Thoroughly Calculating Gallagher

Times Staff Writer

Gallagher looked stymied. "Where's my Rolodex watch?"

It would take a voluminous auctioneer's catalogue to list all the props, gadgets and comically improbable items littered throughout the house where comedian Gallagher's feverish imagination creates its tangible residue.

In the front room alone there's the Apple computer (an abacus with toy apples substituting for beads); a huge dinosaur suit; a thoroughly repellent-looking lump of dog poop, which in actuality is a prop to hide one's house key (who'd pick it up to look?); an enormous frog that looks like the world's ickiest omelet, with a doll figure of Tammy Bakker on its back frozen in an expression of Betty Boop incredulity, and any number of Gallagher dolls, infant shapes with balding hippie hair styles and black mustaches. And watching over it all, a huge dragon looking desperately hung-over is draped boa-like over a closed TV console.

Gallagher searches in vain for his lost Rolodex "watch," unhappy that he has to resort to describing it as an actual Rolodex--rather than a Rolex--that he tapes to his wrist. The unhappiness quickly passes. He's intoxicated with the thought of having recently performed, as he put it, "The greatest five minutes ever done by a comedian on a variety show. I killed!"

He was referring to "The Smothers Brothers Show," one of his rare ventures into network television.

He seemed barely mindful of his upcoming gig at the Wiltern (he plays tonight and Friday night). A piece of cake. He does 100 concerts a year, all over the country. He rents the hall, buys the ads (which cost him $600,000 a year) and pockets what he makes. He has a promoter, but no agent or manager. He doesn't take business phone calls. He doesn't do interviews ("What for? I always sell out, and I don't need somebody to try and explain to people what I do"). In short, at 41, Gallagher has to be one of the most thoroughly calculating performers in the world of entertainment, and an extreme example of the home-grown American belief that you can control your own destiny.

"People always want you to do things their way," he said. "I don't like to compromise. I know how to entertain, which is a difficult thing to do well. People are looking at you, reading a thousand messages you're throwing out at once with your body language. Wayne Newton's a great entertainer; you'd never think it if you just heard 'Danke Schoen.' So's Bette Midler."

Gallagher was in overdrive this late afternoon. He has a muscular frame, with powerful, tapering forearms.

"I have this need to disrupt order," he said. "I have this temper. I scream for two hours and like to smash things," a primal gesture he first turned to profit with Sledge-O-Matic, the blunt primogenitor of seemingly hundreds of patented stage antics.

"At the same time," he continued, "I'm living a dream. I'm cashing in on my work. I can go anywhere in the U.S., rent a hall and express myself. I did a Showtime special and went 100% over budget. I paid it myself and bought ads all over the country. I don't need to wait for an executive decision to do something."

He took a sheet of paper from his attache case. It had advertising figures written down. USA Today gets $8,144.24. He paid the Atlanta Constitution $1,595.24 for an ad.

After his fifth videocassette came out, he rented three Los Angeles-area billboards, one in Westlake Village, one on the Sunset Strip and one near the Harbor Freeway. "Joy to the world!" they announced.

"I did over 700 live shows on my tour schedule from 1983 to '87," he said. "For one man, that's unapproachable. Well, maybe not for Julio Iglesias. But you don't see Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams out on the road. They're into movies. They wanna be near the lunch truck."

Over the floor he scattered a collection of the more than one dozen magazines that he reads daily--from the Nation to the American Spectator to L.A. Style. He spread some comic books on a coffee table.

"My promoter, Gary Propper, is a former world champion surfer. He sees things from a young point of view. He's a kid, like me. He got the rights to 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.' We're going to make it into a movie. The next thing is dinosaurs. They're really getting big." He hauled out a string of dinosaur Christmas tree lights.

"These are really funny," he said, gloating over them like Pee-wee Herman.

Other Gallagher projects of the moment include renovation of a Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan; the creation of an investment group in Las Vegas, and an interest in a Houston oil well (he pulled out a big surveyor's map). He's an investor in a clothing company; his latest urge has been to send American record albums to the Soviet Union ("slip them through the crack in the Iron Curtain opened by glasnost"), now that vinyl has been superseded by the compact disc ("I called up Rick Dees and he hung up on me").

