Gallagher, hammer-wielding comic whose routine was a smash, dies at 76


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 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.

The cause was multiple organ failure, said his former manager Craig Marquardo. Gallagher was receiving hospice care after having “numerous” heart attacks, he added, including while onstage in 2011 during a performance in Minnesota.

With his thick mustache, Ben Franklin-style hair, and fondness for berets and striped shirts, Gallagher was a singularly quirky presence on the American comedy circuit. He cultivated an air of mystery while refusing to share his first name (it was Leo), helped pioneer the cable television stand-up special (he made more than a dozen for Showtime) and claimed to have performed some 3,500 live shows, the equivalent of performing daily for almost a decade without breaks.

Virtually all his performances were filled with bizarre props and wordplay, such as a pistol that shot out plastic hands (he called it his “hand gun”) and a doll attached to a piece of wood (“baby on board”). His signature routine featured the Sledge-O-Matic, an enormous wooden mallet — a parody of kitchen gadgets hawked by TV pitchman Ron Popeil — that Gallagher said was manufactured by “a subsidiary of Fly by Night Industries.”

“Don’t you want to know how it works?” he would ask, before setting fruit on his makeshift anvil and smashing it to bits.

Gallagher would pummel watermelons, oranges, beans, cottage cheese, pound cake, cheeseburgers, tubes of toothpaste and video game controllers, laying down the hammer on a bunch of grapes after asking his audience if they wanted any wine. People in the front rows were issued ponchos, or simply learned from experience that it helped to bring a raincoat. Venues took precautions as well, wrapping chandeliers in plastic to guard against the splatter.

“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,” Gallagher said in a 2009 interview with the A.V. Club. “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 I’m, you know, somewhat at fault here. But at least it’s my job as an entertainer to do something different.”

At times, his prop comedy landed the wrong way. A woman at one of his 1990 shows in California alleged that she suffered head and neck injuries when he sent a two-foot-tall, water-squirting penguin doll flying into the audience. The doll contained a fire extinguisher, and the woman sued Gallagher for $13,000 in medical bills, plus $120,000 in damages and lost wages.

To her lawyers’ horror, Gallagher turned the courtroom into a comedy club, amusing the jurors and even the judge.

“I will say that in seven years on the bench, I’ve seen a lot of characters, but none so theatrical,” Judge William Froeberg told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, after the jury sided with Gallagher. “It was entertaining. It certainly wasn’t boring.”

Gallagher, a former chemist and road manager for singer Jim Stafford (“Spiders & Snakes”), liked to say that he was “the smartest guy who was ever dumb enough to want to be a comedian.” He made his debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1975 and gained further notice five years later with “Gallagher: An Uncensored Evening,” his first TV special. He was soon opening for singer Kenny Rogers, and firing back at critics who failed to see how a watermelon, among other props, could be an effective punchline.

“Using props is nothing new,” he told the Times of Northwest Indiana. “Jack Benny had his violin. George Burns had his cigar. Bob Hope had his golf club. I just use bigger and messier ones.”

Discussing his comedy routine, Gallagher sometimes waxed philosophical. Although “you can get a laugh just by sticking your finger in your nose,” he once told a reporter, “I want to do more. I want to say something, to feed the brain.”

But his topical and political jokes fell flat with many audience members, and by the 2010s critics said his set had devolved into a barrage of racist, sexist and homophobic jokes.

Gallagher also alienated himself from some of his peers by heckling his openers, amateur comedians whom he criticized for their posture, punchlines and attire. He was similarly scathing when it came to fellow stand-ups, criticizing the “C-level jokes” of Robin Williams and the “embarrassing” humor of Jim Carrey. When Comedy Central ranked him No. 100 on a list of the best comedians of all time, he was open about his frustrations.

“How could I be behind people I never heard of? How many of these people stayed in the business for 20 years?” he said in a 2005 interview with the Oregonian newspaper. Still, he added, “It could be worse. I guess I’m lucky I’m not the 101st person on that list. I might not be accepted in New York and L.A., but I have my fans and they’ve been very good to me.”

Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr. was born in Fort Bragg, N.C., on July 24, 1946, and grew up in Florida. His father owned a skating rink in the Tampa area, and Gallagher developed a talent for speed and freestyle skating that he later incorporated into his stage act, racing around on roller skates with a balloon tail.

Gallagher studied chemistry and English at the University of South Florida, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1970. He later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he worked for Allied Chemical in Chicago, wrote an unpublished novel, got a job as a night manager at a restaurant, and performed his first comedy gigs at a Tampa topless bar and a steakhouse. Neither venue invited him back.

For a time, he shared an agent with Stafford, who let Gallagher perform his comedy routine at concerts. Gallagher moved to Hollywood in the early 1970s and said he developed his sledgehammer bit at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where he discovered that “by smashing a watermelon, I became a big draw.”

His younger brother Ron later took the stage with Gallagher’s blessing, performing a nearly identical comedy act in small-market clubs. But after Ron began performing as “Gallagher II,” confusing audience members who thought they were seeing Gallagher I, the original Gallagher grew irritated. He sued his brother in federal court, and in 2000 a judge prohibited Ron Gallagher from performing with “the use of a sledgehammer or other similar device to pulverize watermelons, fruits, food or other items of any kind.”

Three years later, Gallagher staged a satirical campaign for governor of California, running in a special election on the slogan, “Finally, a governor you can get drunk with.” His platform, which included instituting fines for talking loudly on cellphones, earned him more than 5,400 votes. (He lost to another veteran showman, actor and Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Gallagher was married and divorced at least once, according to his manager. Survivors include two children, Barnaby and Aimee, and two grandchildren. Additional details on survivors were not immediately available.

Late in his career, Gallagher performed his melon-smashing routine in a Geico commercial and played an astrologer in “The Book of Daniel,” a 2013 movie. He continued touring until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and was portrayed by Paul F. Tompkins in the newly released biopic parody “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as musician Weird Al.

As Gallagher saw it, his career lasted so long in part because he knew what audiences wanted, and because he had a good sense of how they would react. Comedians “need to be empathetic,” he told the A.V. Club.

“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,” he added. “You’re a servant of the audience. … 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.”

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