Three-time Emmy winner Jack Gallagher, 63, is best known for his recurring role as a doctor on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Born in Fall River, he was raised in West Bridgewater and attended Providence College and UMass before pursuing a stand-up career during the nascent days of Boston’s comedy scene. After moving to L.A., he became a regular at the Improvisation and had a lead role in the cult classic Shakes the Clown. He appeared in Heartbreak Ridge with Clint Eastwood and starred in the short-lived ABC sitcom Bringing Up Jack. On PBS, he hosted the series Money Moves, Off Limits and Kids, Cash and Common Sense. More recently, he has been touring with his one-man show, A Different Kind of Cool, based on his experience as the parent of a son with autism. He will be performing in Boston at A Million Laughs for Literacy, a benefit for the National Braille Press on Oct. 28. He lives in Sacramento.
Jonathan Soroff: Where did you get the financial expertise to do the shows for PBS?
Jack Gallagher: I don’t have any financial expertise. I’m eye candy. The person I work with is a financial expert. Here’s the deal: I can really read the teleprompter.
What did your parents say when you told them you were going to be a comedian? “Jesus Christ! No!” My parents couldn’t believe it, mostly because I was such a shy kid, not terribly social. My father is this Irish Catholic guy from Rhode Island who thinks the only thing you should do in the morning is pick up your lunchbox and go to work and shut up. When we came home from our summer jobs and he’d ask how work was, we’d say, “It sucked.” He’d say, “Did you have to lick anything?” We’d say no, and he’d say, “Then it was a good day. Shut up.”
How’d you support yourself starting out? Well, I taught school for a while. I taught at the Landmark School, a boarding school on the North Shore, and my wife and I were actually house parents the first year and a half we were married. We lived in a dorm with 68 teenaged boys. When they found out I was doing stand-up, they were like, “What? He’s a prick! He’s not funny.”
Is Larry David a genius? Yes. And a good guy and fun to work with, because he trusts people who he thinks are funny. As opposed to other shows I’ve done, where you read the script and think, “Oh, I can beat this joke,” and they’re like, “Just read what’s on the page, please.” Larry is open to other ideas.
Favorite venue for stand-up? I do very few club dates. I do more corporate events or public speaking. That’s probably 70 percent of what I do now. My youngest son is a person with autism, and I talk to groups about living with someone who’s different and accepting differences in people. But back in the day, my favorite venue to do stand-up was the Ding Ho [the legendary Chinese restaurant in Cambridge]. It’s one of those things where you don’t realize how much you miss it until you can’t do it anymore. That was a ball.
Were you part of that generation of comics like Denis Leary? I was. Absolutely. Barry Crimmins, Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke, Steve Sweeney, Kevin Meaney, Mike McDonald. All those guys. We all played the Ding Ho, Stitches, Play It Again Sam’s…Those were great times.
Favorite memory of those days? One of the things that was so cool about that time was it was a really supportive environment. We all hung out after everyone went home. Late night at the Ding Ho was like a clubhouse. Barry Crimmins and Steven Wright are still two of my best friends.
How about the late-night talk shows? I was on Carson a couple of times. That was my favorite moment of my career. Leno was great, too, but the show didn’t have the same cachet after Carson left. But I did Dennis Miller, Arsenio Hall…the only one I didn’t do was Letterman. But doing Carson? That was like winning the lottery.
Why do you think so many big comedians come from Boston? That’s a really good question. I don’t really know. There’s definitely an attitude in Massachusetts of “Nobody’s gonna fuck with me.” And if you can’t protect yourself with your fists, you protect yourself with your humor. They don’t call us Massholes for nothing, and a lot of guys protected themselves with their humor. I know I did. In high school, I didn’t want to spend a lot of my time getting shoved into lockers.
Who do people mistake you for? My wife calls me a “major minor celebrity.” I get mistaken for somebody who’s on the news, I guess because I have gray hair. Last time I looked, that PBS show was in 165 markets, so I’ll see people at airports, and they look at me strangely. Then there’s the always annoying “How do I know you?” How the hell am I supposed to know? Do you know me? I don’t know!
Shakes the Clown: unfairly overlooked by the Academy? Well, I believe it was The Boston Globe that called it “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” Can’t get better than that.
Worst job you ever had? I worked in Bridgewater at the Independent Nail factory. I was a nail galvanizer. You take nails hot from the kiln and then dip them into bubbling hot zinc to galvanize them. It’s very dangerous, because nails come out of the kiln at around 250 degrees, and zinc boils at over 600 degrees. So if you didn’t lower them in at exactly the right pace, they would blow up. It was scary.
Worst stand-up job? Paul Barclay [the local club owner] got me a gig with the Boston Leather Club. It was all guys who worked in leather. It was their annual dinner, and they didn’t like me. My first joke was “Oh, I was expecting this to be a lotta guys with leather hoods and zippers across their mouths.” When I was done, the guy refused to pay me.
Three things everyone should know about autism? There’s a quote by a doctor named Strong: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” They’re all not the same. They’re all not Rain Man…. And all I know is my son. My son Liam has never told me a lie. He’s truthful to a fault. My son is one of the most thoughtful, kindest people I know. If everybody was more like Liam, we’d be in a much better place. And the only other thing I’d say is that my son is not autistic. He’s a person with autism. There’s a huge difference. Autism does not define who he is.