The best comics make it look easy, but a successful career in stand-up comedy is much harder than it may seem. Take it from Matt Gallagher. To hear him tell it, stand-up is a circuitous journey that begins with open mics, writing material, making a set, taking it to live audiences, being a barker, getting paid, securing closing spots in shows, going on the road and finally headlining. But what allowed him to take the journey actually involved taking something away. “It only came about because I got sober,” he says. “When I say I did stand-up before, anybody from the outside would say, ‘This guy is not doing comedy.’ The old version was like watching a car accident.”
All told, Gallagher has been seriously doing comedy for about 18 years, since 2001 when he went through rehab. He cut his teeth while living in New York and facing all the terrifying possibilities that new sobriety brings. “I was either at a meeting or I was at a comedy club,” he says of the early days. “I lived in Hell’s Kitchen and meetings and the club were three blocks apart. I was doing three meetings a day and three shows a night, so it was a great way to stay sober.”
It was also a great way for Gallagher to hone his craft, as his new special A Stumble in the Woods, available on Amazon Prime, shows perfectly. Any serious comedy fans out there will notice that Gallagher’s special is unique, even amidst a recently flooded comedy market. As it turns out, his approach was different. “I didn’t work on this special or take it on the road and workshop it,” he says. “I had done it one time for a group of 15 people in a really small space.” That rawness yields a show that is equal parts storytelling and comedy, sometimes keeping the audience guessing as to what Gallagher will reveal and what he’ll withhold. “I didn’t have a concrete plan when I started talking,” he says. “When you put yourself on the spot, the stuff that pops up is really the truest stuff.”
Gallagher performed his special at the historic El Cid theater in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. “I wanted it to have that jazz, underground, beatnik-y feel to it,” he says. “It was all the stories I’m either uncomfortable with or I [felt] like people [needed] to know.” If you know nothing about Matt Gallagher, the special is also a great primer: He was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey to a widowed dad. He was raised with six sisters, two of them much older than he was. Perhaps most notably, both sides of his family had Irish Catholic bar owners.
The special begins as a relatively light retelling of a laissez-faire childhood before moving into darker territory. In one moment, Gallagher tells a wide-eyed story about how he thought priests were magical because bells would chime every time they broke the eucharist in church. In another, he regales his teacher with all the biodiversity that must’ve been on Noah’s arc (facts remembered from reading Ranger Rick magazines). Some of those early experiences with the magical thinking of religion turned Gallagher away from it in the future. “When I did this show, I just kind of embraced that I’m an atheist,” he says.
Still, Gallagher credits the 12 steps with helping him get and stay sober—and he still harbors a curiosity about the natural world that borders on spiritual. “My fascination is with the vastness of the universe,” he says with a laugh. “That to me is more powerful and interesting than any of the Abrahamic religions.” For anyone who missed it, the title of his special is a nod to A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, the naturalist non-fiction writer who chronicled his adventures on the Appalachian trail. “The title resonated most with me,” Gallagher says. “Some people didn’t get it.”
Although Gallagher portrays himself at moments in the special as the red-nosed, drunk uncle at the end of the bar (inspired in some ways by his Uncle John, described throughout), Gallagher and his stories often strike a literary vein. Throughout our conversation, Gallagher quotes James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw and also references Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Though he explored the latter two while he was still drinking (“I was always searching for something—I kind of became a religious assassin in a way”), the ideas about mythic structure seem to have stuck. “[This special] was my little Hero’s Journey,” Gallagher says with a laugh. “I went through the underworld and I came out with the magic power of self-discovery.”
For a special that is digressive and relatively unstructured, viewers might be surprised at how neatly everything comes full circle. Beyond the allusion to Bryson, an anecdote at the end of the show gives the title new and deeper meaning. Still, I won’t spoil it here. For Gallagher, the next step in his work is to make meaning of his new life and his place in the world—a scary prospect for someone who has slain all the obvious dragons. “I’ve started working again,” he says. “I’ve been happily married for 11 years, I have two happy and healthy children. When I stop and take a breath, I see I have everything I want.”