Back in March Gallagher suffered three separate heart attacks and it seemed like the very appropriate time to post a long-gestating Gallagher piece we had been planning to write. Well, obviously, two months have passed, but during that interim we kept this tab open in our browser, a reminder that, eventually, we needed to get to it, to talk about Gallagher, to try to make some sense of this fallen from grace comedian in the twilight of career, and possibly of his life.
We should preface this by detailing our own personal history with Gallagher. We very clearly recall watching his cable specials as a child, filling time slots in the early years of Comedy Central and possibly even on VH1, before they had Celebrity Rehab to occupy the bulk of their schedule. Of course we remember the watermelon smashing – the Sledge-O-Matic – but we also vividly remember a giant couch, outfitted with a trampoline under the giant cushions, and as an eight year-old that seemed like the coolest thing ever. It was like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, but crossed with a playground, with a purpose. We wanted one. The stage, with its oversized props, was quite literally a giant toy store, and Gallagher was the wily proprietor, with a sparkle in his eye and a mischievous grin. We’re not sure at the time that we really understood “comedy,” but we liked whatever he was doing. It may not have been comedy, but it sure as fuck was entertaining to a kid still five-years shy of his Bar Mitzvah.
But we didn’t forget Gallagher when we took our turn on the bimah. Moving through adolescence he remained one of our comedy heroes, even if he had slipped out of the spotlight (or, more accurately, the spotlight slipped away from him), and Comedy Central had syndicated Kids in the Hall and Whose Line It Anyway? episodes to pad the midday hours. And when we were sixteen and our parents mentioned that he would be playing Westbury Music Fair we jumped at the chance to see him live. For us, at that time, that was like Jeff Magnum coming out of retirement, getting the chance to see one of our icons live (at the time we assumed, because we didn’t know any better, that Gallagher had been some kind of likewise recluse and had been touring infrequently or not at all during the 90s, and thus that was probably our only chance to see a comedy legend before he retreated back into his watermelon-lined fortress of solitude, perhaps never to be seen again). And to our sixteen-year-old brains he was still wildly entertaining, if noticeably older, slower, paunchier, and appearing on the verge of collapse (even then). We recall being somewhat embarrassed when he pulled a hot dog from his fly, not that we couldn’t handle a little blue comedy, but our parents were also in the audience and, jeez Gallagher, let’s lay off the dick humor while my mom and dad are in the row behind me. And we waited in line after the show for Gallagher to sign the t-shirt we happily requested our parents spend $25 on (which we still have, of course). We probably should have spent more time listening to Noel Gallagher than seeing Leo, but at the time we thought we were being cool, subversive, knowledgeable. While most of the kids our age were listening to Adam Sandler do a goat voice (and, believe us, we were also a part of that demographic), we were demonstrating our mature appreciation for comedy history. To us, it was the equivalent of being really into the Clash in high school. Maybe not popular with everyone, not even something most kids had heard of, but not everyone had our refined, sophisticated, left of mainstream taste. Again, we were sixteen, and, to be fair, also going crazy for Seinfeld’s HBO special.
But as the years have gone by we have changed, and Gallagher, despite morphing into a more sinewy David Crosby, has not. In fact, he’s perhaps become even more Gallaghery. It’s now well-documented how his shows have become less comedy and more spewing of right-wing, racist, homophobic, xenophobic vitriol, and his bitterness over being left-behind, forgotten, overlooked, unappreciated, seems to have permeated what was already an act often based on anger and misanthropy. And, to some degree, we don’t blame him on the latter point, he’s not entirely wrong. Now, we don’t begrudge David Letterman, Tom Hanks, Chevy Chase, Michael Keaton, Jim Carrey their success, we think they’re all supreme talents and have earned their esteem (especially, duh, Hanks. We have no doubt that if he wanted to, he could have easily been the world’s greatest watermelon smashing act, quickly putting Gallagher out of business. No offense, Leo), but there was a time when Gallagher was a star and a huge draw, and prop comedy wasn’t used in the pejorative. It’s easy to take shots now, to use him as a punchline (and we encourage it), but it’s whitewashing history (poor choice of words). It does feel that there’s been a little bit of revisionism, casting Gallagher as a hack comedian eternally on the fringes, a lowest common denominator joke of an act who only appealed to those with terrible taste and dubious ethical and moral standards, a human Two and a Half Men whose sole bit was destruction, the Fred Durst of comedy, a wizard of id. And, well, that’s not entirely true. The Sledge-O-Matic was just his closing act, maybe 1/6 of the whole (at least until later years, when he had to give the salivating masses what they wanted), much of his performance was wordplay and pure social commentary. And, yes, a lot of the routine heavily relies on prop-comedy, which has basically become slang for shitty comedy since the rise of Carrot Top, which is not necessarily a deserved distinction (and that’s probably not fair to Carrot Top either, whose insightful, enlightening WTF Podcast is worth a listen, a pleasant, placid conversation on the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Marc Maron’s prior chat with Gallagher). What both of them do is basically vaudeville. And they’re more performers than comedians anyway, more showmen than raw, cigarette chomping, microphone-as-sword comics, probably closer in nature to David Copperfield than David Letterman. But Gallagher does consider himself a comedian – albeit working it its bastard branch – and the question still remains: is he funny? Was he ever?
Well, to get some more perspective we took a look at his 1983 special, The Maddest, the performance which includes the revered giant couch discussed above (found on the Best of Gallagher: Vol. 2 DVD, paired with Stuck in the Sixties, also from 1983). We’ve been meaning for quite some time now to take a look at his earlier shows – the ones we so specifically recall from our formative years – to see how they, and we, hold up, and maybe get to the heart of Gallagher.
