"You have your hat backward," Gallagher sneers at a twentysomething man in the front row. "Are you a homosexual? Because it seems you have a problem figuring out the front from the back." Big laugh. "I see people every day I can't figger out what sex they are," he continues. Even bigger laugh. The old man—1980s fixture, incessant smasher of fruit, and "comedy legend," according to the marquee outside—is onstage in front of a sold-out Admiral Theatre in Bremerton, Washington. An hour earlier, my friend and I had disembarked the packed rush-hour ferry in downtown Bremerton and wandered uphill through oddly deserted streets (our hundreds of fellow passengers seemed to have vaporized when they reached land) until we found the Admiral. Gallagher stood on the sidewalk. He was small and old—his back bent a bit, his trademark dark curls faded to a dank grayish-blond. He scuttled around the corner and through a side door.
It's cocktail seating inside the Admiral—small tables of four—and we are placed at #B32 with a largish lady in pink and her mustachioed gentleman friend. "Oh, you're sitting with my daughter!" the elderly usher crows. "This is my daughter!" We aren't sure how to respond, so we say, "Cool!" Things are immediately awkward. They would only get worse.
My memories of watching Gallagher during my 1980s childhood (Comedy Central was my third parent) were pretty much apolitical—silly props, innocuous puns, and, of course, all the smashing, smashing, smashing. Tonight, we're expecting much of the same, only older, sadder. We are smug and a little bored. "Gallagher's gotta be, like, 90 now, right?" I joke. "Because he was, you know..." "Bald?" my friend offers. "In the '70s?" "Right." The stage is swathed in thousands of yards of black plastic sheeting. Spray-painted on the back wall is a banner (created, if the internet is any indication, by Gallagher himself before each show) that says: "G-[watermelon]-L-L-[space]-[watermelon]-R-R-R." It is... sad. We were right about that much.
Then Gallagher gets going. And fuck. Bremerton is a military town and a conservative one: It's more than just a slide into obscurity that delivered Gallagher to the Admiral rather than, say, the Moore in Seattle. You see, Gallagher is—how best to put this?—a paranoid, delusional, right-wing religious maniac. I HAD NO IDEA.
"Hey, President Obama," he spits out the name like a mouthful of burning hair. "You ain't black. I don't care what you say—you're a latte. You're half whole-milk. It could be goat milk—you could be a terrorist!" I am too busy losing my mind to catch the next joke, which is about Ted Kennedy's brain cancer. Aaaaand we're off.
Gallagher is upset about a lot of things. Young people with their sagging pants (in faintly coded racist terms, he explains that this is why the jails are overcrowded—because "their" baggy pants make it too hard for "them" to run from the cops). Tattoos: "That ink goes through to your soul—if you read your Bible, your body is a sacred temple, YOU DIPSHIT." People naming their girl-children Sam and Toni instead of acceptable names like Evelyn and Betty: "Just give her some little lesbian tendencies!" Guantánamo Bay: "We weren't even allowed to torture all the way. We had to half-torture—that's nothin' compared to what Saddam and his two sons OOFAY and GOOFAY did." Lesbians: "There's two types—the ugly ones and the pretty ones." (Um, like all people?) Obama again: "If Obama was really black, he'd act like a black guy and get a white wife." Michael Vick: "Poor Michael Vick." Women's lib: "These women told you they wanna be equal—they DON'T." Trans people: "People like Cher's daughter—figure that out. She wants a penis, but she has a big belly. If you can't see your dick, you don't get one." The Rice Krispies elves: "All three of those guys are gay. Look at 'em!" The Mexicans: "Look around—see any Mexicans? Nope. They'll be here later for the cleanup." The French: "They ruin our language with their faggy words."
Above all, everything is gay, gay, gay to Gallagher. He leans into it with the borderline-nonsensical, icked-out, ignorant glee of a boy—or the protest-too-much vigor of a GOP senator. Gallagher delivers your Bible verse for the day: "Without God, we are nothing but dust. What is butt dust? Is that what you get if your homosexual isn't properly lubricated?" He relates a story about spilling mouthwash onto his crotch during a show: "Lucky for me, there was no homosexuals in the area—'cause my balls was minty fresh." At other points during the show, Gallagher says, "Men and women can't live in the same house" and "There's no way men and women can have a relationship." He says he can't remember why he used to feel pleasure in looking at a woman. And, "There's only one kind of homosexual guy, and that's the pretty ones—why do homosexual men have to be so good-looking?" Gallagher. Listen. Is there something you want to share with us?
Gallagher commands the stage with the weary, sure hand of a touring comic closing out his third decade on the road. He knows what he's doing, and even I'm not a big enough dick to dispute the "comedy legend" designation on the sign outside. The people of Bremerton eat it up, and despite the discomfort of sitting in a room full of rabid, frothing conservative dickwads (especially when the "comedy" veers creepily close to white-power rhetoric: "We're descended from an Anglo-Saxon Viking tradition!"), it's a relief to have them there. Gallagher needs them, and I need to not witness the complete mental breakdown of Gallagher.
"This is why I'm not on TV," he keeps repeating. "I am powerful. They can tell. I'm an American and I'm gonna speak my mind." He tells the truth, the truth, the truth, the truth, and everyone else is afraid. The TV talk-show hosts are afraid, the network executives are afraid, the American people are afraid. It's our fault that he's not a superstar—not his—and he needs us to know it. We owe him. "Dave Letterman ain't comin' here. Robin Williams ain't comin' out here. You gotta say, you know, Gallagher came here, and he did two hours."
In a section entitled "Additional Facts," the program describes, with heartbreaking false bravado, a 2008 interview that Gallagher seems to regard as his big comeback: "The Howard Stern Show. The interview lasted at least 1 hour and the callbacks were amazing. It was a chance for everyone to see and hear Gallagher in a new light." I couldn't track down an audio file of the Stern interview, but the show's website maintains detailed recaps of each episode:
Howard welcomed watermelon smashing comedian Gallagher to the studio and was surprised that he was wearing a suit... Gallagher then railed against the late night hosts; Jay Leno is impersonal, Conan isn't funny, and Letterman used his watermelon-dropping bit. Gallagher said, "I'm an authority on comedy. I was a comedian in another life," and listed some of his lesser-known credits, like random parody songs... Gallagher then continued to list his crazy ideas; fart ring tones, a face-paint-focused environmental presentation for Al Gore, and something about photons and electrons.
Ugh. Devastating. It sounds just like the Gallagher show I watched—less a triumphant comeback and more the perversely fascinating but ultimately insignificant ramblings of a desperate has-been.
At last, after two hours of his tedious, hacky, right-wing manifesto, Gallagher gets to the part his (willing) hostages have been waiting for. It's time to smash some shit. There are the watermelons, there is some cottage cheese ("It's got the curds that blow up, just like on the news!"), there is sauerkraut and syrup and honey. Then Gallagher gets a tin pie plate. He opens a giant can of fruit cocktail and pours it in. He opens a can of some Asian vegetable—water chestnuts, maybe—and pours that in, too. "This is the China people and queers!!!" he screams and takes his sledgehammer to the thing with a fury that is no fun at all. Wet chunks of China people and queers fly everywhere. The hateful, bitter old man laughs. I cannot believe Bill Hicks is dead and this motherfucker is still touring.
On our way out the door, my friend says to me, "Hey—do you want to go beat up some queers? I heard they're really faggy." We laugh. But it isn't really funny.