it is or where you’re from, if Mike Ditka is in town, everybody wants to meet him. The crew, the famous guys, they all want to meet Ditka.
Have you met him yet?
I have. He is literally a human bear.
I don’t know why, but whenever I’ve talked to him, I want him to yell at me.
And maybe throw gum at me.
He didn’t yell at me or throw anything, but now that you mention it, I’d love it if he did. That would be amazing.
Okay, so we have Ditka and winter. What about our pizza? Are you willing to concede that deep dish is better than that flat nonsense you call pizza?
I don’t get the pizza feud. For me personally, I like a very thin-crust Italian pizza. And I think there’s one place on the north end in Boston and one place in New York which make a truly great pizza. But that doesn’t mean deep dish is bad. What the hell is wrong with more pizza? I never understood that.
It’s like four slices all piled on top of each other.
Exactly. That’s something to complain about? Oh, you have to eat it with a giant fork, because there’s so much of the stuff that makes you happy. Are you kidding me? Why is that upsetting to people? You have to use a knife to cut into it? Fantastic! It’s like steak. It’s like pizza steak.
So you think both styles of pizzas can coexist peacefully?
I think it depends on where you are. You can’t get decent deep dish pizza outside of Chicago. It’s just not possible. Also, speaking of food, I don’t think there’s ever been an argument about bratwurst. If you want that, you have to go to Chicago. End of discussion.
We’re also the world leader in heart attacks and strokes. Probably because of all the deep dish and bratwursts.
And that goes right back to the EMTs. See, it’s all related! There’s a theme!
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)