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In the history of pop culture, few have been given as much, and appreciated it as little, as the sad, troll-like creature professionally known as Gallagher. By seemingly every standard other than his own, Gallagher has been obscenely, undeservedly, surreally lucky. Against impossible odds and the better judgment of the American public, Gallagher has managed to ride a silly, scatological gimmick involving taking a sledgehammer to watermelons into decades of fame, fortune and television infamy.
Gallagher has made millions of dollars, starred in special after special (14 one-hour pay cable specials, as he will be the first to mention) and has enjoyed a sex life far more active than a man of his non-existent charm and disturbing looks merits. Yet in Gallagher’s warped imagination, he has been fucked over as completely and inexcusably as any bluesman or hard-working Motown session musician.
Oh sure, Gallagher has made millions and was on television regularly for decades, but in his mind he deserved tens of millions of dollars and his own late night television show. Gallagher’s monstrous and deluded ego won’t accept anything less than a David Letterman or Jay Leno level of fame, success, and money as his rightful due. I mean, he did smash all those fucking watermelons, right? What do you think he did that for, his fucking health? No, he did it so your moron son will fork over his cash for a t-shirt and a CD and your dumb slut of a daughter would give him a hand job after the show, as is his due (I don’t think your son’s a moron and your sister’s a slut, but Gallagher sure does, and he isn’t too keen on you, either).
Gallagher truly hates his audience. Over the course of writing a book about Insane Clown Posse I attended four of their notorious yearly festivals of arts and culture and the only time I ever felt unsafe was during Gallagher’s racist, sexist, and homophobic performance, where he sprayed contempt on the audience along with watermelon fragments and bursts of rotten mustard.
Gallagher hates his audience, he hates a world that has given him so much, and that in turn he has given so little, but perhaps more than anything he hates himself, so he tries to cover up that understandable, eminently justified self-loathing by professing to be better than everyone and everything he comes across.
So when Gallagher’s people contacted Marc Maron’s people about Gallagher appearing on WTF it seemed likely that these two combustible, very different characters would clash. And clash they did, to the point where Gallagher stormed out of the interview, and Maron’s hotel room, after just a half hour.
Maron begins the episode by pointing out that it was not his idea to book Gallagher, but that he’d heard reports in The A.V. Club and The Stranger about the homophobic, racist nature of Gallagher’s contemporary material. I suspect part of the reason Gallagher was so indignant was because he realized that Maron did not respect him enough to treat him as anything other than a mild annoyance, a dumb silly joke of a man from the 1980s who had somehow reinvented himself from a harmless dumb joke to a harmful, spiteful, and hateful mean joke.
Maron didn’t have Gallagher on because he was an important figure with provocative ideas, as Gallagher undoubtedly sees himself, but because some folks were curious about just how awful this sad, silly little man had become so why the hell not spend an hour of his life talking to him? “Why the hell not?” seems the operating idea behind having Gallagher on WTF and it doesn’t take long for an answer to arrive.
Introducing the episode, Maron reflects of his guest, “Obviously, I’ve only heard negative things about him recently. I know who he is. I know what he does. I do not have any particular problem with him.” Maron concedes that he did not handle Gallagher as well as he would have liked to, that he did not do a whole lot of research but instead was going off the current conception of Gallagher as a right-wing hate monger, which, it should be noted, was not overly flattering but also wasn’t exactly untrue.
Gallagher’s storming out seems to have made Maron philosophical rather than angry, causing him to reflect on the nature of desperation and how it’s possible to feel cheated professionally no matter how successful you are, and at various points Gallagher was about as successful as a comedian got. He’s just doomed to be a Dane Cook rather than a Louis CK.
Maron mentions more than once that there’s a good chance that listeners loved Gallagher as children and he wants to honor the intense emotional connection people once felt with Gallagher even as he reveals the awful man Gallagher has become. In that respect, Gallagher comes off a little like Bill Cosby in that it is difficult to reconcile the lovable clown children adored and thought was one of them with the awful, hateful, grotesquely entitled and bitter men they eventually became.
Not long after the abbreviated interview began, Gallagher says that the kids today don’t know who he is. He says it with weary resignation rather than anger but it’s clear that Gallagher will not forgive the kids today for not knowing who he is or approaching him with the appropriate reverence.
It doesn’t take long for the bitter has-been to get indignant. When Maron assures Gallagher he’s still a well-known comic, Gallagher retorts, “Why don’t I have my own TV show then, if I’m a well known comic?” in a way that suggests he angrily screams that question into the mirror every morning, then weeps uncontrollably when no comforting answer is forthcoming.
