I Want to Be Your Sledgehammer: RIP Gallagher
Most comedy fans remember Gallagher, who passed away November 11 at the age of 76, as the prop comic who walloped watermelons with a sledgehammer. What they might not remember is that Gallagher dominated pay-cable specials in the 1980s as one of the biggest names in comedy. And that sledgehammer bit? It was actually a pretty funny commercial parody.
Gallagher debuted the routine in the 1970s as a spoof on the Veg-O-Matic, an as-seen-on-TV piece of crap that sliced, diced, and made julienne fries in the blink of an eye.
Dan Aykroyd famously mocked the device on Saturday Night Live with his manic Bass-O-Matic pitch, but Gallagher built an entire act out of his Sledge-O-Matic, a messy bit of prop comedy that splattered audiences with increasingly large pieces of produce.
Call Gallagher the solo Blue Man Group of his day, with audiences lining up in raincoats and trashbag-hoodies for the honor of being splatted with cabbage and croutons. You’d think such a physical experience would be primarily a live phenomenon, but the early days of HBO and Showtime made Gallagher a star. He did 14 specials on Showtime alone, which then looped over and over on Comedy Central. (His website bio claims he’s the freaking reason they created Comedy Central.) With his bowler hat and massive, mirthful Mjölnir, his distinctive look set him apart from the t-shirt-and-sportscoat crowd, making him one of the era’s signature comic voices.
Things got weird for Gallagher after the cable work slowed down. His brother asked to borrow the sledgehammer bit and toured for a while under the name Gallagher Two (and sometimes, Gallagher Too). When the original Gallagher asked him to stop, he had to go to court to maintain sole control of his act. (It didn’t hurt that the judge thought the original Gallagher was a stitch.)
The comedy gigs continued even as Gallagher ran as an independent for governor of California in 2003, finishing 16th out of 135. Not bad, although he finished behind both Gary Coleman and Larry Flynt. Comedy Central named him #100 on its 2004 list of the Top 100 Comics of All Time, an honor that Gallagher found to be an insult--he would have ranked himself much higher. There were some podcast rage matches with Marc Maron, but come on -- that’s Maron’s show, right?
Gallagher continued performing comedy into the 2010s, despite a heart attack in 2012 right before he was about to take the stage. But there were myriad other interests. A look at his personal website reveals all of the eccentricities you’d expect from a professional weirdo -- a patent for a new slot machine, politically charged poetry, and workshops about writing, public speaking and how to “make more $$$$$$.”
He also shared a bucket list of things he wanted to do while he was still with us, an eclectic inventory that includes high-heel shoes for little girls (Just Like Mommy's!), a Broadway show where the audience joins in the dance, and ski outfits that inflate to prevent injuries. We’re not sure how many of those he got to see to fruition, but we’d be down to try his Spaghetti’s Ready strip-mall restaurant franchise.
Rest in peace, Gallagher. Here’s hoping they’ve got raincoats and umbrellas at the big comedy club in the sky.
Top image: gallaghersmash.com