Gallagher? Seriously?

I saw him smash a watermelon. No, not in 1988. Last week.

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On a recent Friday night, in a 100-seat club in the hotbed of comedy known as New Brunswick, New Jersey, wild applause rose from the from the audience. The clapping mingled with the clank of bottles, the muted sizzle of the fryer from the kitchen in back, and something else — a rustling noise. It sounded like a chipmunk caught in a garbage can. But it wasn’t. It was the sound of adult men and women wearing ponchos and Hefty bags, sweating and grinning. In a comedy club called the Stress Factory, this could only mean one thing — that the man preparing to take the stage was Gallagher, the bald-headed smasher of fruit, the mustachioed owner of the Sledge-o-Matic.

Yes, in 2008, Gallagher is still touring. And tucked in the back corner of the club, against my better judgment, I was watching him.

I read a lot of comedy blogs, and earlier this year, Gallagher hit them like a wave. The first round of blogs posted reviews from Gallagher’s recent shows. Having read these reviews, a second group of bloggers posted their own contributions – favorite write-ups of Gallagher’s past shows, strange interviews with the man, and informative articles about Gallagher Too (Gallagher’s brother who toured smaller venues, providing the Gallagher experience for less moolah). The theme of most of these posts was similar, though — Gallagher was a strange, angry man, and not a funny comedian.

So I started wondering: Was Gallagher ever funny in the first place?  I mean, obviously he had to have been. He had numerous TV specials, and almost everyone you mention the man’s name to is ready to shout, “Sledge-o-Matic!” I was just a child when Gallagher was in his prime, but I’ve always had an intense curiosity about the man. When I was in first grade, my friend Erin and I made a fake news show with her family’s camcorder, and we got our news articles by clipping stories from the newspaper. One of the stories I clipped was an ad for a Gallagher show. I can still remember exactly the caption under a picture of a smiling man in a beret: “Bring your plastic — the watermelon will be flying!” Right then I knew: Adults were up to some crazy, secret stuff.

I recently tried to watch old Gallagher videos on the Internet in an effort to understand his appeal. One of the ones featured on his Web site is “Gallagher’s Giant Couch.” In it Gallagher comes out to wild applause and jumps up and down on an oversized couch with trampolines under the cushions. He then proceeds to find oversized items in the couch’s cracks, including a quarter, a hair dryer, and a condom.  Not only did I find the video unfunny, but I became actively annoyed that the oversized props were not the right size in comparison to each other. The crayon was bigger than the hair dryer, for example. But in the video’s audience, women with perms and men with big glasses screeched with laughter. Their manic enjoyment showed me one thing: I needed to see Gallagher live if I was going to try to understand the man.

That’s how I found myself in the back of the room at the Stress Factory. On the little stage, the lights rose to reveal Gallagher conservatively dressed in nice pants and a cream-colored polo shirt. He looked the same as always, except that his moustache and clownish ring of hair had both gone gray. Surrounded by tables of food — corn and flour, canned pasta and soy milk — Gallagher stepped up to the microphone and addressed the audience with what I expected would be his first joke: “Don’t you guys think it’s too loud in here?”

In the front, a couple of guys said, “No?”

“Come on!” a slightly hostile Gallagher replied. “Why aren’t you people like me?  Everyone should be like me.” He turned to his right, looked at a plastic-bag-wearing woman in the audience, and said, “Ma’am, wearing that white garbage bag you look like a Ku Klux Klan.” Gallagher then saw the woman next to her. “No, not the black lady.”  Chortles rippled across the room.  I cringed.

Gallagher continued with jokes that sounded like they’d been in his pocket since 1992 (a rousing Jeffrey Dahmer reference, anyone?), and I was itching for him to start smashing things. But instead Gallagher said, “Tonight we’re going to talk about the truth.” Ah, yes. Because there’s nothing better than a past-his-prime prop comic using his nostalgia value as a way to trap people into listening to his ideological agenda. But when Gallagher followed that up with “So if there’s any Democrats in the audience who are sensitive, you might not like this,” the crowd clapped.

But then something surprised me. Gallagher’s first words of “truth” were these: “You people bought pick-up trucks even though you didn’t need them, and now you’re complaining that gas is $4 a gallon,” which I believe to be spot-on. I felt a soft spot open up in me for the man. Unfortunately, Gallagher followed that comment by describing the trucks as “faggy.” The audience laughed, and my soft spot hardened.

