Gallagher’s reputation as a watermelon- and cottage cheese-smashing comedian was forged in the ‘80s on the strength of his cable specials and highly interactive performances. But the North Carolina-born performer is the first to admit that that was a long time ago: Although he’s stuck tenaciously to his guns and released three specials in the ‘90s and two this decade (the most recent being ‘05’s Tropic Of Gallagher), at 63, Gallagher says he’s now “bored” and “bitter” about the current landscape of comedy. Before his tour stop Thursday at the Majestic Theatre, Gallagher talked to The A.V. Club about inventing the mosh pit, losing his insurance, and the rise of mediocrity forcing prop comedy into extinction.
The A.V. Club: You’re pretty outspoken about which comedians you support and which ones you don’t. In an interview a few years back you said America craves the mediocre, not the heroic or the moral in their comedians. What makes you heroic or moral in a way the comedians you disapprove of aren’t?
G: Are you going back to that Oregon interview?
G: The Internet’s wonderful isn’t it? I’m talking to a guy in Oregon, right? And, and it gets posted to the world and preserved, and I have to remember it and support it the rest of my life. Well, you looked around at all the different things that I’ve said and decided that this would be the most controversial for The Onion?
AVC: I’m not trying to be controversial, just asking for an elaboration.
G: I can’t remember, but certainly I can discuss how I think America looks for the mediocre.
G: Well, I don’t think Katie Couric should have been the anchorperson for the news. She was originally a kicky young woman known for her cuteness. The lady on the desk with all the stature that doesn’t speak good, Barbara Walters, was more the kind of person you would have as an anchorperson, but America is afraid to take a chance on people who aren’t known. This is how Conan [O’Brien] ended up with The Tonight Show: Rather than take a chance on somebody, they decide to advance from within. We promote people until they reach a point at which they’re incompetent.
Jay Leno and Dave Letterman could not work any of the places that I work under the circumstances that I end up working. People don’t know how to behave in public anymore. Parents are trying to be friends with their kids rather than draw the line and tell them what proper public behavior would be. If you can go out in public with your underwear showing and your pants below your butt—these things work because they’re wrong. It’s the wrong thing, and they’re trying to get a reaction out of people.
Lenny Bruce talked about this when he ruined “fuck.” A good, strong word, but everybody now uses “fuck” and so it’s not a big, strong word. I think when [Bill] Clinton ruined the presidency; it certainly made my point of mediocrity. This is what I notice. Of course I've been excluded from a lot of show business in America. So, I've got a point of view I don't mind expressing because I'm really not ruining a career that's not really happening.
AVC: Speaking of your career, there’s a lot of footage on YouTube of you interrupting your openers, telling them how they could perform better. Does this also stem from that rise of mediocrity?
G: Here's what happened there: I never have an opening act. Words are actors in your show. When you say a word, you are introducing it to the audience as if it were an actor entering the scene. So many of these comedians use "fuck" and "shit" right off the bat and then lose the power of that word for a punch line later on. They also don't pay attention to what they're wearing or how they're standing. We don't really have a high level of performance in America or even a demand that people on stage have studied, or pay attention to the performing arts. You can actually take a drink now during your show! You know George Burns performed smoking a cigar and never needed a drink of water on a stool. But now this has become a tradition in America. As a visual artist, everything that's in the picture should have meaning. What does a stool and a bottle of water mean?
AVC: That they’re thirsty?
G: I can't get through the show without hydrating? How is that funny? It's just more of the same mediocre, lackadaisical, lack of quality, acceptance of the average in America.
I've always had to deal with insurance problems. My insurance was actually canceled at one point because someone sued me, saying that they had been hurt seriously by a candy bar in the balcony—a candy bar that I hit with a tennis racket so the people on the balcony could have candy. Said that she was injured in her eye and the insurance company decided not to fight her case and pay it off and canceled me! She was 130 feet away. I'm more or less at fault here. I was the first one to allow a projectile to come off of the stage and onto the audience. And I kind of take responsibility for the mosh pit. Major amusement parks now have splash rides—you don't even have to be a participant in the ride to get splashed; you can be on a bridge. And of course there's Blue Man Group, GWAR, Insane Clown Posse, all have a necessity of putting plastic on the chairs or people wearing plastic to the show. It becomes a blurring of the rules. And, I'm, you know, somewhat at fault here. But, at least it's my job as an entertainer to do something different. It shouldn't be the audience.
Where's the stage? Is the audience the entertainer? Can I yell out? Can I be funny if I'm in the audience? Can I interrupt the comedian? Can I disrespect the rest of the people in the audience? What do I give a fuck about their right to have a show as long as I'm having fun? Spoiled brats. Nobody wants to be responsible for their actions.
AVC: But you do?
G: I'm pissed. I am an excellent live performer. I have spent my life paying attention to my art form, developing my art form, worrying about my show and what I'm bringing to people, making sure that I give them a fine trade. They get a two-hour show, sometimes a three-hour show for a decent price, and I'm rewarded with immature, drunken behavior. Why in the hell did I sit at home thinking up really intelligent, insightful comments on the passing American scene just to end up at a drunken brawl where the things I say have to be yelled over the yelling that's already going on?
I'm just bored to death and unimpressed with Hollywood and our country, on top of being bitter I'm bored and unimpressed. I'm 63 years old, I've been doing this for 30 years, and I also know about the history of comedy before I was a comedian, and I can see the whole panorama of this art form and America and the audience.
AVC: Why has prop comedy been stagnating more and more?
G: I told you: an emphasis on the mediocre. You're giving the audience what they want, but, that's, I guess, a reflection on our society. It's so thin, it's a veneer, it's not deep, it doesn't have a moral direction. 'Cause we really don't know, we don't know.
AVC: What qualities should a good comedian have?
G: They need to be empathetic. They need to be a member of the audience. They need to think, "What is my audience thinking and doing while I'm performing?" That's how you perform. What would you want your celebrity to do? What kind of a show would you want? You want somebody that just comes out there and doesn't appear to be prepared and does what the hell they want to do? I don't say the things on stage that I want to say; I say the things that I think the audience wants to hear and would enjoy. You're a servant of the audience.
I've got my own standards. I don't say that I'm going to be like every other comic that’s blue or gratuitous. I do try to have my own standards: I don't do everything the audience wants, and I do try to surprise them. But it's still a service business, and I think the fact that I'm still in business 30 years later proves that this is the proper way to think about things.