Mary Gallagher could have followed in her parents’ military footsteps, but she opted for a different path.
She hit comedy stages across the country, leaning on that military discipline along the way. She eventually made it to her national television debut last year, a stand-up segment on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
That doesn’t mean she forgot the values instilled in her by Mom and Dad, who both served in the U.S. Marines. Discipline and a devout Catholic faith are crucial to both her performing career and other artistic endeavors, which include works as a cartoonist and children’s book scribe.
She combined the latter two to teach children self-esteem. Now, she’s trying to save lives through laughter — with a kinder, gentler brand of humor.
“I’ve been battling that you can’t be funny and nice at the same time, because people always told me comedy has to have a meanness to it,” Gallagher said. “Then I heard [comic] Brian Regan in an interview say he only likes kind comedy. When I saw that, I gave myself permission to be who I was. I have a certain kindness in my comedy, and Ellen Degeneres’ comedy is also based on an element of kindness.”
Gallagher grew up in Wisconsin, and first performed stand-up comedy by opening for stars like Pauly Shore and Sam Kinison at a Green Bay comedy club when she was 20. Her inspiration came in 1987 after Wayne Cotter perform what she believed to be “the perfect set” on David Letterman’s iconic show.
Years later, she met Cotter at the Hollywood Improv and did more than thank him for the inspiration. She recited his entire routine back to him.
That mental effort reflected the drive and dedication she later applied on stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater for Colbert’s CBS showcase.
She honed that six-minute routine for four years, sharpening every last joke after taking an extended break to raise her daughter, Mia, now 12.
Yet her innate decency thrived. She’s proud to be a trusted confidant for many of Mia’s friends, as she tries to help them navigate life’s challenges. She herself didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, growing up with a troubled brother who eventually took his own life.
“I have a strong urge to help children, and I’ve had my daughter actually bring to my attention some of her friends that need a kind, caring adult,” said Gallagher.
“Children trust me and tell me things. I feel with everything I’ve gone through because I had a lot of pain with my brother in childhood, all is as it was meant to be because now I can help people. I believe in empowering children to feel good, and really all people. Everyone’s on a path to figuring out how can we feel good about ourselves.”
On a deeper level, she has teamed up with her friend, comic Brian Kiley (a staff writer for TBS’s “Conan”), to create a book bolstering discussion between middle-school kids and their parents about suicide. She hopes to encourage children to discuss their feelings while avoiding tragedies.
“It’s not jokey, but there’s a lightness to it,” she said. “It’s a conversation about the topic of suicide for 10- to 12-year-olds, since once they get to high school, it’s something they’re hearing about and dealing with. Last year, three freshmen at Mia’s school in Burbank killed themselves. We talk about drugs, we talk about sex, but rarely do we talk about and have a conversation about suicide. I’m not a psychologist, but it shouldn’t be a dark secret we don’t talk about.”
Gallagher’s faith guides her not only in being kind in her comedy, but being clean and clever as well. She performs frequently at Los Angeles area parish fundraisers, and is a regular presence in area clubs such as Flappers near her home in Burbank.
Everyone’s on a path to figuring out how can we feel good about ourselves.
Her comedy is the exception to the bawdy rule.
She’s sad to see so many young female comics embrace “filthy” humor meant to shock first and foremost. She sees comedy is having a higher purpose.
“Laughter is so powerful, so healing,” noted Gallagher. “Just the pure entertainment of it, the whole idea of presenting this to people — that this is who I am and what I think about. It’s one of the greatest things you can do. I just want to spread a good vibe in the world. When we see someone go onstage and make light of their own shortcomings, it gives us all permission to laugh at our own because it disarms the heaviness of our faults.
“Seeing what happened with my brother gave me a lesson that every day is so precious, and I will truly live my life for the glory of God and the gift that I’m given,” she concluded. “I pray every day for the ability bring joy to more people and make the world nicer and kinder.”