Gallagher, the Sledge-O-Matic, watermelon-smashing comedian, has died at age 76. He’d had health problems for quite a while, including two heart attacks in two weeks ten years ago.
A lot of people in the comedy community sneered when referring to Gallagher. They wrote him off as a hack prop comic with a loud mouth, but here’s how I got to know him when he first burst onto the national stage as something fresh and clever.
In the fall of 1980, I was music director at WRCN/Riverhead. Among my duties, I’d listen to most of the new material that came in from the record companies and help choose what we played on the air. I would also comment on what I liked for Friday Morning Quarterback, a weekly trade publication that often printed my remarks.
Along with all the music, I occasionally received comedy albums, and when Gallagher’s debut album came in, I put it on. I had seen his debut Showtime special earlier that year and liked it, but what I heard on the album really impressed me. Many of his contemporaries, including the mega-successful Robin Williams and Steve Martin, were releasing albums that included visual jokes that didn’t translate to vinyl, but Gallagher’s album had none of that. Clever wordplay, silly jokes, and funny stories, yes, but no Sledge-O-Matic. It wasn’t that the props weren’t part of his act, but he was smart enough to realize what would work in the audio-only format of a vinyl album.
In my weekly call with FMQB, I mentioned all of that in explaining why I liked Gallagher’s album so much. On the day of publication, I got a call from the rep at United Artists Records who had sent me the album. He said he was in his office looking at the trades and appreciated what I’d said about Gallagher — who happened to be sitting next to him. He handed over the phone, and there was Gallagher, thanking me for the kind words. We talked for about five minutes and, as we wrapped up, I mentioned that I’d like to see his act sometime. He said he wasn’t performing anywhere in the New York area soon, but why didn’t I come into Manhattan and have dinner with him while he was there doing publicity for the album? I accepted, and two nights later we met at Gallagher’s Steak House (no relation, but a nice touch by the UA rep!).
During the meal, which lasted a couple of hours, he was outgoing, funny, and a pleasure to talk with. The topic of vacations came up, and I mentioned that I was going to take my first trip to Los Angeles in a couple of months. Gallagher said that he lived in North Hollywood and I should let him know when I got to town so we could get together. I figured he was kidding until he took out a pen and gave me his home phone number.
When I got to Los Angeles in January, 1981, I did call Gallagher, who remembered me, said he was doing an appearance that afternoon, and asked if I wanted to come along. I said sure, so he gave me directions to his house, where I would ride along to the gig.
As I arrived at his home, the door was opened by Robin, a beautiful redhead with bright green eyes, who introduced herself as his girlfriend. She invited me inside for a beer while he got dressed. They hadn’t lived in the house very long, so there wasn’t much furniture, but the walls of the front room were covered with large pieces of paper on which Gallagher had written down all sorts of jokes, ideas, prop drawings, etc. I can’t remember any of them, but it was clear that this was the space where he poured out his brains whenever he thought of something that might become a bit for his act. Comedians in the 21st century use laptop computers as their scratch pads, but they hadn’t been invented 30 years ago, so he had turned his room into his idea gallery.
After 15 minutes or so, Gallagher appeared, greeted me, made sure he had his prop boxes ready to go, and led Robin and me outside to a stretch limo – my first time riding in such luxury, though for some reason I hadn’t thought to ask where we were going. During the ride, I asked if he planned to do more specials for Showtime, and he replied that he’d just signed a new deal for several more, which would include some of the things I’d seen on his wall. But that day, he wasn’t going to do any new material, because he’d only been contracted for a tight ten minutes for a TV special about the national high school cheerleading championships that was being taped at Magic Mountain.
When we got there, it was drizzling, so a TV production assistant led us to a trailer that would serve as Gallagher’s dressing room, although he’d have to share it with the other act performing on the show. He seemed a little bit upset that they hadn’t given him his own trailer until we got inside and met his trailer-mate — Charlie Callas. Both Gallagher and I were fans of Callas, and when the older comedian told the younger one he liked his act, the two became quick friends. I found a place to sit and listened to them tell stories for a half-hour or so before the production assistant popped her head in the door to say the rain had stopped, so they were ready for Gallagher’s rehearsal. He and Robin departed, and I was left along with Callas.
I was thrilled. Having seen him on innumerable Carson shows through the years, his facial contortions and verbal sound effects had always made me laugh. He was completely comfortable sitting in the trailer talking with me, picking up drumsticks to tap out a rhythm on the tabletop that he’d learned by watching Buddy Rich when he’d opened for him in Las Vegas. When I mentioned that I worked at a rock radio station, he admitted not knowing much about current groups, but wanted to hear about the life of a DJ. I explained that I’d only been in the business a couple of years, so I didn’t have many stories, but shared a few. He seemed as interested in those as I was in his backstage stories of Sin City and network TV. He couldn’t have been nicer, and was probably relieved to have someone help him kill time until they needed him onstage.
By the time Gallagher got back from rehearsing for the national high school cheerleading champioships TV special at Magic Mountain, an hour had passed and the drizzle had started again. Gallagher told Callas, with whom he was sharing a trailer/dressing room, that the TV crew was going to have to tape some of the cheerleaders in the rain, a phrase that Callas immediately improvised into a song, complete with filthy lyrics that had us on the floor. Before long, there was another break in the clouds, and the decision was made to record both comedians’ segments right away, while there were still people in the crowd.
Gallagher went first, as Robin and I watched from the bleachers. The crowd loved him, especially when he brought out the Sledge-O-Matic. I could see why his star was rising. He had presence, rapport with the audience, and terrific camera presence. Plus, he was really funny.
He did his ten minutes and left the stage to a roaring ovation. I wanted to stick around to see Callas’ act, but since I was Gallagher’s guest and hadn’t spent much time with him – and he was my only ride – I returned to the trailer with him. He quickly packed up his stuff, loaded it into the limo, and we drove home. He asked my opinion of his act, and I told him how much I’d enjoyed it. He said I should see his whole show sometime, and I promised I would.
When we returned to his house, I thanked Gallagher for everything and told him this was all pretty cool for a 22-year-old guy from a small market radio station. He said it wouldn’t be long before I moved onto a bigger city, and he hoped to see me there.
Eighteen months later, I did see him again, backstage at the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut. By this time, he’d done another Showtime special and his fan base had grown considerably. He’d left small comedy clubs behind and was now playing theaters. My career had progressed, too, as I was now on WHCN, the leading rock station in the state. I didn’t know if Gallagher would remember me, but I stopped by to say hello before the show and, sure enough, he greeted me warmly again, and then insisted I go out and introduce him to the crowd of 3,000.
I did, and then watched him from a seat a safe distance away from the watermelon guts and other effluvia he sent flying during the Sledge-O-Matic finale. He was thoroughly entertaining, a real crowd-pleaser, and a helluva nice guy.
That was the last time I saw Gallagher in person. He went on to do many more Showtime specials, but I stopped watching, sad to see that he relied more and more on props and less on his verbal wit as the years went by – Sledge-O-Matic seemed to take up more than half his stage time. He also became more caustic (the lawsuit against his brother and the derision from fellow comics probably didn’t help) and in the last few years, beyond his peak, he’d been forced to return to those clubs where he’d started.
I have no idea what his act looked like before his medical problems caused him to get off the road, but I do know that there was a time when Gallagher made me laugh, a lot, both onstage and off.