If you're of a certain age, you probably watched Gallagher on TV in the late 1970s and '80s. There's a pretty good chance that you saw him a lot--he did 15 or so specials on HBO and Showtime and was a fixture on TV talk shows. I can't say he was ever highbrow, but I remember kinda liking him. He smashed watermelons and indulged in silly, amusing wordplay.
Then he vanished from my radar, though he never entirely went away. While he hardly ever appeared on TV any more, he continued playing clubs and touring the country. (The one time he did come back to my attention was a few years ago when he sued his brother, who had been appearing as "Gallagher Too" and copying his brother's act, originally with his permission.)
Last year, though, I found this interview with him on the the Onion AV Club site, which made clear that over the years, Gallagher had turned into a real crank. A hateful, paranoid crank with delusions of grandeur and real chip on his shoulder for gays, women, and minorities. That was followed up with a an account of a show that appeared in The Stranger, entitled "Gallagher Is a Paranoid, Right-Wing, Water-Melon-Smashing Maniac." His act had regressed over the years from a high of smashing watermelons to such bon mots as: "Without God, we are nothing but dust. What is butt dust? Is that what you get if your homosexual isn't properly lubricated?" (I suggest at this point that you at least skim the whole Stranger article. And don't take this one writer's account as gospel--other audience members from the same time period recount the same jokes being told. Such as here.) It's just lowest-common-denominator stuff, aimed at bolstering the prejudices of audience members, and you may kill a few brain cells by reading over his material.
Which is why I was was surprised--and disappointed and, yeah, pissed off--when I discovered the local YMCA-owned theater, the Boulton Center (which I've patronized many times over the last few years), has Gallagher booked for a gig in June.
I wrote this e-mail, and sent it to the address on Boulton's website:
I just noticed that you've added Gallagher to your list of upcoming shows. If you think Gallagher is still the inoffensive watermelon-smashing guy from TV talk shows in the '80s, you're wrong. ... I suggest you read this writeup of a show he performed in 2010. It quotes extensively from his act, which is jaw-droppingly homophobic, racist, misogynist--and above all, hateful.
Would you be proud to put some of those jokes on your marquee?
I look forward to your response.
The response (and I'm redacting the name of the person who sent this) was:
The challenge with any comedian is that he/she will inevitably offend someone or some group…that is essentially what they do. We have had comedians at the theater over the course of the past few years and most especially just recently who offended me as well and yet they have a large following and have sold out the theater.
Our intention is to provide a diverse calendar in order to attract a diverse population. I understand that you are not a fan of Gallagher’s but the fact remains that there is a large audience of people out there who do care for him and it isn’t for us to judge their choices. We will investigate how best to promote this particular show so that people such as yourself are not misled in any way.
Shorter: Shit sells, so we're selling shit.
I did not find that a particularly satisfying response. I mentioned this on Facebook ... and it turned out that a friend knows the CEO of the YMCA and was going to see him that evening. And would put a letter into his hands.
So, I wrote:
First, I should say how much I appreciate having the Boulton Center nearby. It is a fantastic venue, and a vibrant, important part of the community. I've attended five or six events there over the last year, and always have been impressed by the way it is run.
That's why I'm particularly disappointed that the Boulton Center has decided to book the comedian Gallagher.
I assume that whoever decided to bring Gallagher to the Boulton Center probably thought of him as the way he was in his TV appearances in the late 1970s and '80s, when his routines focused on prop comedy and wordplay. But his act has changed greatly since then--it's now filled with homophobic, misogynistic, and racist rants. In a word, it is hateful--and, I hope, the opposite of what the YMCA stands for.
I was first made aware of this last year, when I read a review of his current act. The review is available here (but I should point out that I'm not basing my objections this appearance solely on this review--a very quick search online will call up many similar reactions to his current act, and there are many videos posted on YouTube, so you can see it firsthand).
I hope you will read the entire review and examine the quotations from Gallagher's act. When you read them, are you comfortable with these words being spoken on the stage of the YMCA's Boulton Center? Do they sum up what the YMCA is about?
Here are a few of them, taken from that article:1. "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."
2. "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.
3. 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."
4. 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."
I think that's enough to make my point. Would you be proud to have those quotations on your marquee?
I'm a huge believer in free speech. And, to be perfectly honest, if Gallagher were appearing at some local comedy club, I wouldn't protest. I am not trying to have him banned from working.
But I am truly bothered by him getting a forum at the YMCA's Boulton Center.
Furthermore, I doubt very much that the average person knows what his act is like these days. Are you comfortable with children attending this act?
This guy isn't Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, who were shocking, yes, but with a point to make. Gallagher just aims to confirm the lowest-common-denominator instincts of the hateful.
When I noticed that Gallagher was appearing at the Boulton Center, I sent a note of protest to the Boulton's email address. It was answered by [redacted], who responded:
"The challenge with any comedian is that he/she will inevitably offend someone or some group…that is essentially what they do. We have had comedians at the theater over the course of the past few years and most especially just recently who offended me as well and yet they have a large following and have sold out the theater.
"Our intention is to provide a diverse calendar in order to attract a diverse population. I understand that you are not a fan of Gallagher’s but the fact remains that there is a large audience of people out there who do care for him and it isn’t for us to judge their choices. "
I don't consider that a satisfactory answer. While selling out the theater is a nice goal, is it the main goal?
Having standards isn't a bad thing.
My friend tells me the YMCA CEO was unaware of Gallagher's current act, and is unhappy about the situation.
As of yet, however, the only thing done is this addition to the show's writeup on Boulton's site:
The material expressed by this artist in no way expresses the view and opinions of the YMCA Boulton Center and YMCA of Long Island Inc.
That's pretty half-assed, if you ask me.
(P.S.: I meant what I said about not trying to stop him from working, and believing in free speech. There are a ton of comedy clubs in the area, and I don't care if he plays any of them--or, more appropriately, if he tells his jokes on a street corner somewhere. But I'm really uncomfortable with an institution that I've supported--something that depends on the public for funds--giving this idiot stage time.)
UPDATE ON 5/18: The show is going on--I'm told the contract was non-get-outable--but ticket sales are disastrous. The show's a month away, and he's only sold 40ish tickets in a venue that holds around 260, I'd guesstimate.