Last night I caught the brilliant first episode of new Rescue Me season at the Radio City Music Hall, and also a comedy set from star-creator Denis Leary, which was somewhat funny in the usual Leary way — contentious, caustic, seething, middle-aged and very urban Irish blue-collar and very fuck-you frustrated. So what else is new? That’s his handle.

50th and Sixth Avenue following last night’s Rescue Me screening and comedy performances — Thursday, 4.2.09, 9:35 pm

Radio City Music Hall grand foyer — Thursday, 4.2.09, 7:25 pm

The problem with the screening was that the RCMH is cavernous as hell and the sound echoes all over the place so you had to cup your ears to hear it right. But you couldn’t hear it anyway because the show was a benefit for the Leary Firerighters Foundation, which meant that the place was filled with borough types who laughed so loudly (image two thousand water buffaloes yaw-hawing en masse) that they obscured at least half the dialogue.

Funny as he can be, Leary is regarded as a heavyweight actor-dramatist these days because of Rescue Me, which he co-created (with Peter Tolan), produces, co-writes and stars in. It’s always been a superb show that mixes comedy and pathos in a way that feels perfectly synched and fine tuned. This is the fifth season. I was surprised by the continued spark and pizazz, given the tendency for ensemble comedy series to lose a little mojo after two or three seasons.

This season is noteworthy (apart from the punchy-dramedy value) for a revival of the 9/11 current, which of course is what inspired Rescue Me in the first place. It kicks in when a French journalist (Karina Lombard) interviews the firehouse gang for a piece on the 10th anniversary of the disaster. This material wasn’t in the episode shown last night, but knowing this is in the wings makes me all the more interested in watching. (I’m trying to scrounge extra screeners as we speak.) The series kicks off next Tuesday on FX at 10 pm.

The standout performance, for me, was Michael J. Fox‘s as a twitchy, wheelchair-bound guy who’s apparently dicking Janet (Andrea Roth), the ex-wife of Leary’s Tommy Gavin. It’s touching to see Fox, who’s been grappling with Parkinson’s for years, give his performance hell despite the obvious fact that the disease is getting in the way.

Nick DiPaolo also did a comedy set (following Leary’s opener). And as funny and confident as he is, I didn’t care at all for the blue-collar-bar vein in some of his material, particularly as it reflected upon Barack Obama. DiPaolo was playing to a borough crowd, and if a certain kind of joke works with a certain type of crowd, you use it — I get that. But he was basically stoking racist attitudes, and this turned me off. I wound up giving him the finger as I left.

“People of the left think Obama is a messiah,” DiPaolo said. “I know what that’s about because on Election Night I was looking at the TV screen and going ‘Jesus H. Christ, Jesus H. Christ.'” And this got a huge laugh. Fucking animals and their bullshit borough perspectives. Sitting in the audience (I was in row SS, seat 305) felt like I was surrounded by the cast of Goodfellas without the icepicks.