Gallagher, Watermelon-Smashing Prop Comedian, Dies at 76
Another soul who pursued, provided, and promoted laughter is gone. Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. passed away on November 11, 2022. Gallagher was 76.
Everybody knows Gallagher. Seems foolish to try to describe one of the most recognized comedy acts and distill one of the most complicated comedy careers in anything short of a
200-page book. Gallagher went to considerable lengths to tell his story, own his narrative, and define his persona. In the process, he created an everlasting stand-up comedy character: a strange man that smashed fruit with a giant, wooden hammer.
Listen to Gallagher’s Full Comedy Albums Online
Such a visceral and violent display: chunks of watermelon, or wedding cake, or electronics, or paint, exploding outward from the force of the Sledge-O-Matic onto willing audiences. Gallagher successfully crafted and casted himself as a living, breathing caricature, a three-dimensional
cartoon. Regardless of how far away from the splash zone, or how you feel in its wake, Gallagher is an undeniable and unforgettable spectacle to witness.
What is a name in comedy?
Being identifiable by one name is rare in stand-up. Some titans of comedy attain such prevalence and ubiquity that they become a part of the broader culture’s lingua franca. “Seinfeld” and
“Rosanne” are recognizable due to the success of Seinfeld and Rosanne. Titans like Carlin, Pryor, Rivers, Chappelle have instant equity
Gallagher has always been “Gallagher.” It wasn’t “earned,” representative of a reputation gained from advancing the artform or dominating the zeitgeist, but it was known. Even when his brother Ron Gallagher donned the Gallagher persona as “Gallagher Two” and “Gallagher Too” in the 1990s, it was still one name that rang out. That one name embodied everything one could know about such a mysterious man. “Gallagher” was a legend, in fame and infamy.
Reflecting on Gallagher and his place in comedy lore can go a number of ways. His fifty-year career has many rising, sloping, curving backways, highways, and alleys.
Gallagher came from the hotshotting, hotblooded Wild West of the 1970s comedy scenes and peaked in the bombastic 1980s comedy boom. He has all the bonafides of his peers of that time: came up through The Comedy Store, he guested on Late Night with Johnny Carson, he wrote and performed on numerous comedy specials for premium cable. Many of those peers either passed
away, transitioned to writing, hosting, or performing in television or movies. Few stayed as active as Gallagher, performing as many as 250 shows a year, every year.
After a career decline in the 1990s, Gallagher became one of the most world-famous road warrior comedians. As universal and elevated as comedy can seem to be, nobody knows what’s going on in the hundreds of nightclubs, state fairs, and corporate events where stand-up comedy exists on a daily basis. There’s no double-checking if someone bombed in Toledo or killed in
Albuquerque. And it’s infinitely unclear how or why a show went well. The only people aware of the “truth” of a stand-up performance are in the room at that time; the eight o’clock show can be a laugh riot and the ten o’clock show can be an actual riot. Only real insight to how “the road” is
going is if it’s going: bookings are the truth. When anyone can exaggerate how they’re doing on the road, getting gigs is king.
Of course, some details get out. Star comedians’ public personas have taken a hit by coverage of audiences taking offense. Comedians grow into their reputations over the years with their fans
and fans of comedy in general. Whispers and declarations of “‘this person repeats a lot of the same material,’ ‘this comic steals jokes,’ ‘they’re jaded,’ ‘they’re a hack,’ ‘the audience mostly stayed for the raffle,’ ‘I’m never going out to see them again,’” to paraphrase.
One of Gallagher’s most recent, more infamous reemergences as a notable comedy figure, came in early 2011 during an appearance on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Maron was questioning reports and perceptions of a persona shift with Gallagher, from absurdist prop comedian to self-serious firebrand with questionable opinions about marginalized communities. The conversation rapidly grew tense and confrontational. To make a long story short, Gallagher walked out on Marc mid-interview. It wasn’t the first time that Gallagher, emblem of the old guard, butted against the new generation of comedy stalwarts—see: any Gallagher vs Patrice
O’Neal interaction. But the interview with Marc Maron, one of the biggest comedy podcasts of all time, definitely captured the most imaginations.
Comedy ages horribly. Tastes change almost every day, like in fashion and music; cool, new, or relatable trends define generations. And there’s always a chance for some pieces of that time
period to be remade or reclaimed by later tastemakers—cool, new or relatable again as “vintage.” Not with comedy. Some of the greatest comedy goes (unfairly) unheard because its formerly hip references become unintelligible for later generations, or the joke style becomes too played out, or the recording sounds too old.
As politics and culture evolve, attitudes adjust and the stand-up art form becomes accessible to more people. The purpose, power, and responsibility of comedy and comedy-makers will always be a hot-button debate and a vicious circle for those who choose to engage with that discourse.
There’s also the opportunity to bow out of those conversations if you’ve achieved the requisite attrition and you’re set in your ways.
Gallagher was as much a product of his time as anyone could be. His style and presentation were a new and refreshing abstraction compared to the stodgy suits and good, clean comedy of the 1950s and 1960s; the comedians of yesteryear were the set-up for his particular subversion.
Comedy wasn’t about being mindful and self-referential in the 1980s; it was about hot nights filled with heavy laughter extracted from the audience by any means necessary. Those who
burned brightest in Gallagher’s generation burned out. We don’t know how Sam Kinison or Bill Hicks would have reacted to the pressures of maintaining their legacies. We only had comics like Gallagher.
Gallagher felt like nouveau-vaudeville. His conversations with the concept of “comedy” only went as far as what he thought was funny, what he thought people would laugh at, and what he thought he could get away with. Comedy can feel like it’s supposed to be dangerous, that any pernicious elements are relatively harmless. It’s just jokes (and sometimes debris). Audiences,
critics and Hollywood would agree enough with Gallagher to empower his notoriety for a time. Then, not so much.
There’s always a particular duality with Gallagher’s career, a myth that hangs in the balance of the highest highs and the lowest lows. The same man who was one of the biggest comedians of all time, who became a punchline himself, who sued his own brother for trademark infringement, also performed well into his 70s and famously had a near-fatal heart attack on stage. Any one of those elements seems improbable for a stand-up comedian to experience; that they happened to one comedian is nearly impossible. Those are the kind of things that makes someone a legend, either as a pejorative or a compliment, a folklore to champion or a cautionary tale.
“Gallagher” as an entity is often a totem for self-reflection. What he meant by his comedy, what he meant to comedy, and what he means as a societal fixture will be endlessly pondered.
Gallagher was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. But once you experience him, you’ll never forget him.