If you asked me to list my favorite comedians, I don’t think I could. Movies maybe, but not comedians. Tastes change, times change, and ultimately, people, like milk, go bad. Too often, the ones I once loved are now doing shit I hate, and whatever made them funny at the time, now only makes them amazingly sad.
Better I’ve found to think of them in terms of the short periods when they were great, almost as if they were wine, and draw up my list accordingly. A 1982-84 Eddie Murphy (SNL, 48 hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places) for example ranks up there with a great 1977-80 Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories), and both make my list despite the fact that neither makes me laugh anymore.
Because great comedy, let’s admit it, occurs in short bursts not over long hauls; in ephemeral moments when the comedian’s tone, pitch, and sense of humor are all hitting in unison with what we too are feeling. It’s sort of a zeitgeist type situation that forever marks us and guarantees the comedian a place on the list, even afterward, when he’s living off the voice of Donkey in Shrek.
The man of the moment
Our man on the cover this month is in that moment right now. And even though it’s probably too early to call him great, the 2009-2011 Zach Galifianakis, the star of this summer’s comedy hit Hangover II, is already in my wine cellar.
But you want to know what? I’m tired of collecting fucking wine bottles! I’m tired of watching all my favorite funny people turn into weird stars; seeing them suddenly get scared and corrupt, and ultimately disappointing. I’m tired of the usual routine where I spot someone for the first time and think to myself “this guy’s fucking awesome!” see them become a star and feel somehow validated because I saw them early on, then watch in horror as they slowly degenerate into a Hollywood-sucks-them-dry-un-funny death mask. Yet it happens time and time again, so much so I just don’t trust comedians anymore, because ultimately I’m sure they’ll let me down.
The authentic anti-star
Zach Galifianakis may be different, though. And it’s not because he’s funnier than the greats, nor have we become less demanding, it’s because with Zach you get the feeling he never really wanted all this in the first place. WE wanted him, and that’s a big difference. And no, this isn’t a marketing trick or a way of Zach to make himself more likable or to make him more “accessible” as press agents say. Zach just wants to make you laugh.
“Zach’s built for comedy” says Tracy Morgan, a comedian on NBC’s hit show 30 Rock. “Like Mike Tyson in his prime – he was built for boxing, from the tip of his head to the bottom of his feet – just straight boxer. That’s how Zach is with comedy.”
And because Zach’s built only for comedy, the other shit he has no patience for.
“It’s hard for me to feel bad when comedians get their shows canceled especially when they make that much money,” admits Zach. “I mean it’s kind of a hard thing to relate to. People put so much investment in what their position is on a TV show or in the entertainment industry. Who fucking cares?”
This refreshingly honest attitude towards Hollywood has ironically made Zach’s star even brighter. It’s made him more fearless (he recently smoked a joint live during a talk show interview) more risk taking in his comedy (he just dressed up as Annie during a recent live SNL stand-up monolog – pleading for the audience to vote Dukakis in 2012.) And as he and his Hangover mates command a bigger and bigger stage, Zach’s has become, yes, more authentic.
Which is perfect timing actually considering authentic is what everyone’s looking for nowadays. Whether it be traveling to Peru to find that authentic rainforest experience or buying those time-honored-made-in-the-same-town-for-decades authentic boots, or watching cooking shows to find out how that authentic dish “really is meant to be made,” real and true is selling.
And for Hollywood, this is a problem, because Hollywood’s not built that way. Hollywood’s built to make dream people: Bogart heroes, Grace Kelly heroines, Jerry Lewis clowns, or RichardBurtonLizTaylor hybrid Brangelinas. They don’t make introverted nerds like Zach who read their jokes off of napkins. It’s not surprising then to learn Zach isn’t a Hollywood product. He wasn’t on a show like Friends. He lasted two weeks on SNL before leaving. He wasn’t from LA or NYC, but Wilkesboro, North Carolina, raised in a non-entertainment middle-class household, and whose grandparents emigrated from Greece.
“I come from a small town, and at the time nobody had stuff like MTV, so there wasn’t much to grab on to in terms of what was cool or what wasn’t. I knew simply I wanted to do something on stage.”
After dropping out of college, Zach moved to NYC then LA where, and only after the urging of friends, did
“I was majoring in communication and I dropped out. After my best friend died, I had a sort of nervous breakdown, and it was then that I left for New York. My parents wanted me to get a degree, and they still do! And at the time they were worried, but I was always able to support myself. I struggled there for five years, but I never asked them for money because I didn’t want to be a burden. Eventually I went to LA and struggled there too. I didn’t really leave my hood and there, I did stand up in little places on the West Side, taco joints and bars and art galleries. It wasn’t always good either.”
