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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 2005’s Tropic Of Gallagher), at 63, Gallagher says he’s now “bored” and “bitter” about the current landscape of comedy. While on tour, 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?
Gallagher: 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 it gets posted to the world, and then it gets preserved, and then 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 that did the on-the-street interviews, and she was known for her cuteness, and that’s why she was hired. The lady on the desk with all the stature that doesn’t speak good, Barbara Walters, was more of the kind of person you would have as an anchorperson, but in America, they are 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; if girls can wear a top that shows their bra as part of the fashion; if kids are getting tattoos that cause you to react because of the size of the tattoo and the colors of the tattoo, extending their earlobes, you know, bone through their nose—all of these things work because they’re wrong. It’s the wrong thing to do, and they’re trying to get a reaction out of people, and the reason people react is because it’s wrong.
As soon as enough people have done the wrong thing—Lenny Bruce talked about this when he ruined “fuck.” A good, strong word, but everybody now uses “fuck,” so it’s not a big, strong word. “Ass” recently, within the last few years, [George W.] Bush used it in public, and so then it became okay to use on TV. So then “ass” has entered the lexicon of acceptable words, so then “ass” loses its power as a surprising word. Then of course President Clinton ruined oral sex. [It’s] now an acceptable activity for a virgin, and doesn’t qualify as sex. So somewhere in there is a loss of morality—a mediocrity. You know, I think when Clinton ruined the presidency, it certainly made my point of mediocrity. We never pick a president who is above, we pick somebody we identify with: the lowest level, the most common. We didn’t pick the best politician in the Bush family, which of course was the governor of Florida. We picked the beer-drinking good ol’ boy. Ask them to lead us in areas that maybe didn’t require a good ol’ boy. You know, 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 that 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 that word to the audience as if it were an actor entering the scene. So the first time that the actor comes out onstage is important. So many of these comedians use “fuck” and “shit” right off the bat, and then lose the power of that word for a punchline later on. They also don’t pay attention to what they’re wearing or how they’re standing. And so we don’t really have a high level of performance in America, or even a demand that people onstage 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. They more or less have a stool ready for you and ask, “What water ya want?” To me, 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 the performer is thirsty?
Gallagher on water bottles
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 that goes on in America. First we allow people to wiggle balloons behind the foul shooter as if it’s okay to win because the audience distracted the visiting team. I thought it was an athletic competition! I didn’t know it was a psychological competition in which you could ring cowbells behind the coach so the coach couldn’t talk to his players. Or that you could put a big “brick” up in the air and psychologically attack the foul shooter, “Oh, don’t be a brick!” Now, what is the game here? Is it chess? Or is it some kind of psychological torture of the opposing team? We’ve lost the meaning of athletic competition.
So of course when [Lakers player Ron] Artest lies on the timer’s table, the audience is confused as to whether you can throw a beer. Then Artest is confused as to whether if someone throws a beer at you, you can enter the stands and have fisticuffs. The only real leader in America was, I guess his name is David Stern? The head of the NBA? Who finally said, “No! There are standards of behavior.” And you know why he said it? It wasn’t because he was concerned about behavior—he was concerned about money. The NBA cannot ask a family man to bring his children to an NBA game where a fight might erupt.
But the whole thing, basketball, is way too close. The audience is too close to the players. Something’s going to happen. Some player is going to be seriously injured falling on a tripod or a large lens of a camera. These celebrities that are placed extra-close on folding chairs—the players have to run for a ball and then jump two or three rows of people—who said that was okay?
Gallagher on insurance
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. Somehow a candy bar 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. You know, I’m more or less at fault here. I was the first one to allow a projectile to come off of the stage and into 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.
You see, we’ve even blurred—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. We have a country… you know, people can’t handle alcohol. There’s no clear line as to what you can and can’t do. Nobody wants to be responsible for their actions.
