No joke: Gallagher swinging his sledgehammer one last time

Gallagher might die tonight.

Did you know he is still alive?

He is. Pretty much. Surprise.

He's scheduled to make one last appearance in the Tampa Bay area, the place he thinks of as home, the locale that launched him on a three-decade-plus comedy career highlighted by 14 specials on Showtime. He's back home now, and due on stage at the Capitol Theater in Clearwater tonight, if he makes it. If.

And there's nothing funny about that. The man is 66 and says he feels good, but he felt good every time he had a heart attack, and he's had four. One was so severe doctors put Gallagher in a medically induced coma for several days, and when he came out he announced he was retiring, hanging up the Sledge-O-Matic after one last swing.

These are difficult times for Gallagher, and not exclusively due to his bad heart. He says he hasn't talked to his little brother, Ron, in 20 years, not since Gallagher sued Ron for trademark infringement for mimicking his act and billing himself as Gallagher II. What's more, the media have labeled Gallagher a bigot, a racist, a homophobe, a crazy uncle, a tea party panderer. Lesser comics have fun at his expense. One of the most recognizable comedians of the 1980s told a radio audience last year that he was broke and living in Super 8 motels and scavenging on roadsides.

Difficult times for the sad clown, indeed. Unless it's all part of the shtick.

Unless Gallagher is trolling America.

• • •

It's Saturday evening, and Gallagher finishes his Camel and unzips his bag in the parking lot of the Home Depot on N Dale Mabry Highway, where he has come to construct a Sledge-O-Matic for the show. He makes a new one in every town he visits. Sitting atop some clothes and magazines in his bag is a bullwhip. It would be freaky even if it wasn't Gallagher.

"I'm doing a sitcom and my costume is a ringleader," he explains.

He dips into the bag and comes up with a handful of magazines, then a plastic cup shaped like a boot. He has an idea for how to use it as a prop.

"I get ideas in all different areas," he says, excited. "My new idea is for the models in the fashion shows to sing about how the outfit makes them feel."

Without being asked, he pulls out an iPad-like device and shows some of the poetry and songs he's been working on. He has written a number about clothes, a poem about breasts and a rap about the Ten Commandments.

Why?

"For the world," he says, sounding incensed. "I'm making it a better place. I'm Gallagher. What the f--- do you think I'm doing?"

• • •

Before he was Gallagher, he was Leo, called "Butch," born on July 24, 1946, at Fort Bragg, N.C., after his father returned from World War II. His first years were spent around Cleveland, Ohio, and when his folks realized Butch had asthma, they shot south and wound up in Tampa, in Palma Ceia.

His dad built a skating rink on Armenia Avenue, where Butch got good enough to place in a national skating competition. He went to church at Good Shepherd Lutheran on Dale Mabry and went on Boy Scout expeditions to Lithia Springs. He graduated from H.B. Plant High School in 1964.

He enrolled in night school at the University of South Florida so he could work during the day. He changed his major occasionally to avoid Vietnam, and he signed up for the classes where he thought he'd find the best looking co-eds. He got popped in the late '60s for smoking pot near his dad's skating rink.

He left town with a girl for Los Angeles, one credit short of a USF degree, and bounced from L.A. to Chicago to West Virginia before he wound up back in Tampa, trying to become a writer. He worked at Lum's Hot Dog Restaurant on Hillsborough Avenue and someone told him he was funny.

He had been developing a routine inspired by a television infomercial for the Ronco Veg-O-Matic. He began to murder fruits and vegetables and started doing gigs around town. He opened for Bobby Rydell at a hotel in Tampa and got on The Mike Douglas Show and started touring with Jim Stafford. In the late '70s, he opened 100 shows for Kenny Rogers, and in 1980 he made a television special called Gallagher: An Uncensored Evening, his big break. It was the first time Americans on that scale beheld the crazy bald man wielding his Sledge-O-Matic.

And lord, how they laughed.

• • •

A few things stand out about Gallagher's inaugural television special. First is that it's in a tiny night club and nobody brought a raincoat or umbrella or riot helmet to guard against flying bits of fruit. That would all come later.

