I had drank so much the night before, I still felt woozy eight hours later, but I knew that if I could just throw up – purge the toxins out – everything would be OK. I radioed my shift lead, begged her to cover me, and I was off. I only had a few minutes so there was no time to dilly-dally, and that’s when I heard him. As I was speed walking past the guest services booth towards the employee break room.
“Well, I just don’t get why I have to pay an additional ten dollars,” was all I heard. The sentence was delivered with an indignant inflection only heard in British royal circles, but with just a dusting of an accent, like a nasally southern lawyer.
That’s when I was grabbed by the crook of my elbow, mid-stride, whipped around, and asked, “Do you know why this girl is trying to make me pay for an inner tube?”
“A what?” I said, confused, but it only took a split second to realize that I was getting pulled into an argument with another unhinged guest about Raging Waters’ inner tube rental policy.
“You work here, right? he insisted. “I want to know why I have to pay ten dollars for an inner tube.”
“Well, it’s actually only five dollars if you return the tube with a wristband,” I replied, half-naked and soaking wet in a pair of red swim trunks and a whistle around my neck, “but I’m not sure, that’s not my department.” I knew that answer would set him off.
“THE MONEY’S NOT THE POINT! I SHOULDN'T HAVE TO PAY FOR AN INNER TUBE,” he screamed. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”
Of course I knew who he was. Part of my parents’ divorce settlement was that my dad begrudgingly got custody of me every Sunday. On those Sundays, I’d watch television on a couch in the living room of his new family’s house for eight hours and my father would have me home by 6pm.
The only thing that made those court-enforced Sundays bearable was that his house had cable television, a novelty in 1983. More importantly, his cable package included MTV. (Unless you were an American teenager between 1981 and ‘86, you will not understand how critical having access to MTV was.) Now during the early ‘80s, when cable networks were desperate for content, they’d rerun his hour-long specials several times a day. So as I’d flip through the channels, I’d inevitably land on a Gallagher special. Out of curiosity, I’d watch a few minutes of him ranting and smashing food with an oversized mallet, and then resume flipping channels until I found my MTV.
And now years later, here I was; 17 years old and getting dressed down by Gallagher. He was wearing a black flat cap and one of those ridiculous looking old-fashioned 1920s unitard swimsuits.
This tangle with Gallagher happened during the summer of 1988 so he was several years past his prime by then. He was always good for one hour-long special a year, but sometime in the late ‘80s, comedy’s landscape began changing. Comedy started getting smarter and smashing watermelons with wooden mallets was no longer cutting it.
By 1987, audiences at small clubs in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and L.A. were seeing a new model of standup comedians: smart, dry slackers just out of high school who didn’t rely on reliable tropes and hacky bits. Commercially popular stand-ups like Gallagher, Cheech & Chong, Andy Kaufman – even Steve Martin with the white suit and bunny ears – it was funny when you were a kid, but it seemed gimmicky and predictable with a few years behind you.
It would only be a couple years before young, raw, unknowns like Dana Gould, Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo, Jon Stewart, and others in their class would permanently alter the direction of stand-up. Within a few years, broad jokes were out and Gallagher’s specials didn’t seem so special anymore. It was far more interesting to hear about Garofalo’s insecurities.
Still, Gallagher gave the ‘90s a go with constant touring and he would get the sporadic hour-long special, but by the turn of the century, he was obsolete. Instead of pivoting and tinkering with his act to adapt, Gallagher began turning on the remaining people who still bought his concert tickets.
On July 3, 1999, a Los Angeles Times review of a Gallagher show in Cerritos, California in The Los Angeles Times reveals that his material that night included – besides the watermelon smashing – racist, homophobic, and misogynist rants. These topics would make up good chunks of his sets for the remainder of his career. Maron asked him about this particular material during an episode of his WTF podcast in 2011, but Gallagher flipped out and ended the interview by leaving, crying of an unfair attack.
You’d think Gallagher would tone down the offensive material after that confrontation, but he only doubled down for the remaining seven years of his career, bullying and berating audience members who didn’t see things his way.
Of course, I didn’t know how much of a racist, homophobic, misogynist he was on that day. To me, he was just another cheap, rich, angry old man who thought he deserved more for free.
“You know what, just give it to him,” I told the girl in the guest services booth. I held absolutely no authoritative power in a petty struggle over $10. I just wanted this bitter old man to get out of my life so I could vomit and get back to pulling drowning kids out of the wave pool.
Besides, I knew that without a proof-of-rental wristband, it would only be a matter of time before Gallagher would be pulled aside by a park employee and hassled about the inner tube, and he’d become someone else’s problem.