We just had a real confusing situation in football. One player kills somebody and somehow isn’t punished as much as a quarterback who kills a dog. Dogs are given to the pound, and the pound kills them. So if, I forget his name, if [Michael Vick] had worked for the pound, he wouldn’t have been put in jail. It’s very—
Comedians need meaning. We need to know what words mean, and our society now is intent on blurring the meaning of just about everything. And the legal system also! “What is an adult? What’s premeditation? What is a felony?” It’s very difficult. “What’s improper behavior?” I ask these cops. If the kids already have their pants mostly down and they’re facing a wall, how do you know they’re not about to pee on the wall? Because this is what you do with homeless guys. You would catch them with their pants half down and you would get them for indecent exposure and public urination. And the cop told me, you can’t arrest them until you see the “brown round.”
AVC: What? What’s that?
G: That’s your dick. I guess everybody has a brown dick.
AVC: To take things back a little bit to comedy—
G: I’m a little pissed. I know that I am an excellent live performer. I know that I have spent my life paying attention to my art form, developing my art form, worrying about my show and what it is 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? But you know what? Madison is wonderful. They’re going to listen. Detroit is drunken idiots. It was no surprise to me. I performed with Kenny Rogers for one year as his opening act, and I got to visit every major American city and notice the audience, and Detroit was one of the worst. Comparing them to 100, I did 100 dates with him. It was no surprise to me that the riot at the basketball game occurred in Detroit. It would not have occurred in Minneapolis.
AVC: What percentage of your audience do you think are hardcore fans vs. people who are just curious and haven’t seen you before?
G: See, that’s the problem—casinos give away the tickets. I had a problem just a few nights ago at a casino where I walked off the stage because they weren’t respecting me, and the audience was composed of people who got the ticket for free because they were high rollers. They weren’t really my fans filled with love and admiration and thankfulness that told me how much I’d meant to them over the years. But if you want to go back to your question about that New York situation—once again really thanking the Internet for making me have to address everything I do.
AVC: What more would you like to add?
G: Well, they couldn’t wait to post the videotape. I didn’t ask for an opening act, and I was surprised to discover that they had decided to put three kids on before me. And I say kids because they weren’t schooled. You can watch them. Now, it’s hard enough to do a show at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. I hardly ever work in Manhattan, and it’s hard enough. That audience was there to see me, and those kids were ruining my audience. They were going to use all the words, they were going to introduce all the hot topics, so that by the time I got on as act No. 4, they were going to be overstimulated and bored and tired. And I didn’t want that. My audience was cooling off. They were not skilled comedians. So I jumped onstage so that the audience would see me, and that I could keep it going. I was actually using those comics as props. Too bad. That’s what I decided to do. I don’t have to be a nice guy if the situation and the people that hired me are not nice in one way or another to me. I pretended to be helping them to be better comedians because I felt that was some kind of a persona that I could take. And they did need my help, to tell you the truth. They don’t introduce their topics in a proper order. They don’t care how they stand, what they wear. I can tell you right now: There are at least five comedy specials on Comedy Central where the comedian wears a dark color and stands in front of a dark curtain. Now how fucking stupid is that? Now your hands and your face are floating in blackness. And then there’s an art director who’s given credit for the show and doesn’t know enough to say the figure should stand out against the background? Hello? It’s television!
I’m just bored to death and unimpressed with Hollywood and our country. I can prove it. 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. I can see the whole panorama of this art form and America and the audience. I know that there used to be variety shows. There used to be places that people could learn the performing arts. You know, the No. 2 or No. 3 winner of Star Search doesn’t have a career. You have to have a hit and play a major hall to have a career in singing. There’s no place where everybody says, “Ooh, we’d love to hear the No. 3, and we’re ready to just sit and listen to you sing and appreciate your talent.” No, they’re not going to see them unless they’re hot. You know? ’Cause I work these smaller halls, and they don’t have anybody. They’re stuck in the air, they’re going out of business, they have to be supported by tax dollars because America really doesn’t appreciate the performing arts. There’s no vaudeville. Show business isn’t organized. There’s no way of becoming a beginner and moving into intermediate [and] then being a professional. You either have a hit and work the stadiums, or you’re a nobody and you’re over with.
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 onstage that I want to say; I say the things 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 use of language. 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.