At the Seminole Casino Hollywood
Tuesday, June 21, 2010
If you're in your mid- 20s to 30s and had cable growing up, you likely have some warm, fuzzy memories of Gallagher, the single-named comedian who ruled premium airwaves in the '80s and '90s. The Tampa native was inescapable on Showtime, particularly, a channel for which he produced a new special (or sometimes two) every year from 1980 to 1987.
For members of Generation Y, though, we remember these in rerun on the
early days of Comedy Central, which reran these old one-man shows
endlessly. The beginning would involve a lot of slightly acerbic though
relatively harmless observational humor on American society, the
absurdities of the English language (the famous bomb/comb/tomb joke),
and so on. His vibe was vaguely that of an old hippie; one special that played particularly frequently on Comedy
Central found him dressed as the planet Earth and putting forth a
message of environmental stewardship.
Then -- which is what probably grabbed you as a kid -- he'd smash a bunch of stuff, basically the entire grocery store, culminating with watermelons. Back then, there was a reason for this, and the gimmick was woven into the show's overall arc. Legend has it, it was originally some kind of commentary on American wastefulness, though one that ironically celebrated it and further propagated it.
So yes, though Gallagher was one of the first mainstream prop comics and once was a one-man entertainment juggernaut, by 2011, he's become something of a comedy footnote as "The Guy Who Smashed Watermelons." It's unclear where, exactly, Gallagher began the decline from his position as the king of premium channels. It must have been in the late '80s and early '90s, where all of a sudden, five-year gaps appeared between his specials, from 1987 to 1992, and then nothing again until 1997, and then again zip from 2000 to the last one on the books, in 2005.
Obviously, there was a shift in standup comedy as a whole. Over the years, prop comedy itself became a punch line. And the rest of Gallagher's unabashedly populist style, which incorporated street jokes and wordplay, became supplanted by the often deeply personal, narrative form of standup favored by most comedians today.
But rather than try to adapt with the times or at least to just accept his place as a specific figure in the timeline of American comedy, Gallagher got bitter. For the past few years, he's been giving notoriously rambling, ranting interviews -- including the internet-infamous turns with the Onion's AV Club or on an episode this past January of Marc Maron's WTF? Podcast. (That last one, actually, found Gallagher dropping the mic and walking out mid-interview.)
His handlers have now learned better than to unleash him on bloggers. When we requested an interview with the comedian before last night's show, we were funneled to an email "interview" whose short responses were unlikely to be the words of the man himself.
Why is it likely they weren't his real answers? Well, they were nonconfrontational and to the point -- the direct opposite of his South Florida performance last night.
Even if Gallagher has a right to be bitter about some of his life's troubled turns, he hasn't managed to sublimate that into new material, as you might expect. Instead, he appears to have directed his anger outward: through rather pedestrian jokes about gay men, lesbians, women who want to drive trucks and get tattoos, women with names like Chelsea instead of "a beautiful name like Betty," "China people," Christians (lest you accuse him of harboring regular Bible Belt sensibilities), and, basically, the great, amorphous They who pushed him off TV and to reduced circumstances. In a Gallagher show now, there are many asides along the lines of, "See why I'm not on TV anymore?"
All of that background is really needed to properly parse last night's performance at the Seminole Casino Hollywood. No, not the Hard Rock -- the other Seminole casino just down the street, literally. (It's not bad, just older and smaller, but generous with frequent bonus prize drawings.) Well, technically, not even in the casino, but in a 200ish-capacity tent set up outside in the parking lot, outside of which several dozen hardcore Gallagher fans -- almost uniformly in their 40s to 60s and white -- had lined up almost an hour before the start time.
The rest of the crowd was filled out with a few small groups of 20-somethings and a bunch of VIP players' club members from the casino inside. They were easy to pick out in many cases because they wore their club cards around their neck, seemed confused about the event into which they were being herded, were audibly upset they wouldn't be able to check their bingo numbers from inside the tent, or were drunk and clad in body-wear with no pants.
OK, so that last descriptor applied to only one visibly intoxicated young woman. But more on her shortly.
