R.I.P. Gallagher (1946-2022)

Gallagher, a joke-teller, showman and prop comic born Leo Anthony Gallagher, Jr., died Nov. 11, 2022, in hospice care in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 76.

Gallagher had suffered multiple heart attacks over the years, perhaps most seriously a decade ago — in 2011, he collapsed onstage during a show; the following year, he ended up in a medically-induced coma so doctors could work on his ticker.

As far as prop comics go, he was known worldwide for really just a single prop: His wooden sledgehammer he called the “Sledge-O-Matic,” which he used to smash thousands upon thousands of watermelons over the years. His mustache, his frizzy black hair spilling out sideways from under his beret, Gallagher introduced himself to the world on roller skates for his first special, Gallagher: An Uncensored Evening, in 1980. He’d release another 10 comedy specials on cable TV before the end of that decade. More than a dozen specials in all, mostly for Showtime.

It’s bizarre how difficult it feels to describe this guy to anyone born AFTER Generation X.

Gallagher was one of the most recognizable entertainers in the 1980s, even though he was neither a movie star nor a TV star nor a rock star.

He employed a wide variety of props in that first special, and didn’t even close the hour with the Sledge-O-Matic. A few years later, here’s a taste from his 1983 special, The Maddest, which showed him nearing the height of his powers, smashing fruits and vegetables to bits. “Pound cake? I guess it does!” “Cheeseburger to go?” A tube of toothpaste. A fish. His fans are lapping it up. Well, not literally. They are hooting, hollering, laughing and applauding, all while folks in the front rows begin hiding under plastic from the smashed debris.

To many of us, it seemed like Gallagher went mad by the time the 21st century seemed to pass him by.

Born July 24, 1946, at Fort Bragg, N.C., Gallagher grew up in Ohio, then Florida, and attended the University of South Florida. Shortly after graduating, Gallagher was touring with Jim Stafford as his road manager when he got the urge to start performing himself, and began honing his craft in the new comedy clubs popping up around Los Angeles in the early 1970s. That certainly helped him get booked on The Tonight Show back then. This clip is from the mid-1980s, when Joan Rivers guest-hosted, based on his risque jokes on panel about Madonna.

But by the 1990s, Gallagher got too big for his own good, and allowed his younger brother Ron to go around booking dates as his look-a-like. Ron was supposed to use his full name, but instead booked gigs as Gallagher Too (or Gallagher 2), and Leo sued his younger brother in 2000 for trademark violations and false advertising. Gallagher 1 won in court.

Nevertheless, Gallagher wasn’t getting on TV so much or gaining new fans on the road. And he became increasingly bitter onstage and off.

One of my first posts on this site to go viral found me trying to encapsulate or review his March 2008 show at what’s now the Gramercy Theatre. As I wrote then:

“You won’t remember what I said, but you’ll remember what I did,” Gallagher said last night. And we shall remember this night all too well.

Tragedy? Comedy? Tragedy that we couldn’t help but laugh at during the show and hours afterward. Something happened here that we shall not soon forget. And if you have someone offer you a ticket to see Gallagher, you know you need to say yes. Because this was epic.

I spoke about it also on Luke Burbank’s radio show and podcast.

In 2011, Gallagher walked out on Marc Maron while recording an episode of Maron’s WTF podcast in Portland, Ore. Maron reflected on it now upon Gallagher’s death.

I hope Gallagher found peace before then. RIP

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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