For a brief moment, however, when Gallagher is breathlessly reciting Comedy Store lore from the 1970s and talking shit about contemporaries like Tom Dreesen it seems like this might be an enjoyably bitter, gossipy exploration of one man’s vitriolic delusions instead of a super-tense one.
Gallagher rages against the ghost of Johnny Carson for the unforgivable crime of not liking prop comics (despite Carson being a magician!, Gallagher notes) and details his unlikely ascent in show-business as the opening act for Kenny Rogers, who did not care for Gallagher’s Iranian Hostage Crisis-themed dick jokes, especially since his mother was in the audience. It’s an early indication that Gallagher’s xenophobia/racism are not of a recent vintage.
As long as Gallagher is in the world of old school comedy gossip, things are relatively civil. Gallagher derides Jay Leno as having an act that was “very forgettable” as a prelude for a very paranoid conspiracy theory that Gallagher was owed his own talk show but Gallagher had to leave town regularly to make a fortune performing before adoring audiences, so Leno and Letterman sneakily exploited his absence to steal the hit talk shows that rightly belonged to Gallagher by virtue of his incredible popularity and talent.
“I wanted to make big money,” Gallagher insists, and brays that he did, but he did so under the most difficult, impossible of circumstances: selling live tickets in a down economy. Gallagher then recounts how he tried to sell the Veg-o-Matic routine that made him famous to George Carlin and Albert Brooks but they inexplicably turned him down. As a thought experiment, try to imagine an alternate universe where Carlin is famous for smashing watermelons and instead of being the brainiest, most comic’s comic in existence, Albert Brooks was beloved in Branson for his habit of smashing watermelons with a hammer.
Gallagher tells stories that sound too good to be true, from how he travels the country teaching people about physics (he was a chemist by trade before he became a comedian) to owning the rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before they became the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
About thirty three minutes in, however, things take a turn when Maron brings up the widespread conception that Gallagher’s act is racist and homophobic, in addition to being terrible (in this case, being terrible and hacky is somehow the least of Gallagher’s transgressions). Gallagher does not like that assertion at all. Gallagher perversely insists that he’s never written a homophobic joke because he tells jokes other people wrote, as if that is somehow an acceptable explanation, or something that will carry weight with a comic’s comic like Maron.
Gallagher presents, “What does Seigfried have in common with the tiger? They both know what Roy tastes like” as the kind of gay joke too exquisite and delicious not to recycle even if he didn’t write it, and Maron somehow does not seem amused at all. “Can I pick on Arabs?” Gallagher then asks of what he sees as Maron’s hyper-sensitivity (which everyone else would see merely as “sensitivity”), before clarifying that Arabs are the enemy, as evidenced by the fact that Gallagher has to wait in security for hours, which probably completely fucks with the way he transports cocaine in his luggage during domestic flights.
Digging himself even deeper into a hole of his own devising, Gallagher refers to homosexuals as “God’s joke.” Gallagher posits himself as a fearless truth teller opposed by the glowering, humorless forces of political correctness but his “I’m a comic!”, “It’s a nightclub!” and “It’s comedy! Take a joke!” do nothing to negate his misanthropic awfulness.
Gallagher hauls out Lisa Lampinelli as someone who does more offensive racial humor than he does and gets a pass and when Maron points out that a lot of her jokes are about fucking black guys, Gallagher suggests that he’s not entirely convinced that she’s not merely pretending to have sex with black men for the sake of jokes.
The tone grows progressively more tense and charged and the volume increases accordingly as Gallagher launches a progressively more nonsensical defense of gay jokes and insensitivity and not giving a fucking about what your audience thinks of your material. Though Maron criticizes himself for being too aggressive, his anger comes off as righteous and merited rather than self-righteous or shrill, as when Gallagher, who is damn near shouting at that point, insists, “I’m not angry” (in a very angry tone of voice), and he answers, “You’re a guy who smashes things.”
Gallagher seems willing to defend to the grave his right, nay, his responsibility, to retain five lesbian jokes he heard from cab drivers in his act. Otherwise, the terrorists have won. Or something. Then Gallagher, shortly after asserting that all comedians want to work state fairs (take that, Mitch Hedberg!) storms the fuck out.
“Oh c’mon, Gallagher!” Maron implores after Gallagher stomps off in a pique. The interview is only half finished, but it only took a half hour of gentle and then not-so-gentle questioning for Maron to get Gallagher to truly reveal himself in all his ugly awfulness.
Gallagher’s sad decline is a rinky-dink echo of Bill Cosby’s fall from the grace. But the scale is different. What Cosby did is a goddamned American tragedy whereas what Gallagher did to himself, his career, and his image is merely unfortunate.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.