by Sean Keane
Best known for his “Sledge-o-Matic” sketch, Gallagher has been performing comedy for over 25 years. This weekend at Pepper Belly’s, Gallagher plans to shower the audience with social and political commentary, along with chunks of pulverized watermelon.
@ Pepper Belly’s
You’re playing at Pepper Belly’s in Fairfield from August 28-31. Is that the normal place you come when you’re in the Bay Area?
Gallagher: No, I’ve never been there before, and I don’t consider it the Bay Area. It’s halfway to Sacramento.
SF comics still get booked to open there, so it’s about the furthest extent of the Bay Area.
I think people are lazy and they go to a show that’s nearby. I think people will come to the show and they’ll say, “I’ve been waiting ten years to see you!” And then I’ll say, “Because you’re too damn lazy to drive!” And then they’ll laugh, and that’ll be that.
Do you usually play Sacramento when you come to California? Or is it kind of random where you end up?
I’ve been doing this since I was 25 and now I’m 62. I have worked everywhere. Nothing is normal. And I’m basically working my way down to the bottom of the barrel. Because I’m not as famous as I was anymore. People think they’ve already seen me, and there’s no need to see me now. Although they’re wrong. I’m better than I ever was. I’ve paid attention to my art form and gotten good at it. And I’ve got new jokes because I’m at my show and I don’t want to be bored.
How long a show do you normally do?
An hour and a half.
How often are you breaking in new material for that?
All the time. That’s the reason I have new material. This is my show. These are my fans. I don’t need to please anybody. They already loved me when they showed up. I’m free to say whatever I want and I do that. I can talk for hours and hours and people can laugh for hours and hours. I don’t like to have an opening act – I can do the whole show – and that’s what I do.
You also greet people in the lobby before the show, and sign autographs. Have you been doing that the whole time, or is this something you picked up later in your career?
Once the crowds got small enough that I could meet them, I started to do that. The proper way to appear as a celebrity is to talk to your fans, not sit in a dressing room. I think if you’re in a small town, you look stupid not being available.
What’s a typical Gallagher audience like? Are they fans from back in the Showtime days, or are you picking up younger fans, too?
Grandma brings her whole family. She’s my fan. Usually the oldest middle-aged woman is my fan, and she brings her son, his wife, and their kids. Kids want to get on stage and smash things, and they take pictures. Did you look at my website and see the fan photos?
I did. It’s pretty spectacular. My favorite is one where a guy has a sledgehammer, and he looks like he’s about to smash your head like a melon.
It’s a show when the door opens! I don’t need to be on stage to entertain people. These are my fans. It’s like a party held at a theater – not really a show. It’s a party and we’re using this facility because a house ain’t big enough.
Having volunteers up on stage with you – is that also something that started once you moved to smaller venues?
I started to do that when I realized that watching me do things isn’t satisfying enough. When one person gets on stage, the audience feels like they represent them. You can get something out of them you can’t get out of a joke. you’ve got to have variety and dynamics in a show. And so, I think that Henny Youngman, as an old comic, and Steven Wright, as one of the younger ones, were too monotonous. They really couldn’t do much more than forty-five minutes of that same, monotonous delivery. You’ve got to have change and dynamics, so it refreshes the audience, and they can laugh for two-and-a-half hours.
Has that made you use more spontaneous, improvisational stuff in your act?
I’m better than I was. In the old days, I wasn’t sure what I said was going to work. You see, I’m really a writer, and I’ve written a show for a guy named Gallagher. Then, I turn into an actor and I act it out. Every so often, the writer wants to try something, and the performer’s not sure, because it might ruin the momentum. It’s really like two people up there, and it’s a fight. I already have hundreds and hundreds of jokes – why try something new? But like I said, I need to be entertained.
Yeah, you don’t want to bore yourself.
It entertains *me* to come up with a new joke. I still got it! That’s what you want to tell yourself. I still got it!
