Leo Gallagher, 1946-2022
The stand-up comic is gone at 76.
New York Times, “Gallagher, Watermelon-Smashing Comedian, Is Dead at 76“
Gallagher, who became one of the most recognizable comedians of the 1980s for an outrageous act that always concluded with him smashing a watermelon with a sledgehammer, died on Friday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 76.
His death was confirmed by his longtime former manager, Craig Marquardo, who said the cause was organ failure after “numerous heart attacks” over the course of Mr. Gallagher’s life.
The self-proclaimed “Wizard of Odd,” Gallagher — his first name was Leo, although for many years he refused to reveal it — said his job was to “yell at the world.” To the thousands of his front-row fans who were honored, or at least not visibly offended, by being splattered with cantaloupes, cottage cheese and all manner of other groceries, Mr. Gallagher offered himself as an exuberant release from life’s strains.
In a 1984 interview with The Miami Herald, he spoke of people’s worries about money, family and responsibilities. “If you make fun of it, the people laugh,” he said. “They release the tension and are somehow healed — a bit.”
In addition to reaching the rarefied position of going by just one name like Cher or Madonna, Mr. Gallagher was the star of more than a dozen one-man specials on Showtime and a series of Budweiser commercials, including one in which he used a watermelon as a bowling ball. He played more than 100 concert dates a year for more than 30 years, obliterating more than 15,000 melons.
Adorned with a mustache, shoulder-length hair and, for much of his career, a cap or beret, he wrote his own jokes and traveled with 15 footlockers of props, among them a “handgun” that fired plastic hands.
Associated Press, “Gallagher, watermelon smashing comedian, dies at 76”
Gallagher, the long-haired, smash-’em-up comedian who left a trail of laughter, anger and shattered watermelons over a decadeslong career, has died at age 76.
With a beret on his head and a few simple props, from a can of oil to a bull whip, the man born Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. built a nationwide following in the 1970s and ’80s, appearing on the “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson and starring in numerous Showtime specials. His act included observational humor (“What about Easter? Whose idea was it to give eggs to an animal that hops”), political commentary (“They don’t call a tax a tax. They call it a revenue enhancer”), invented sports (synchronized Ping-Pong) and his trademark Sledge-O-Matic destruction.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I did not come here tonight just to make you laugh. I came here to sell you something, and I want you to pay particular attention!” he would call out in his best rapid-fire impersonation of a late-night television pitchman. “The amazing Master Tool Corporation, a subsidiary of Fly-By-Night Industries, has entrusted who? Me! To show you! The handiest and the dandiest kitchen tool you’ve ever seen.”
Gallagher was a Fort Bragg, North Carolina, native who started out in 1960 as road manager for the comedian/musician Jim Stafford and soon began performing himself, honing his act at the Comedy Store and other clubs.
Pretty much all of the stories reference his trademark watermelon smashing, which was indeed integral to his act. It’s what I remember from his appearances on Carson and elsewhere when I was a kid. I saw several of his “Showtime” specials in my 20’s and his act went well beyond that.
While Gallagher will never been mentioned favorably alongside the likes of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and so many others who did daring political comedy, often working blue, there’s something to be said for the Jerry Seinfelds and Jim Gaffigans of the world, whose jokes are less topical and more family-friendly.
Alas, I haven’t thought much of Gallagher in recent years and was completely unaware of a disturbing incident from a decade ago. From the AP story:
The elder Gallagher became increasingly controversial in recent years, chastised for racist and homophobic remarks. Gallagher even cut short an interview in 2011 with Marc Maron after the WTF podcast host confronted him about his statements.
“I’m the problem?!” Gallagher said at one point. “Do you think when I’m dead, gays will finally have an opportunity in America? Have I really been holding them down?”
I gather that some of his later work was, well, less family friendly and displayed a much more bitter personae than in his heyday.
As I’ve stated before, I have been fortunate, and unfortunate, to work with many, many, many standup comedians, including producing Marc Maron’s television series for IFC.
Gallagher was a singularly unhappy individual. Behind the outward joy he presented, he was a racist, angry, misogynist. Full stop. He was not a nice man because he was so unhappy – at everything. This is quite common with standup comedians, but Gallagher took the hate to a whole new level.
I worked as a local hand on one of his shows (he came to the venue where I worked*) back in the early 90’s. I didn’t interact with him much, but (fortunately) didn’t see any of what you’re saying.
I’m sorry that his comedy is gone, and severely disappointed to hear that he was so hateful behind the act.
* I spent 3+ years as head flyman at a very nice 2000-seat venue. I came in the year after it opened. At first we said “We’ll never have a rock concert here”. Then we had Toad the Wet Sprocket. Okay, but we’ll never have a circus. Yep we had a circus**. Okay! But we’ll never have Gallagher.
We spent an entire day covering the front 10 or so rows of seats with plastic.
** The venue I was working at is on the UWGB campus, and the TD at that time was the former TD of the university theatre dept. We had a very friendly relationship with the university. Scott called over to Mike at the U and said “Hey. I need something to keep the bears from eating the horses.” Within the hour we had several Hollywood flats set up to partition off the horses so the bears wouldn’t attack them.
(Ask me some time about the dead body and the lamp post)
I never cared for Gallagher’s act. I was much more a Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Eddie Murphy guy.
I was on a flight with Gallagher once roughly about the year 2000 give or take a year or so.
Commuter flight on a weekday. An hour and a half flight. There were maybe 5 people aboard. It was an unprofitable flight to be sure – there were as many crew as passengers. Gallagher was in the back row complaining to his assistant about back pain and wanting a massage. He laid on the floor at the back of the plane passenger compartment and demanded a massage from her. Then he complained the floor was too hard.
I never interacted with him directly, but I overheard his interactions with his assistant during the flight because it was within easy ear shot, and I knew within 5 or 10 minutes that Gallagher was an entitled, petulant, needy asshole.
One of the things brought up in the aforementioned Marc Maron interview was Gallagher mentioned when he was the opening act fir Kenny Roger’s in the 70s, he ended up losing the gig because Kenny Roger’s was uncomfortable with his “Iran hostage crisis Arab dick-sucking jokes” suggesting Gallagher was always pretty racist and homophobic, he just reached a point where he couldn’t get away with it anymore
@Andy: I prefer those guys as well and gather Gallagher resented not being appreciated as in their league.
@Stormy Dragon: I honestly don’t remember his act being blue but I only saw a handful of the television specials.
I don’t either, but I get the impression that the TV specials were a lot more family friendly than his normal act.
On a sadder note, Kevin Conroy, who for people of a certain age is THE voice of Batman, passed away at 66:
Kevin Conroy, longtime voice of animated Batman, dies at 66