Prop comic Gallagher brings 'commotion' to Punchline

Think sledgehammer and watermelon and one name comes to mind: Gallagher.

His Sledge-O-Matic routine — which featured him smashing various items while nearby fans protected themselves from flotsam with plastic tarps and umbrellas — made him a hugely popular prop comic back in the 1980s and '90s. During those days, he filled 3,000-seat theaters and generated several Showtime comedy specials.

But his shtick faded from the public consciousness in recent years.

And for the first time, he's doing five shows this weekend at the Punchline, a relatively small venue for him compared to his heyday.

"I'm working my way down," Gallagher said in a phone interview last week from Los Angeles, sounding a wee grouchy. "I enjoy what I do. I think people value it. I will continue to do it even though I don't need to. And as my popularity has waned, I'm lucky I get to perform anywhere, so I don't care!"

Gallagher, now 61, has been battling the lowbrow/highbrow dichotomy since he broke big in the late '70s.

"I draw a lot of stupid people and some smart people. It's my fault," he said. "I'm stupid and smart at the same time. It's stupid to smash stuff, but I talk smart."

Chris DiPetta, who runs the Punchline, agrees: "The Sledge-O-Matic stuff overtook what Gallagher was. His stand-up is actually very heady and brilliant."

Perceptions of Gallagher today are mixed.

Uptown Comedy Club's Gary Abdo considers him "the icon of prop comics. I recently saw the Blue Man Group and all I could think of is Gallagher. He's the original."

But Funny Farm general manager and stand-up comic Marshall Chiles dubbed him "a has-been."

Atlanta veteran stand-up comic Jerry Farber saw him 15 years ago and was deeply impressed. "He's like a throwback to the Three Stooges and Marx Brothers. I just loved the commotion. There's such a heartbeat to his show." As for doing the Punchline, "he's not going to make much money. But to his credit, he's still working."

Besides doing 100 shows a year, Gallagher follows the stock market, his eyes glued to CNBC all day. The past few months have been a bit wobbly. "I lost a lot of money and I want it back! I'm going to crawl out of this hole!" (His current stock picks: International Fuel Technology Inc. and Immtech Pharmaceuticals Inc.)

His fertile mind not only generates stand-up routines and goofy songs, but inventions (and a fascination with subatomic particles). He has concepts for a solar-powered soda machine, a shower that turns off automatically when you step out and a more entertaining slot machine.

"Slot machines are boring," he said. "Why not make little vignettes? For instance, I have a buzzard flying down and the pay line is an electronic wire and it gets electrocuted."

Fans are scooping up tickets at a fairly rapid pace, DiPetta said.

But for people hoping for a nostalgic watermelon seed in the eye, they won't be getting it. DiPetta said the Punchline is too small for Gallagher to smash anything inside the building.

Nonetheless, he'll do a full two-hour show, no opening act necessary. Among possible props? Bananas, jars of peanut butter and men's underwear. Hopefully not all at the same time.

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