Inside the tent, everything was covered in black tarp, and on each of the white plastic folding chairs was a plastic poncho and a pair of safety glasses. Though the poncho plastic was thin, it was hot inside them, despite the tent air conditioning unit that whirred so loudly that it sometimes threatened to drown out Gallagher himself. The same thing would happen too when a car with a particularly loud sound system would drive by in the distance on State Road 7.
Undeterred, Gallagher took the stage promptly at 8 p.m. -- no fanfare and no warm-up act -- and made small-talk/light patter as people continued to file in and fumble with the ponchos. Or, at least, it seemed like patter -- until, about ten minutes in, it was clear that this wasn't ice-breaking patter; this was the actual act. However, with the table of food and props set up behind him, it was clear what the focus of the show would eventually be, especially because an unwitting security guard was assigned to stand at the stage's side and hand him things.
One was a toy pinwheel, which Gallagher asked for within the first few minutes of the show. "Gays are Americans," he said, holding it up. "There's no way to play with this and look masculine!"
It was only 8:05, and the similarly tasteless -- and, importantly, not particularly funny -- street jokes would continue to come in quick succession during this part of the show:
"Why can't lesbians lose weight? Because you can't eat Jenny Craig with Mary Kay on your face."
"Why didn't Ted Kennedy mind dying of brain cancer? Because he wanted a hole in his head like his brothers."
Oh, then there was some stuff about Mexicans, who were absent from the audience, Gallagher explained, because of the high ticket price. (It was $10.) "Don't worry, they'll be here for the cleanup later," he said.
By 8:15, after railing against such egregious baby names as Brittany and Heather and something about a black man -- Obama -- being unfit to look for oil in the Middle East, a couple had already walked out. "Esta mierda, no me queda," complained loudly a woman behind me, struggling with her poncho.
No worry, though, as Gallagher had some more tricks up his sleeves, or rather, in his pants. There was the explanation that he was stoned during the taping of every one of his old specials; the only difference since his heart attack earlier this year is that now he's drunk too.
"This is what men have in their pants!" he then announced before turning his back to the audience. "A banana!" He yelled, wheeling back around and holding up a banana.
Then he peeled it, and inside appeared to be a hot dog. "No, it's a weenie!" He jabbed it in the air, repeating more gibberish about bananas and weenies. "Tweet me! Tweet me in my weenie!" He yelled. He dumped the banana/hot dog into a Kmart bucket at his feet.
Then, there was something about Americans and "good Anglo-saxons." "You're a Viking, aren't you?" Gallagher asked of one audience member in an eerily pointy-headed poncho.
Then came a long riff about the English language being invaded by French. Actually, this came the closest to vintage Gallagher wordplay. There was a long, rather clever bit about going out on the boulevard to a restaurant to ask the maitre'd about the soup du jour, etc.
Too bad this was the conclusion of it: "See how gay French is?" And, "I'm just pointing out how many of our military terms are faggy French words." And, "This is why Mexican's can't speak English -- it's French!"
Shortly after, Gallagher set out some mementos -- not souvenirs, he explained, which would of course be French -- from the show, a few assorted watermelon toys he said he had picked up in a local store. Was anyone celebrating an anniversary or birthday for which they'd want one?
Nobody made a move forward -- until the aforementioned pants-less girl stumbled up. She said she wanted a watermelon-print dog dish. "If you're gonna dress like this and act like this and not give a fuck about your face and stick holes in it," Gallagher said, "why give a shit about your ass, right? Eat some dog food? What's the difference!"
He asked her to eat some dog food sitting onstage. She did, though she announced that it wasn't really dog food and that it tasted pretty good too.
Gallagher asked her to put a watermelon-shaped squeaky toy in her underwear. "Do you want to dance on the table? No, you do that all the time," he said. He asked her, for unclear reasons, to model a pair of men's camouflage-print briefs he had turned into a shirt, gave her a joke to repeat, then sent her offstage.
She didn't keep the dog dish and wound up walking out with her date around 8:48. A little surprisingly, Gallagher didn't heckle her as she did so.
While that was the clear nadir of the show, a string of random Lisa Lampanelli jokes followed. ("Lisa Lampanelli calls her vagina Macpussy because it's supersized and you might find a toy inside.") Then there were a bunch of street jokes about Jesus and a bit about how difficult it is for men to urinate at night without bumping their shins on the toilet. "So you can't blame a man for entering a bathroom like a Pollack in a minefield," he said, wildly waving his arms.