As the show continued, I discovered that as Gallagher giveth, Gallagher can taketh away.  For the joke I enjoyed about why old people buy Cadillacs (“to die in them”), there was the explanation that women always get the house in a divorce, and that’s why they’re called housekeepers. For the legitimately amusing prop of a banana that peeled down to reveal a hot dog, there was also the toilet seat cover that Gallagher managed to talk about for a full five minutes. And for every moment of Gallagher telling jokes, there was a moment of him lashing out at the audience in his nasally voice. Whenever a joke bombed, he either yelled, “I’m just telling the truth!” or “Shut up, Democrats!”

“Sir, do you know why you cut these apples for me when I asked your wife to?” Gallagher asked a man in the front row. “Because you’re pussy whipped!” But his wife was right not to go up: Gallagher made every woman who came up on stage wear a pair of crotcheless boxers as a shirt.

Throughout the set, Gallagher talked about himself in the sort of braggy language used primarily by the self-conscious. “My show isn’t planned,” he told us. “I have a superior intellect. I want someone to give me a topic, and I’ll tell a joke about it.” A girl approached the microphone, was given a pair of boxers to wear, and said: “Kennedy’s brain tumor,” which had just been announced a day earlier.

Gallagher paused for a moment, then said, “He wanted to have a hole in his head like the rest of his family!” The audience tittered uncomfortably. For all any of us knew, Kennedy could have died since Gallagher’s performance started. I let out a long breath.

Over an hour into the show, the only food Gallagher had touched was a jar of peanut butter that he picked up to demonstrate how pooping looked. Even the people who were laughing at the man’s jokes seemed to be quieting down, bored by his rants. When Gallagher invited a larger-sized woman up on stage and reached into his underwear-shirt bag saying “I think I have a 2X in here,” people booed.  Not surprisingly, Gallagher defending himself, yelling, “I’m just telling the truth!”  This time he was: The 2X fit the woman perfectly.

Finally, Gallagher asked, “Is it time yet?” The audience erupted in rustling, covering their chests and heads in plastic, bracing for impact. Gallagher held up a pie plate. Despite the hour of sexist, racist drudgery Gallagher took my money for, I was a little excited.

At the back of the stage, he lifted up the hammer and held it in the air. The audience responded with a rallying cry: “Sledge-o-matic!” I sat up straighter, craning my head over the plastic-covered folks in front of me. On the stage, Gallagher lifted his giant hammer like Thor and slammed it down on the pie plate.

And the contents of that plate, they flew. The front row was doused with creamed corn. Some bachelorette party girls to the right of the stage were covered in pale yellow goo. Half-disgusted, half-happy, they smiled. The creamed corn was mixed with corn kernels, which made it almost back to me. I was giddy. Where Gallagher’s jokes were the worst kind of juvenile humor — racist, sexist, devolving to bodily functions and anger — smashing food was the best kind of juvenile humor, a harmless, wonderful “I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this” sort of thing. I wanted more.

Gallagher filled a head of lettuce with flour and wailed on it; he splattered the audience with Chef Boy-R-Dee (“for the Italians”). Then he invited people who were celebrating their birthdays to come up on stage and get a cake smashed in their faces. I checked my watch, wanting so badly to pretend that it was my birthday. There were 15 minutes until I had to catch my train. Gallagher let the hammer down on the cake, then revealed to the frosting-faced volunteers that they would each get to smash a watermelon. I looked at my watch again, not wanting to be stuck in New Brunswick overnight. Standing by the door of the club, I watched the first volunteer splatter a watermelon over the audience, and I left on that high note.

Riding back home on the train, I tried to process what I had seen. I suddenly felt sad for Gallagher. At 61 years old, the man knows that the best way for him to make money is to milk his waning nostalgic value. If I was making my money doing the same thing that I’ve done most nights for the last 25 years, I’d probably be angry at my audience, too.

But feeling bad for someone doesn’t make him funny. Smashing food?  Yeah, that’s funny. But not funny enough to make me ever want to see him again. • 5 June 2008

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, Table Matters, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She’s currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.

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