Maybe not, but unlike most unknown comedians, Zach continued to work regularly. He appeared on a series of shows broadcast on late night cable TV either as a host of a talk show or as a “journalist” on a fake news program or as a coroner on a Les Experts-type drama called Tru Calling.
And yet during this “struggling period”, Zach never felt the frustration of not being “discovered.” In fact, he was a satisfied comedian performing his craft as if he were a shoe cobbler or an electrician. Not rich or famous, no, but working and definitely prolific.
The Patron Saint of Hipsters
Even though mainstream America didn’t know who Zach was, hipster audiences both in LA and NYC did. And thanks to this, Zach has always benefitted from a sort of “six degrees of separation” popularity, similar to what maybe an early Bob Dylan had at the time when he was playing in small coffee houses in Greenwich Village or in San Francisco – the sort of following that consists of every cool kid in New York or LA swearing they saw Zach once telling jokes at Starbucks or swearing they met him at a party or swearing they spent a weekend him with him at a friend’s summer house. And it’s all very possible they did.
New York-based Wall Street Journal editor and writer Jason Gay remembers seeing the Hangover for the first time in New York. “The magic of seeing The Hangover in the Village was that half the theater was saying, “Who is this guy?” and the other half were saying “I know that guy!”
In general, nobody really knows a star before they become popular. It’s as if they suddenly materialize out of either rather than have much of a past. Nobody growing up in Paris it seems ever hung out with Eva Green, just like nobody in Kentucky says they were best friends with Johnny Depp. With Zach yes. And living in LA hasn’t changed that.
“I don’t really hang out with other comics. I don’t. Nor actors. I don’t have any patience. I’m sorry I don’t.”
And the fact that the usually bitchy population of hipster audiences and magazine critics haven’t turned on him yet, or called him a “sell out” or saying he’s gone mainstream, proves this group remains convinced nothing’s changed really with Zach. He’s become a sort of patron saint of hipsters actually.
The birth of anti-comedy
It seems we live in an anti-world right now, where the most recognized people in their respected domains are actually the opposite image of what we’re used to. Just look at Barack Obama (the anti-president), Steve Jobs (the anti-CEO), J.K. Rowling (the anti-author). Hell, even Sarah Palin and Marine Le Pen are proving there’s an (anti-anti-Christ). So for an anti-star like Zach to be on the cover of major magazines shouldn’t come as a surprise to people, especially those who’ve seen him.
Zach’s approach to comedy is anti-comedy, meaning it’s comedy that makes fun of making comedy. Watching a Zach Galifianakis show is to be treated more to a piece of performance art rather than stand up. His jokes aren’t structured like normal jokes, meaning he’ll spend more time self-dissecting the joke he just told and the audience’s response to that joke, rather than the actual joke itself, which you’ve already probably forgotten anyway.
“I love to laugh when nobody else laughs. When I say something that nobody laughs at, that actually makes me laugh. It’s difficult to explain. I like anti-comedy, because I’ve been doing it for so long, that kind style. Traditional stuff bores the shit out of me. I love something that’s so un-funny, it’s funny. Maybe only other comedians understand that, but yet again, I don’t care.”
Zach, for example, will take with him on stage maybe a stolen real estate sign and call the agent who’s name is on the sign and leave a message for that agent. And just when you think the sign is going to serve as a subject for a series of other jokes, Zach is on to something else. Zach and other fellow anti-comics recently took this style on a tour called the Comedians of Comedy (a parody of an earlier traveling show called The Kings of Comedy) where they performed in music clubs instead comedy clubs, delivering jokes in a different style to a different audience. The result: comedy drifting more into the hip world usually inhabited by fashion and music. Before Zach, comics usually came from places like Club Med or improv groups or maybe the circus, while the geeks and nerds went into music and became people like the Strokes. Now the geeks and nerds are doing comedy, and the results are a sort of return to the Woody Allen/Lenny Bruce days where comics weren’t apologizing for how smart and witty they were.
