L enny Clarke just ducked out of a restaurant to take a phone call, and the first order of business is a confession.
“Oh, my gawd, I just had a beautiful casserole of cod, shrimp and scallops, which I shouldn’t be eating. But it was kinda like my cheat day. It was delish,” said Clarke in the familiar Boston accent that has fueled 30 years in stand-up comedy and work in movies and on television.
Though his doctor might take issue with his choice of lunch, Clarke, at 67, is glad to have a chance to savor a moment now and then.
It’s been a year of highs and lows, from what he realizes was probably a mild case of COVID-19 and then a massive stroke to “beating Old Man Winter” with some sun and a string of shows in Aruba in the last two months.
Next up is a handful of shows at the three Chunky’s Cinemas Pub locations in New Hampshire today through Saturday.
“I always wanted to be in the movies, I just never thought I’d be doing comedy there,” Clarke said.
The comedy shows won’t be pre-recorded or livestreamed from other stages or studios. They are live in-person shows, in front of reduced-capacity audiences.
Rob Steen, who has been owner and operator of Headliners Comedy Club for the past 35 years, said he first teamed up with Chunky’s to do monthly lineups with comedians, including Clarke, as well as Dueling Piano shows and tributes to Elton John, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart.
Those shows were in addition to regular comedy slates at the club’s main stage at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in downtown Manchester.
But when the pandemic hit, all of Headliners’ programming moved to the Chunky’s theaters in Manchester, Nashua and Pelham.
“Chunky’s really stepped up and allowed us to do Friday and Saturday shows in all locations,” Steen said. “Since there have been so few movies released since March (of last year), I think live comedy has really filled that void for the time being and looks like it’s really starting to be a mainstay at Chunky’s.”
Each site has 10 theaters, so multiple shows can be booked for the same night.
Upcoming shows this spring also include Kelly McFarland, Will Noonan, Christine Hurley, Johnny Pizzi, Jim Colliton, Mark Scalia, Steve Sweeney, Bill Simas and Dave Russo.
Clarke got his first big break when Rodney Dangerfield cast him on the HBO special “Nothin’ Goes Right” in 1988, and later worked with the legendary comedian on the movie “Meet Wally Sparks.”
Clarke’s long list of television and movie credits also include “Rescue Me,” “Fever Pitch,” “Here Comes the Boom,” “Me, Myself and Irene,” “Rounders,” “There’s Something about Mary,” “Southie” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
Most recently, he stars with fellow comedians Steve Sweeney and Tony V in the short film “Dirty Oober.” Clarke and Tony V wrote the story, and Jordon Tofalo directed it. Now making the festival rounds, the short film is about two Harvard academics who get an unexpected ride of a lifetime to the airport from a character Clarke likens to himself.
“I’ve probably done 30 films and hundreds of television shows and I’m very big at The Villages in Florida,” he said. “People are so appreciative. Let’s put it this way: Most people have been trapped in their homes with their families for a year. And as much as we love our families, enough is enough — ‘Get out!’”
Joking aside, 2020 wasn’t easy. Clarke, who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, suspects that he contracted COVID-19 during a celebrity fundraising event at Vail Ski Resort in Colorado last March.
“Six people I was with for the entire week all came down with COVID. I lost my voice, couldn’t talk, lost my sense of smell, and I was so tired. I couldn’t do anything but sleep. But I think mine was a mild case, as far as symptoms.”
Later, in June, he awoke to find one of his hands asleep and hoped he would be able to shake it off. But it quickly got worse.
“I sat down at the computer, and it was like an old video game of Pong. Everything was floating around,” Clarke says. “It was incredibly frightening.”
He knew he needed help but was worried an ambulance wouldn’t easily find his house, which is atop a hill and reached by two dirt roads.
“So I I grabbed a couple of aspirin and jumped in my truck and drove myself to the hospital,” Clarke said. “They told me I was having a massive stroke and an inbound helicopter was on the way to take me to Mass. General in Boston. I actually thought I was going to die. I thought my time was up.”
He pulled through, and stayed in the hospital for a week.
“From all the medication I was taking, I became thoroughly depressed. I had a team of psychiatrists working on me, but I’m OK now,” Clarke said.
He’s glad he didn’t have paralysis or trouble speaking — his naturally drawn-out vowels and throaty laugh are still intact.
“When I went out to Los Angeles 30 years ago, I needed an interpreter because no one could understand my accent. It was so strong. I actually worked on tapering it, but it didn’t work. I’m still the most Boston-recognized person you’ll meet,” he said.