Gallagher Retires, Sort Of

We either will or will not have Leo Anthony Gallagher, a comedian who was also a punch line, to kick around anymore. He’s still alive, despite having had three heart attacks in March alone, two of which occurred inside clubs where he was performing, one of which occurred while he was actually onstage doing his signature bit. But he’s not going to tour anymore, perhaps because even if you’re Gallagher there’s something crushingly sad about the thought of taking one’s last breath in the green room of the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Snickerz in Fort Wayne, Indiana, or even Cadillac’s Rockin’ Country Saloon in La Place, Louisiana.

Earlier this month, goofing around with a TMZ cameraman upon leaving the hospital in which he’d spent some time in a medically induced coma following his second March heart attack, he demonstrated that there is no “off” position on the terrible prop-comedy switch. According to the New York Daily News:

“‘But in Texas, you get a deal: You get the heart transplant and the hair transplant,’ he deadpanned, before pulling up his umbrella and showing off a piece of artificial grass he had stuck to the top of his head.”

Coronaries aside, the life of a road comic had become a hard swath to mow for Gallagher, 65. Earlier this month, he told a radio host in Ohio that doing comedy for a living was like “babysitting people who can’t handle alcohol.” In an interview with CNN on Sunday, he had fewer unkind words for his audience, but spoke of a yearning to pursue new challenges, of his desire for a Betty White-like second act. He’ll write TV shows, maybe finish the script he’s been writing for a graphic-novel-like animated film. “I am going to stand at the end of the bar like a whore waiting to be picked up by a cowboy,” he said, possibly betraying some confusion on his part regarding how scripts are written.

His best-known bit was also his only-known bit: In a snake-oil pitchman’s flimflammy triple-time cadence, he extolled the virtues of a miracle kitchen appliance, which always turned out to be a sledgehammer he’d then use to hit things that splattered, usually fruits and vegetables, most iconically a watermelon. Those in the front row would get wet. It began as a riff on the same ‘70s Ron Popeil proto-infomercials that inspired Dan Aykroyd to drink a sea-bass smoothie on Saturday Night Live. It was a joke about waste and consumerism, expressed through cathartic caveman stuff-smashing, until the smashing itself became the joke, capable of reducing paying adult audiences to giggling kids cowering behind plastic sheeting and cheering destruction. “Sledge-o-Matic” was also the first joke Gallagher ever wrote, back when he was still a chemical engineer. He tried to sell it to George Carlin, who passed, so Gallagher took up live performance himself, dropping the hammer all the way to stardom.

In that same CNN interview, he touts himself as a pioneer of the cable comedy special (arguably true) and boasts of having made 13 one-hour shows for Showtime, “which are available on videotape.” Most of them are also on DVD, according to Amazon, where one commenter actually took the time to note with displeasure that this doesn’t include extras or liner notes. Not available in any format I can find right now: this documentary about Gallagher’s feud with his near-look-alike brother Ron, who toured smaller markets in the ‘90s performing a version of his brother’s act, first with Gallagher’s blessing, then without. No word yet on what this week’s news means for Ron. (It’s probably, in some abstract, prop-comedy-pie-dividing way, a boon for Carrot Top.)

He got more bitter as time went on. As with Carlin, there was always some trigger-hippie rage boiling in Gallagher’s eyes; unlike Carlin, Gallagher never got a Mark Twain Prize, wrote bestsellers, or saved the universe using a time-traveling phone booth. Former stand-up comedians who went on to become huge stars despite not being good at stand-up comedy, according to a 2005 interview with Gallagher: David Letterman, Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, Michael Keaton (“a terrible comedian”), Jim Carrey (“embarrassing”).

“It amazes me,” he fumed, “that these comedians have serious acting careers.”

In his later years, when he wasn’t smashing fruit onstage, he was spraying bile — railing against gays, transsexuals, Mexicans, opponents of torture, people with tattoos, and the French, and spewing Arab jokes your most right-wing relative might have thought twice about mass-e-mailing even on the morning of 9/12/01. Most written accounts suggest that your average 21st-century Gallagher show played not unlike the way Wikipedia describes his 1992 LaserDisc-based live-action shooting game, Gallagher’s Gallery: “Generally, the items that Gallagher deems broken or unnecessary, or those he simply dislikes, must be targeted.” Reviewing a 2010 Gallagher performance in Bremerton, Washington, for The Stranger, Lindy West described him spitting out the word Obama “like a mouthful of burning hair” before impugning both Obama’s blackness and his loyalty to this country. Even the Sledge-o-Matic went negative, West writes:

There are the watermelons, there is some cottage cheese (“It’s got the curds that blow up, just like on the news!”), there is sauerkraut and syrup and honey. Then Gallagher gets a tin pie plate. He opens a giant can of fruit cocktail and pours it in. He opens a can of some Asian vegetable — water chestnuts, maybe — and pours that in, too. “This is the China people and queers!!!” he screams and takes his sledgehammer to the thing with a fury that is no fun at all. Wet chunks of China people and queers fly everywhere.

When questioned about his “China people and queers”-type material during an uncharacteristically Frost/Nixonish interview with Marc Maron, Gallagher sputtered about “street jokes” — as if he’d innocently repeated notions he’d overheard bandied about among the parking attendants — before storming out of Maron’s pod. To be super-fair to Gallagher for a minute: Maron is wonderful at a lot of things, but feigning respect for a guest he doesn’t actually like is not one of them, and that undoubtedly becomes harder when the guest in question is probably a bigot and obviously a dick. In a way, though, the interview was doomed from the beginning. Gallagher’s the antithesis of everything a guy like Maron stands for, at least professionally — the idea of the comedian as self-interrogating artiste and also as polymath, propagating an evolving sensibility across podcasts and essays and Twitter. It’s hard to imagine two people who do the same job having less in common, easier to imagine a rapport developing between a chemical engineer and a watermelon.

Gallagher did do a few Sledge-o-Matic-free tours toward the end, but you get the sense that was less about trying to be cool and more about a steadfast belief in the strength of his non-watermelon-based material. He didn’t get into this to impress the discerning laugh-foodies at Splitsider or play Yo La Tengo’s Chanukah shows, and he didn’t get into it expecting to defend his artistic choices to guys like Maron; for better or for worse, that wasn’t part of the gig as he understood it, nor was the valorization of process and creative risk that defines present-day comedy fandom. Louis CK dumps his entire act every year and starts fresh, and everyone reveres him for it; Gallagher found a really efficient way to make certain people almost pee themselves laughing, easy as pushing a button, and he hit that button with a giant hammer again and again and again and again and again, because to do anything but the stupid thing people loved would have seemed stupid.

We will always have the time he did this:

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.