There was a sad moment in which he complained about the DVD box set of all of his old specials going for only $20. He repeated a bunch of his classic jokes, which brought back a couple of good nostalgic feelings. "If our knees went the other way, what would chairs look like?" Corny by today's standards, perhaps, but preferable to angry parking-lot ranting.
Then he informed fans that if they wanted a T-shirt, they should visit Cafepress, which he's now using in lieu of selling actual merchandise because he got "sick of carrying shit around." (Unfortunately, a later search on that site of "Gallagher," "Gallagher comedy," and several other obvious terms didn't turn up the products.)
Luckily, after a "song" about breasts that was shouted, music-less -- sample lyrics: "I'm a rooter for the hooters/A fan of the gland/Just a knocker gawker" -- at about 9:15, he appeared to give up on the jokes and resort to Smashing Shit. This segment involved a lot of build-up, with displays of everything that would be smashed, to loud but fun "ewwws" from the crowd. Among the would-be edible casualties: apples, applesauce, creamed corn, cream of mushroom soup, and mayonnaise. When a little bit of that latter substance dribbled out of the jar, a man in the audience yelled, "You shot your load!"
A lot of time was devoted to showing off the food or its gross combinations. At one point, Gallagher used an upside-down, open container of peanut butter to demonstrate his own personal issues with pooping. This he dispensed with early. "Hey, gummy boy," he said, tossing it to a fan near the front row, "you can eat this with no teeth."
Other than that, none of the food showing-off really connected to any earlier narrative or expository thread, as they did on the old specials.
Instead, he seemed to be using the various food items as effigies or as a bizarre method of inclusion. Sauerkraut went into a pie plate "in case there might be some Germans." Spaghetti-O's got dumped into another presmashing receptacle for the Italians.
Then, "I've got these Chinese vegetables," he said, "but I don't see any China people here! So I'll just dump them in here with the queers." By "queers," he meant a pie plate full of fruit cocktail.
All that eventually done, he announced, "You know, this has been more than a thrill for me. It's been an inconvenience."
Now it was officially Time to Smash Shit. He asked for anyone celebrating a birthday to come up onstage; if they took a birthday cake to the face, they'd get to smash some watermelon onstage with him. Nobody was celebrating a birthday, so he extended the field to anyone with a birthday ever. Four people volunteered. They got cake to the face but not before he doused them with milk or syrup.
Then it was Gallagher's turn with the Sledge-o-Matic -- or rather, these days, some wooden mallets of the kind you'd pick up at a county fair, not the larger versions of yore. Splat! Spaghetti-O's spewed into all corners. Then cottage cheese from a pie plate, and then cottage cheese in a closed container. The cottage cheese stink hung heavily in the air throughout the ensuing end of the performance.
In a grand finale, Gallagher began to sing part of "The Star-Spangled Banner," smashing as he went along. Actually, this part of the performance was pretty fun for the gross-out factor, the honest-to-God American thrill of wasting stuff, and the novelty of picking Spaghetti-O's out of your hair. Gallagher himself, on a later thwack, wound up with a face full of strawberry syrup. "Take a picture of America's wounded," he said, probably aware of all of that sentence's layers of meaning in this particular context.
Then he opened up the field to any members of the audience who wanted to come onstage to smash stuff. Van Halen's "Jump" started blaring over the speakers. Even I couldn't resist -- most of the other dozen or so people got slivers of watermelon, but I wound up with a pie plate full of sauerkraut and possibly mashed potatoes. It was indeed quite satisfying to send it flying. The guy after me tried to use his turn as an opportunity to give Gallagher a business card.
But, bummer, after this, there was no grand finale. Gallagher himself didn't smash anything past the initial few soupy concoctions, and in fact, there was no whole watermelon smashed by anyone. Instead, he eventually stripped his shirt and stood by as a birthday cake-wearer came back for a second turn on the stage. The line of audience members over, he waved, walked away, and that was it.
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Gallagher had ceded the final showstoppers to his audience, perhaps in the ultimate act of crowd-pleasing. In fact, he has continued to stress this in even the most convoluted interviews -- that when he's telling objectionable jokes, he's just giving audiences what they want. If only he realized those audiences would be bigger if he stopped underestimating them all so badly.