Growing up as the daughter of two United States Marines, it might have been expected that Mary Gallagher would follow in their footsteps, or at least engage in a serious-minded career. Instead, she confounded expectations, becoming a comic actress and professional stand-up comedian who made her national television debut on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in May.
Yet the values instilled by her parents, of discipline and a devout Catholic faith, are a key part of her performing career and her other artistic endeavors as a cartoonist and children’s book author.
Using her cartooning skills to teach children self-esteem in her books and in the classes she offers, she’s on a mission to save lives through laughter — all while bringing the world a kind style of comedy.
“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,” said Gallagher.
“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 Pauly Shore and Sam Kinison at a Green Bay comedy club when she was 20. She was inspired to enter the comedy world after seeing Wayne Cotter perform what she believed to be “the perfect set” on David Letterman’s late-night talk show in 1987.
Years later, she met Cotter at the Hollywood Improv and got to tell him how much he inspired her — and recited his entire routine from memory.
Her determination to learn that routine so expertly was just a foreshadowing of the drive and dedication she would later apply when she made it to the hallowed stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City for the Colbert show.
She worked on the six-minute routine for four years, honing every last joke to comic perfection as she pursued her dreams again, after taking several years off to focus exclusively on raising her daughter, Mia, now 12.
Yet her innate niceness and role as a mom continue to be of utmost importance. She’s proud to be a trusted confidant for many of Mia’s friends, as she tries to help them navigate life’s difficulties. She herself didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, growing up with a troubled brother who eventually committed suicide.
“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.”
To that end, Gallagher has illustrated two children’s books, “The Girl You Are” and “Gino Has a Birthday,” and teaches cartooning in a way that lets her young students develop confidence in their artistic choices.
But on a deeper level, she has teamed up with her friend, comic Brian Kiley (a staff writer for Conan O’Brien’s talk show), to create a new book that aims to foster discussion between middle-school kids and their parents about suicide. She hopes to encourage children to discuss their feelings, and avoid 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.
She is disheartened to see that many young female comics in their early 20s seem to be “just filthy, trying to shock audiences into getting their attention.” For her, comedy is a gift to be used for 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.”
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