Le Very Big Payday Part II
But enough of the past. This June, Zach, Ed Helms, and Bradley Cooper will be taking another The Hangover Part II. And although Warner Brothers, the studio producing the film, has kept information on the movie fairly opaque, the storyline is pretty clear. Ed Helms’s character Stu is getting married, and his friends Phil, Alan (Zach’s character) and Doug travel to Bangkok to attend the wedding. And just, in the same way, The Hangover used Mike Tyson in a cameo role, Part II promises to showcase former President Bill Clinton among others, and no NOT Mel Gibson, who was fired from the film after shooting began.
“I can’t talk about hiring and firing,” says Zach. “That’s all I have to say. One day, though, I will talk on the subject and you will hear what I have to say!”
As with every wide released comedy sequel, Zach’s payday is MUCH bigger then the first (Zach was paid $5 million for Part II), which Zach denies as the real reason he returned. In fact, it was the screenplay, Zach claims, which drew him in.
“The script is awesome, maybe better than the first Hangover. Let’s just say that for the first one, I didn’t really know the other actors, nor the director. Everything came together on the set. Now with everything in place, I think it was easier to write the script with all the characters in your head. That’s why I like it. The jokes come naturally from the characters. Alan’s style is say something so stupid, it’s funny. In life, it’s often the case with me. The difference is I KNOW it’s stupid, Alan doesn’t.”
Again Zach will be teaming up with his favorite director Todd Phillips, who also directed him in last year’s successful Due Date with Robert Downey Jr. Suddenly the Phillips/Galifianakis tandem is rivaling that of the Francis Weber/Pierre Richard or Judd Apatow/Seth Rogan couplings.
“It’s my third film with him. I’m trying to make him laugh, surprise him, because the secret of comedy is surprise,” says Phillips. “At the same time, I think what made the first so good was that there was some more improvisation, whereas with this one, there’s a lot more lines, a lot more stuff going on. You’re giving as much info as you are jokes.”
Movies aside, Zach’s personal style, albeit fairly unintentional, comes over as pretty cool. The corduroy jacket with patches, the t-shirt underneath, the new balance sneaks all give Zach the allure of an urban intellectual. Yet when it’s mixed with his slight North Carolinian accent and of course, Ze beard, you get the impression Zach’s not really a snob as much as a smart hillbilly crossed with a college professor in a southern university crossed with someone who might have a blog.
“I saw Joaquin Phoenix the other night in the elevator and I told him ‘I’m glad you’re admitting to stealing my shit.’ We laughed.”
In fact, come to think of it, Zach embodies the blog generation more than any other star. His ascent is thanks to coffee houses and YouTube not to weekend variety shows and sitcoms. His web talk show “Between Two Ferns,” featured on Funnyordie.com, Zach weirdly interviewing mega stars like Nathalie Portman or Steve Carrel, has become a cult hit, but it’s doubtful it ever could have worked on TV. Zach’s unscripted/uncensored/anti-comedy thing just fits more with the net than with networks.
The curse is what you make it
Before placing him in the pantheon of great actors, though, there are concerns. Zach has yet to show an ability to play a love interest, to seduce a woman, to play a father or basically play anything other than an overgrown infantile introvert WITH A BEARD. And with every new film’s success, the chances of seeing him out of that mold become harder and harder to imagine.
But again, maybe those career type thoughts don’t enter the equation with Zach. He seems already interested in building a legacy beyond acting, namely creating a Robert Redford type inspired sort of Sundance resort for comics and artists.
“I’ve had this project in my head for years now, and it was my goal when I was making a little cash from stand-up. I wanted to make an artist colony of musicians, but more like a sect! I bought about 30 acres of farm land, and I envisioned cabans where I could invite people and yet everybody would have their own privacy, yet drink and eat together and live in community. It was a sort of hippie retreat, to create our own sort thing in the middle of the woods. I’d call it “The Republic of Zach” and only women would be invited.”
And maybe like the recent comedy supernova vintages before him the 2002-2004 Ricky Gervais and the 2006-2009 Sacha Baron Cohen, Zach will disappear right before you get tired of him, only to return maybe, just when you’ve almost forgotten about him.
Whatever happens, The Hangover will always rank up there with the legendary American comedies thanks in large part to Zach, and no one, not even time, can change that. So even if years from now I do find myself cringing as an older Zach ruins the earlier vision I had, or worse, I find myself laughing at a has-been Zach, thinking to myself “this guy’s still really funny,” I can always tell my kids he used to be great. And when they don’t believe me, or think I’m full of shit, I’ll show them my Zach Galifianakis bottle to prove it.