Second is that Gallagher's jokes are racially and ethnically insensitive, to say the least. He had something to say about Mexicans, Poles, Japanese. On and on.

"You know why a polack can't eat pickles? He can't get his head in the jar."

The audience ate it up. They laughed so hard they spilled their beers. And when it was over, they gave him a standing ovation.

Fast forward thirty years, to August of 2010, at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, a meet-up for fans of the band Insane Clown Posse. There in a side tent, the Juggalos sit around on bales of hay, and up on stage, standing barefoot on a short table, is a paunchy Gallagher. His hair is lighter and more stringy, like hay. And he's still doing the bit.

He starts by telling them that he knows the problem with America. "The problem is I'm not on TV anymore," he says, "because they can't handle the truth!"

And the truth, he says, launching into a favorite routine, is that we're losing our culture because we've become okay with crossbreeds — things like the spoon-fork (spork) and Escalades with truck beds and people who wear socks with sandals. But on this night he starts in immediately on President Obama.

"How many black dudes do you know from Hawaii?" he asks.

There's a little laughter, but it's uncomfortable.

"He's half black and half white. He's a latte. There's white milk in there. Could be goat milk," Gallagher says. "He could be an Arab terrorist. He's got 'bam' in his name."

"Wow," someone in the audience says.

He's losing them, but he keeps going.

"They said, 'Gallagher you can't be on TV, you're not sensitive to the needs of the handicapped,' " he says. "I said, 'I am too. That's why I use all their parking spaces.

"I don't know why they've got to be so close," he says. "It ain't like they gotta walk."

He senses the Juggalos' unease.

"You're backing off on me," he says. "You want to be politically correct. Just be correct."

He soon slips into a kind of internal monologue. He's speaking into the microphone, but it feels like he's talking to himself.

"I need wrong to get laughs," Gallagher says. "I need a normal world so that I can be abnormal and that's my problem. Comedians need prejudice."

Gallagher, by the end, has stopped being funny and has become something else, and it seems pretty clear that there's not much difference between the Gallagher now and the Gallagher of 30 years ago. What's different is us.

• • •

Gallagher needs some help cutting plywood for the Sledge-O-Matic, and a Home Depot employee seems to recognize him but doesn't say anything.

"Are you going to smash something?" the man finally asks.

Gallagher smiles.

A few minutes later, the man looks at Gallagher.

"How you feeling?" he asks.

"I don't know," Gallagher says. "I'm 66, and I ran it into the ground. I'm going to have them put that on my tombstone."

• • •

So this is how it ends: The Last Smash Tour, with a show in Clearwater tonight and a schedule that ends in August at the Defiance County Fair in Hicksville, Ohio. He has to stop on account of his heart, even if Gallagher says he's not scared of death.

"When your d--- don't work, death doesn't bother you," he says.

The problem with this last hurrah is that Gallagher still has a lot to say about what we're doing wrong.

"You look in your newspaper," he tells me. "Half of the stories are about an inability to define. Is it a tax or is it a revenue enhancer? . . . I say things completely. And this politically correct thing, you always have to modify everything you're saying so you wind up not saying anything."

"Is this the act?" I ask. "Or is it you?"

"I think that's a good question."

He pauses.

"It must be me," he says finally. "It must be me. I observe. I'm a scientist."

He studied chemistry at USF. He observes. He has a patent — No. 7,972,210 — for an improved slot machine. He's meeting with casino people to develop it. He's writing music and pitching television shows. He ran for governor of California. He's a living legend, he says. He doesn't need family because his fans are his family. He's done 4,000 shows, 12,000 hours on stage. He's probably the most famous person to come out of Tampa, he says. He's put 35 years into show business, smashing fruit all over America, and we ate it up, the whole gooey thing, for $25 a ticket. Even now, people come. These jokes still work. Don't you get it?

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (737) 893-8650.

No joke: Gallagher swinging his sledgehammer one last time 03/23/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 12:52pm]

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