Smash and Laugh

To mention Gallagher is to set up a word association that invariably ends at watermelon. There is perhaps no more easily identified signature act in physical comedy. Jeff Foxworthy may spew his "You might be a redneck if..." one-liners, but Gallagher projects a multidimensional flow in time and space of splattering food, his Sledge-o-matic act a roid-rage stage version of the hackneyed ketchup-packet-under-foot gag.

The splattering is calculated. The 18th-century formula known as Bernoulli's equation, which predicts air flow over a plane's wing and a tornado's power, can also describe the acceleration of cottage cheese through a pipe-like hole drilled along the business end of a sledgehammer. It's a mathematical tidbit that Gallagher, as a University of South Florida engineering grad, madly applied to his own evil games. "Bernoulli's equation tells us that a fluid will increase speed if put through a smaller-diameter pipe," G. explains. "So the hammer hole starts big and gets smaller. If you hit it upside down, you wouldn't get any fountain effect."

To be on the receiving end of that fountain sometimes requires intense prophylactic measures. When Gallagher performs, plastic sheeting covers the theater's front "death" rows. Spectators often wear raincoats, ponchos, and goggles to protect themselves from the shrapnel of pound cakes, Big Macs, salad, oranges, etc. And, of course, watermelons.

Sigh... watermelons. The watermelon association can, of course, be double-edged. On one hand, Gallagher might be thought of as Sisyphus perpetually rolling a boulder (or, um, you know what) up a hill, doomed to eternally repeat his vices in some laugh-track circle of hell ("trapped-in-the-'70s comedian" is how Men's Health once described him). Unwittingly backing this perspective is G. himself, telling People, "I'm not just a guy who smashes watermelons" or whining to Cox News Service, "I'm tired of being dismissed as merely a guy who smashes fruit."

However, a second perspective may be inferred from this last comment -- maybe G. really should be celebrated as merely a guy who smashes fruit. Saying Gallagher is synonymous with the food gag isn't necessarily to indict the gag as moldy (he still packs the house even after thousands of performances) but to underscore how the man has successfully negotiated his niche in comedy's broad history. It's not like you sit back and say, "Well, as fruit and diaper-smashing comedians go, Gallagher's just OK." No, this is his act, his oeuvre, over which he has even sued his own younger brother (Gallagher II).

At the end of the day, G. has succeeded where so many spotlight-driven folks have failed -- he's branded himself. Sledge-o-matic is trademarked, so, kids: You can try this at home -- just don't charge admission for it. Leave that up to Gallagher. After all, he's managed to make it funny decades later. Even if his wardrobe hasn't changed. -- Dave Amber

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