Gallagher has an enormously storied career in comedy. That might be strange for some to read these days, as that career comes to a close with his current farewell tour and farewell album, I Am Who I Pretend to Be. These days, most of Gallagher’s press is about racist rants and heart attacks. Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger called him a “paranoid, right-wing, watermelon-smashing maniac” in a 2010 takedown. In 2011, he walked out on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast after an argument about the meaning of comedy. That’s been the tenor of conversation about Gallagher for the last several years.
But Gallagher was once one of the hottest tickets in comedy. He sold out big shows and had 14 Showtime specials (not including compilations). If you dig up a VHS tape of the Comedy Tonight special from 1982 (sadly, it’s not currently available on DVD), Gallagher shares the stage with contemporaries like Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams.
He was always a bit corny, but there was something appealing about his hustling-huckster character, a prop comic who would talk about escrow as a concept and illustrate with a crow shaped like an “S.” He once had a ladder, diving board and kiddie pool onstage as a prop, and had the audience imagine an animal (memory falters, perhaps an elephant?) climbing up it. The rungs bent, and board bent, and when it jumped, it splashed the audience. That was part of the draw of the show then—bringing raincoats and trash bags to fend off debris from Gallagher’s signature watermelon-smashing hammer.
A lot of it was cute. On his 1980 album Gallagher Live, re-released last month, Gallagher wondered about an alien landing. “What if they’re in the nude and we don’t know what not to look at?” He talked about how the objective of bowling is “to do the same thing over and over and over. Won’t that be fun?” It was silly, sometimes inventive and fairly accessible.
A backlash was inevitable. People dismissed Gallagher, and the phrase “prop comic” became a slight. Gallagher stuck around and kept performing. He gave up the watermelon-smashing and concentrated on the words around the time he suffered three 2012 heart attacks. He suspended touring at that point, and it looks like he’s now finishing up for good.
As a parting shot, I Am Who I Pretend To Be is a faint echo Gallagher’s former appeal. He has always touted himself as the smartest guy in the room, pointing out the things no one else could see or had the guts to point out. Not unusual. That’s part and parcel of the job of the stand-up comic. But the ideas now aren’t very deep, and are sometimes downright hostile to the idea of enlightenment.
The hustle that hid some of that lack of depth gives way to an anger and frustration. He takes two whole tracks to essentially list a bunch of fancy-pants French words after declaring the French the enemy of America. He admits at the start of the second track that he would like to be a “rogue,” and that everybody wants to be a “raconteur,” but “not a traitor.” By way of explanation, he says, “When you abandon your native tongue because you want to act uppity and educated, you’re a traitor.” The audience is appropriately silent. What had just been a silly litany turned into an accusation, built on the idea that only Anglo-Saxons language and ideas were acceptably American.
Most the album is still silly, if sometimes backwards-looking. Men are made of dirt and women hate dirt, which sometimes leaves a man standing naked in his back yard so his clothes won’t dirty up the house. Trucks are supposed to be dirty, but these days they have a “faggy Eddie Bauer interior.” He wonders why coffins are upholstered. (The customer isn’t going to complain!) He declares himself a “Frisbetarian,” which means when he dies his soul gets caught up on the roof and no one can get it down.
There is a recurring theme that America indulges in the idea of the “spoon-fork,” trying to make something act as more than one thing. It’s a lack of definition. In the judicial system, everyone pleads down and winds up in jail for a lesser crime. No one notices that on Halloween, they’re sending their kids out to get candy from possible pedophiles. There’s an “Exit” sign lit up so people can find their way out in a fire, in case a “dark fire” breaks out. It’s stuff that might seem clever for a second, but there’s nothing terribly smart or revealing about it.
Of course, that was Gallagher’s argument on WTF—he’s just telling jokes. They don’t mean anything; he just wants you to laugh. That might be what Gallagher wants as an epitaph for his career: a simple joke-teller. But it’s at odds with his ambitions, his anger and the image he has created, the enlightened fool he pretends to be.