Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
This is the story of an unsuccessful hoax, full of heartbreak, lies, hubris
, family estrangement, and stand-up comedians.
Children and teenagers of the 1980s will remember the name and face of Leo Gallagher. Billed simply as "Gallagher," he was the man with the mustache, Bozo-the-clown hairstyle, and a wild signature standup act that involved smashing things
, usually watermelons, with a sledgehammer. His bit was called "The Sledge-O-Matic," and his audiences were encouraged to bring raincoats and umbrellas as to not get melon glop on them. He was wildly popular and toured relentlessly across the country, smashing items, and building a name for himself. His popularity peaked around 1987, although he still tours to this day
, and is still performing his Sledge-O-Matic routine. He was even one of the many, many political hopefuls who ran for California governor during the circus sideshow that was the 2003 recall election.
Far fewer people have seen a show performed by "Gallagher Too," a man who looked a lot like Gallagher and performed the same Sledge-O-Matic routines, but was not in fact the genuine article. Those who did see Gallagher Too, may have been a little confused as to whether it was the real Gallagher or not. Gallagher Too was Ron Gallagher, Leo's younger brother, who also held stand-up aspirations. His dreams caused him to perpetrate one of the great comedy hoaxes of our time and led to Leo's estrangement from his family.
In the early 1990s, Ron Gallagher was unemployed and living at home. Realizing that he knew his brother's routines so well, he approached Leo about the possibility of performing the exact same act as he. It would be financially savvy, not to mention unprecedented, to "franchise" a comedy act. Smaller venues could afford a "secondary" Gallagher, while Leo continued to hit larger theaters. Leo, a strong critic and satirist of consumer culture, was merely warm to the idea, but knowing his brother was unemployed, allowed Ron (according to Ruth Ann Hoffman, Leo's publicist) to perform his material under the condition that he clearly distinguish himself from the original Gallagher.
Sometime during the touring of Ron Gallagher, however, the line between the two Gallaghers began to vanish. Leo objected to Ron's chosen moniker of "Gallagher Too," feeling that it didn't distinguish the two performers enough, and asked him to change it, but Ron did not comply. Ron also eventually stopped warning people that he was not the original, and indeed encouraged people to think he was. Leo did, at times, ask Ron to stop using the Sledge-O-Matic routine. Ron did not. It wasn't until 1999 when Ron told a theater manager in Winona Lake
, Indiana that he was the original Gallagher that Leo lost patience with his brother. Winona Lake is very close to a venue that Leo was playing in nearby Merrillville, and the simultaneous press releases confused some people. Leo caught Ron trying to fraud the public, and outed him in the press. Ron was not gracious. He was quoted in a local newspaper as saying "I'm doing the same thing I've done for 10 years, really, being a walking advertisement for my brother." He also claimed that much of his act was original, with the exception of the Sledge-O-Matic routine. Leo sued his brother in 2000 for stealing his act.
The most interesting part of this hoax is the moment when Ron decided not merely to imitate, but to out-and-out supplant his brother. Ron's idea of franchising a comedy act is actually a good one -- it would have allowed Gallagher to satirize comics, audience expectations, and comedy business practices -- although it is a plan riddled with pathos. But there came a moment during the Gallagher Too tour that Ron actively stopped telling people who he was. He lied to people, and reveled in his brother's spotlight. This is a Shakespearean moment of self-delusion and treachery that contains a level of daring I find enviable. Perhaps it's not daring; perhaps it's just legal and moral recklessness. This is the kind of interior drama that drives certain Hollywood thrillers. (The Talented Mr. Ripley
comes to mind.)
Leo was successful in suing his brother, and Ron, unemployed again, had to pay damages. The siblings' immediate family, feeling sorry for Ron, who was finally making a decent living, sided with him during the trial. Leo would not relent, outraged by the attempted hoax. Leo is now estranged from his family.
The hoax was not a success for very long, but perhaps Ron's goal was a bit more insidious. Leo has gone on performing, but has not reached the level of popularity he enjoyed since the late 1980s. Comedy Central did list him as one of the 100 funniest comedians
of all time... at #100. His gubernatorial bid was unsuccessful (although he did finish 16th out of 135 on the ballot
, behind Larry Flynt and Gary Coleman, but far ahead of Angelyne). In April of 2006, on WGFX in Nashville, he got into a vicious 20-minute shouting match with his interviewers Mark Howard and Kevin Ingram when they mentioned watermelons. It was a stigma he was trying to escape
despite his use to this day of watermelons in his act.
Ron, meanwhile, has begun a modest career performing his own material, and has the love of his family to support him. One brother has a regrettable reputation as a ranting crackpot has-been
, and the other has a family and a career to support him. Did Ron intend to destroy his brother by stealing his livelihood and family? It's unlikely he was that calculating. But a simple yet destructive hoax did give Ron the profession he sought and the love he needed. Perhaps it was a success after all.