So what did we learn? Well, as you might have guessed, we weren’t quite as entertained as we were as a young boy (full disclosure: we briefly dozed off during some bit about the president), and the material is both dated and often not especially hilarious. But what perhaps is most striking – and impressive – is Gallagher’s command of the crowd. Say what you will about the quality of the act, but there’s no denying his stage presence, his skill as a performer. At many points he makes a statement – nothing particularly amusing or insightful – and the audience replies with rapturous applause. He clearly has a strong, mystical like hold on the audience, confidently gliding across the stage on roller skates during the first part of his act, accentuating a punch line with a little joyride the same way another comedian might take a long drag on a cigarette. Obviously, he’s no pin-up, and he quickly discards his newsboy cap to reveal his bare scalp, but he does demonstrate some unmistakable charisma and charm. It may be huckster charm, but it’s there, and he has the audience eating out of his hand. By the end, they’re a rabid lynch mob, frothing at the mouth for an errant chunk of watermelon to propel their way. He threatens to exit without smashing his signature victim, without committing fruiticide in the first degree, and the crowd is positively histrionic. Toothpaste, cottage cheese, grapes, birthday cake, they eat it all up (one dude in the third row quite literally), but their hunger can’t be sated until Gallagher demolishes not one but two watermelons, walking off in triumph and basking in God-like adulation. At this point, he’s a rock star.
He’s also, in some ways, a preacher, proselytizing from a giant blue couch pulpit, sharing his views, identifying social ills and admonishing backwards conventions, as sweat literally pours down his face (that he didn’t have a yellow bandana sweat rag in his back pocket is absolutely shocking). A lot of the material draws from the men vs. women tropes, but he touches on politics, traffic (lots of talk about traffic), drunk driving, drugs, banking and consumerism. Clearly, he’s a man with a view (and an aggrandized sense of the validity of his perspective), and it’s this outlook – that it is his job, his burden, to identify what is broken in society – that seems to grow unchecked as his age goes up and his prominence goes down. In fact, much of the content of his act basically feels like a series of gripes and complaints, Seinfeldian “Did you ever notice?”isms but with a southern drawl and a different kind of nasally whine (aka not Jewy). From there one can probably go one of two ways, micro or macro, focusing on the minutest of minutiae (airplane peanuts) or addressing big, real-life problems (immigration). Or this traffic jams.
(The crux of The Maddest is based around the concept of “style,” something that Gallagher has in spades, but that everything else – the country, vocabulary, drive-thrus, bank loans – lacks entirely. It’s a thesis that never quite works, is never quite clear, even though it essentially forms the connective tissue for the set. Basically the point seems to be that everyone is doing everything wrong except for Gallagher. The giant couch, for example, that just screams style. Women getting their periods does not. Roller skates = style, 7-11 having locks on their doors does not.)
It’s a stretch, but you can draw a line from this performance to the Gallagher we know (or read about) today. He’s a bit of a lone wolf, a man left behind, or, in his own words, “a whore waiting to be picked up by a cowboy.” We really can’t blame him for sticking with the Sledge-O-Matic, his now defining, and overshadowing, bit (or gimmick, if you prefer). As his fame started to fade he had two choices. Try something different, or stick with what works, consolidate. Billy Joel could have gone on playing “Movin’ Out” in fifty different cities two hundred days out of the year, but he decided to make classical music instead. Gallagher, on the other hand, chose to make an extended version of “Movin’ Out,” a perpetual greatest hit tour. And we can understand that. Faced with irrelevance, it does sound preferable to pander to a core audience. However, what obviously is not defensible is the pandering that crosses the line into offensive, hateful, insensitive (and unfunny) ranting. It seemed for a while, at his height, Gallagher was trying to bring the audience up to his enlightened level, but on the back-end of his career, with obscurity (and bankruptcy) on the horizon, he’s lowered himself to theirs, with his bitterness (somewhat justified) pushing him into further depths of gutter-scraping, bigoted, cruel “comedy” (not justified). And that lacks style.
However, this is all conjecture, and watching one special, reading a few articles and skimming the Gallagher Wikipedia entry doesn’t qualify one as a Gallagher expert, nor does it entitle us to psychoanalyze the man (and we didn’t even touch on Gallagher Two). We’re certain his motivations, beliefs and journey are far more complicated than any of us know. But after his trifecta of coronaries Gallagher has claimed that he’s going to take a step back from touring, focus on some new projects (unfortunately, there’s no discussion about a sequel to his arcade game), and hopefully experience a career renaissance. We’re not sure if that’ll happen – we’re not even sure if we’re rooting for him – but we’re certainly interested to see what he can do when he puts down the sledgehammer. What’s a show without an encore?
Bonus: The Maddest by the Numbers*
Props Used: 22 (including a motorized school desk, an anchor wrapped with a diaper and an oversized condom; not including items smashed).
Items Smashed by the Sledge-O-Matic: 13
Fake Watermelons Filled With Confetti: 1
Cunnilingus Jokes: 1
Dick Jokes: 3
High Heels Jokes: 2
Gay Jokes: 1
Use of the World “Tits”: 2
Solutions to Drunk Driving: 1
Drug References: 3
Crack Monsters: 1
Pairs of Shoes Worn: 0
*These numbers are unofficial and have not been certified by a third party auditor or by peer review.