When you have a volunteer up, it’s like walking a tightrope. Does it ever backfire? Does anyone ever get offended and come up to you after the show?
One time this girl was on stage, I think I made fun of her hair, and she took it off, because she was a cancer patient, and she’d lost her hair.
The audience loved it. You know, they use my videos in cancer research, to see if when people laugh, they release endorphins that help fight off the disease. People come to my show as part of therapy. Many people say they haven’t laughed that hard in a year! Because you don’t laugh at a TV show.
Because they need that participatory element?
I asked them if I was safe from cancer and they said, “No, because you don’t laugh.” Because I’m a professional. I’m not supposed to laugh at my own jokes. So my professionalism just may kill me.
Do you watch many comics these days? Are there any you particularly like?
I like Kevin James. I saw his HBO special, and I thought it was really good. He’s able to use his body and do a presentation. He’s just excellent. An excellent entertainer-performer. We have so few of those. That’s why people have TV shows, because they don’t have the skills. They want someone else to write it, and they want it sweetened, and they want other actors. It’s hard to be the only guy and continue…it’s like playing tennis. You know, it’s a long match.
You’ve said before that the eye can see things much quicker than the ear can process, and so after you started doing more physical stuff and using props, you wondered why everyone was still “standing around like Johnny Carson or Ed Sullivan.” Do you think that’s still the case now?
They’re still not using visuals. If you do a TV show, you have to have visuals. Otherwise, you’re just a talking head like a newsman or an interview show. So I shouldn’t have been faulted for properly doing a television show. I was a pioneer. I was one of the first guys to do a one-hour show on cable. And I’m correct in using visuals, costumes, writing poems, doing pieces. Instead, people look at that one thing and say, “Oh, he’s a prop comic.” No, I’m a *complete* comic. And I did my job correctly.
It’s interesting, because your reputation tends to be the props, and the watermelon, but if you actually watch those specials, it’s not that big a percentage of the show. Whereas, someone like Carrot Top, he’s taken the prop element, and for him, that’s almost the whole thing.
Carrot Top needs to do some jokes like Steven Wright, and Steven Wright needs to have some props. They’re each doing half of my show.
Do you feel like Carrot Top has ripped you off to a certain degree?
He was a kid who lived down the street from my manager in the Fort Lauderdale area, and he went to my shows for years. When I had an argument with my manager over the turtle movie proceeds, he said that he was going to get that kid and copy my act, and go after a younger audience. [Carrot Top] took my bus driver, my sound guy, and my manager, so, yes, he ripped me off. He wore a striped shirt, hung a mic around his head, and had a trunk full of props; he had my manager, my driver, and my sound guy: I think that’s a ripoff.
Have you seen Carrot Top recently?
Yes. I don’t know what’s going on there.
It seems like he’s trying to rip off your muscle jacket, but with his actual body instead of a prop.
I agree. You know, he was hiding his homosexuality all these years, and I think that he’s just coming out of his shell. I guess it’s exhibited by his interest in his own body.
Now, the Sledge-o-matic. When you started out, it was more of a direct parody of 70s commercials, Ginsu knives, etc.
Exactly! Exactly! It was a satire. I was making fun of Ron Popeil. I wrote a very clever routine. But people now don’t care about the routine because it gets in the way of the smashing. They just want the smashing. But if you go on YouTube and look at an appearance I did on a show called The Comedy Shop with Norm Crosby, you will see the routine as I originally wrote it.
There’s a saying that you can’t go broke underestimating the taste of the American public. They just took the hokey part, the lowest common denominator. But I have many fans who appreciate my comedy. Many times I do shows without smashing at all. I did one in Lima, Ohio, and it was wonderful. If you stay in the business as long as I have, the fair-weather friends and the people who were there because it’s the latest thing to do, are gone. Just the people who truly loved and appreciated you are there. It’s nice to meet folks and get rid of the trendy folks who weren’t really into you.