He showed pictures of his daughter, a golden-blond 7-year-old named Amy; and his second wife, a strikingly pretty brunette named Geralyn.

Gallagher appears stalked by a restlessness that may have a familial root. His grandmother was an adagio dancer who ran off with her partner. His father went from working as a machinist to building a skating rink and trailer park, which made him wealthy (Gallagher has two brothers and a sister). He spent most of his life in Tampa, Fla., and at first majored in chemical engineering at the University of Southern Florida while holding down a job as chief chemist at a Kaiser Aluminum nitric acid plant. "I could see that the liberal arts courses got you a job as a busboy."

He kept his job, but changed his major to English literature. He had a '60s social consciousness that eventually drove him out of chemistry ("I know I polluted Tampa Bay with chromates") and into a brief unhappy flirtation with advertising, prelude to an agonizing period of wandering, experiment and hard times.

"I wrote a novel called 'The Mailman Cometh,' about the horn of plenty of sex in America, printed 5,000 copies on newsprint, loaded up my car and drove to every car race and rock concert on the Eastern Seaboard, selling them for what I could get. It was usually a dime. Sometimes a quarter. Sometimes I read to people. Sometimes I just got a beer and a sandwich. Eventually I came back home. My car was broke. I was broke."

Gallagher's spirits seemed to fade with the dusky light. Darkness began creeping into the room. "One night I was watching TV. This ad for Vegamatic came on. 'Why not just smash the food?' I thought. 'You have to eat it anyway.' "

Gallagher recalled working up a routine in verse and playing it for an agent who was shaving in a hotel room. The agent managed a singer and performer named Jim Stafford, a big draw in the region. Gallagher went to work for Stafford as a gofer; Stafford in turn taught Gallagher about stagecraft, how to organize an act, and how to present himself. (Stafford now sings and plays guitar on the "Smothers Brothers Show.")

Success was by no means assured. Gallagher was fired from his first job, a humiliation exacerbated by the nature of the venue, a joint named Quickie's Topless Bar & Pancake House. Another agent and friend thought the idea funny enough to get Gallagher a booking on the "Mike Douglas Show"

" 'Don't do Sledge-O-Matic; just tell your story,' he said. I couldn't believe it. I had one routine and got fired from my one job. Stafford was the highest paid performer on Florida's west coast. But I was the one who got on 'Douglas.' "

Gallagher took a futile stab at Hollywood, working in a car wash in Fullerton, and then took a bus to Las Vegas where, down to his last $25, he slept on a pile of tires his first night there.

Stafford rescued him with work once again. Then Gallagher went on the road with Kenny Rogers and began his climb. He now grosses $3.5 million a year, and when he's in Vegas he stays at the Sands' opulent Secretariat Suite.

"Three bedrooms, six baths, a private swimming pool, a sauna and a Jacuzzi," he said. "They give it to me. I'm a draw."

Gallagher is no less calculated about his comedy than he is about ticket receipts. Once again, out of that seemingly bottomless attache case, he drew out six yellow legal pad sheets of paper on which the key words of his routines are written out.

"Here's the one about your body and God," he said, peering closely at one of the sheets in the failing light. "Like, why does God put this wet drainy thing--your nose--right over your mouth? Why do your teeth rot when they come in contact with food? Do you think God might be a practical joker?

"The range of hyperbole is too infinite. I don't want to make up improbable lines. I work with the truth, like with phrases we don't notice. For instance, 'Alcohol statistics are staggering.' Things we don't catch.

"I like to find the ironies in this country. Justice isn't justice if you plea-bargain. I like to stay with the avant-garde too. You have to keep abreast of the videos, the magazines like Interview. You can't just think in terms of theater, which is too slow and drawn out, or TV, which is always behind--they're just discovering Vietnam. They'll be the last to lose money on it. We're jerked around too much. Comedy is a stirring example of what freedom of speech can do."

Gallagher loaded his visitor with videotapes, mementos and a record album and helped carry them out to the car.

"Please don't give my first name away," he said. "Help me keep the mystery. Shouldn't we all have a little magic in our lives?"

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