Gallagher, the sledgehammer-wielding comedian who rose to stardom in the 1980s through his cable specials and constant touring, performing unusually interactive shows in which he smashed a watermelon into a pulp and sprayed audience members with bits of food and a fountain of irreverent humor, died Nov. 11 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 76.
According to his former manager Craig Marquardt, the reason was multiple organ failure. Gallagher received care from hospice after suffering “numerous” heart attacks, according to him, including performing in 2011 during the performance in Minnesota.
With his mustache that was thick, Ben Franklin-style hair, and love for berets as well as stripes, Gallagher was a singularly unique presence in his American comedian circuit. He maintained a sense of mystery, despite refusing to reveal his initials (it used to be Leo). He also pioneered stand-up comedy on cable television (he created several dozen shows for Showtime). He said he performed around 3,500 live shows, equivalent to doing shows every day for nearly ten years without breaks.
The majority of his shows included:
- Strange props and words like a gun that fired plastic hands (he described it as a “handgun”).
- A sledgehammer (he called it his “handgun”).
- An attached doll to the wood piece (“baby aboard”).
His most famous routine was based on the Sledge-O-Matic, a massive mallet made of wood that satirizes kitchen gadgets advertised by the T.V. salesman Ron Popeil — which Gallagher stated was manufactured in the hands of “a subsidiary of Fly by Night Industries.”
“Don’t you want to know how it works?” He would ask before placing the fruit on his anvil and smashing it.
Gallagher concluded the 2006 show at Dubuque, Iowa, by smashing sugar and flour with strawberries. (Jeremy Portje/Telegraph Herald/A.P.)
Gallagher would smash watermelons, beans, oranges, and cottage cheese. He also ate cheeseburgers, pound cake tubes of toothpaste, and video game controllers, before laying down the hammer onto a pile of grapes following a question from his audience if they were interested in any wine. The front row of people was given ponchos, or perhaps they learned from experiences that it was beneficial to wear raincoats. Venues also took safety precautions and wrapped chandeliers in plastic to protect against splatters.
“I was the first to let a projectile be released from an audience and onto the stage. I take on the responsibility for the mosh pit,” Gallagher said in an interview in 2009 for the A.V. Club. “Major amusement parks are now offering splash rides. You do not even need to participate in the rides to be splashed. You can stand on an elevated bridge; I’m somewhat responsible for this. However, an entertainer’s job is to perform something completely different.”
Sometimes the props he used to perform landed in the wrong direction. One woman who attended one of his shows in 1990 in California said that she suffered neck and head injuries when the two-foot tall, penguin-like doll squirted water into the audience. The beauty had an extinguisher to put out fires, and the lady sued Gallagher with $13,000 worth of medical expenses, $120,000 for damages, and the loss of wages.
To the horror of her lawyers, Gallagher turned the courtroom into a comedy venue, entertaining the jurors and the judge.
“I would say that in seven years on the bench, I’ve seen a lot of personalities, but none more theatrical,” Judge William Froeberg told the Los Angeles Times after the jury ruled in Gallagher’s favor in 1993. “It was great fun. It wasn’t boring.”
Gallagher, who was a former chemist as well as road manager for the singer Jim Stafford (“Spiders & Snakes”), liked to claim”I’m “the smartest guy who was ever dumb enough to want to be a comedian.” He first appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1975. He received more attention five years later when he appeared on “Gallagher: An Uncensored Evening,” his first television special. The comedian was soon opening for the singer Kenny Rogers and rebuking critics who couldn’t see the way a watermelon, along with many other things, can become an engaging punchline.
He told The Times of Northwest Indiana that “Using props is nothing new,” and “Jack Benny played his violin. George Burns had his cigar. Bob Hope had his golf club. I only use bigger and more messy ones.”
In the discussion of his comedy routine, Gallagher sometimes waxed philosophical. However, even though “you can get a laugh just by sticking your finger in your nose,” the reporter once said, “I want to do more. I’d like to make a statement that will feed our brain.”
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However, large sections of the audience did not well-loved his political and topical jokes. In the decade of 2010, critics claimed his show had devolved into an inundation of racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes.
Gallagher has also alienated himself from certain of his colleagues by yelling at his openers. These comedians were amateurs who were critiqued for their posture, punchlines, and clothing. Gallagher was equally angry about other stand-up comedians, criticizing the “C-level jokes” of Robin Williams and the “embarrassing” humor of Jim Carrey. If Comedy Central ranked him No. 100 on their list of the top comedians, He was candid about his disappointments.
“How can I be in the shadow of people I have never met? How many of them were in the industry for more than 20 or more years?” he said in an interview for The Oregonian newspaper in 2004. However, he said, “It could be worse. I suppose I’m fortunate that I’m not the 101st on the list. It’s possible that I won’t be considered acceptable by the people of New York and L.A. However, I have my supporters as well. They’ve always been nice to me.”
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Gallagher in 2003, when he was running an unintentional campaign for Governor of California. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. was born on July 24, 1946, in Fort Bragg, N.C., He was raised in Florida. His father was the owner of skate rinks in the Tampa region, and Gallagher discovered a knack to speed skate and freestyle, which was later integrated into his stage show and was racing on roller skates sporting balloon tails.
Gallagher took chemistry and English at The University of South Florida, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970. He later informed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the company he worked for was Allied Chemical in Chicago. So he created an unpublished novel, which led to a job as a night manager in the restaurant and did his first comedy shows at a Tampa topless bar and a steakhouse. The venues did not invite him back.
In the past, the actor had agent Stafford’s services, allowing Gallagher to perform his routine in performances. Gallagher moved from the city of his birth to Hollywood in the 1970s. He said he first learned his sledgehammer tool at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles and was amazed to discover the power of “by smashing a watermelon, I became a big draw.”
Ron, his younger brother Ron was later on stage with Gallagher’s approval and could perform a similar comedy act in smaller clubs. However, after Ron began to perform under the name “Gallagher II,” confusing audiences who thought they were watching Gallagher I, the original Gallagher was irritated. He filed a lawsuit against him and his brothers in the federal courts. A judge barred Ron Gallagher from performing with a “sledgehammer or other similar equipment to smash watermelons, fruits, food, or other objects of any type” in 2000.
Three years after, Gallagher staged a satirical campaign for governor of California by running in a special election based on the slogan “Finally, a governor you can get drunk with.” His campaign, which included imposing penalties for people who talk too loudly on cell phones, won an impressive 5,400 votes. (He lost to a veteran actor and showman and Republican presidential candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
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Gallagher was divorced and married at least once, as per his management. His survivors include two children: Barnaby and Aimee, and two grandchildren. Further details about survivors were not immediately available.
In the latter part of his career, Gallagher did a melon smash routine for the Geico commercial and Astrologer on the set of “The Book of Daniel,” the 2013 film. He continued to tour until the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic. He was played as a melon-smashing astronomer by Paul F. Tompkins in the biopic parody released recently “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” with Daniel Radcliffe as musician Weird Al.
How Gallagher observed his career ran the length of it did because he understood what the audience desired and also because he was able to know how they would react. Comedy performers “need to be empathetic,” Gallagher told the A.V. Club.
“I don’t express what I want to say onstage; I say what I think the audience wants to hear and enjoys,” he explained. “You’re an ambassador for the audience. … It’s true that I haven’t done all the things the audience would like and attempted to be surprising. However, it’s still a service-based business. I believe that the existence of my company operating 30 years later is proof that this is the correct method to think of things.”