August 10, 2012 in Features

Galifianakis combines wit, original style

‘Candidate’ star reflects on strange route to becoming a comedy idol
Joe Williams McClathcy-Tribune

ST. LOUIS – Zach Galifianakis would make a lousy politician. For one thing, the star of “The Campaign,” who plays a ninny who runs for Congress against a drunken incumbent (Will Ferrell), hates shaking hands and kissing babies. He doesn’t understand why strangers want to take his picture, and he has a farm in his native North Carolina to get away from the increasingly hot glare of publicity.

For another thing, he’s got what consultants call “baggage.” He’s best known for playing a pill-popping man-child in the two “Hangover” movies, and in an episode of Bill Maher’s talk show, Galifianakis advocated legalizing marijuana while smoking what he said was a joint. (It was actually tobacco.) Even the most cursory background check would reveal that Galifianakis suffered what he calls a nervous breakdown and dropped out of college. (Less well known is that the precipitating event was the death of his closest friend.)

One credit short of graduation from North Carolina State, he packed up and moved to New York, where he worked as a nanny and scammed drinks from men at gay bars. His first stand-up comedy gig was at a hamburger restaurant in Times Square.

“It was called Hamburger Harry’s,” Galifianakis said during a recent whistle-stop in St. Louis. “There was a room in the back that had an open mic. I would try out new material there and keep coming back for more. You have to really love it to work under those circumstances.”

Galifianakis started developing an absurdist brand of comedy that combines Steven Wright-style non-sequiturs, Andy Kaufman-style conceptual art and his own lounge-lizard piano stylings.

In 1997, Galifianakis moved to Los Angeles, where he paid the rent acting on television shows including “Boston Common” and “Tru Calling” and movies including “Corky Romano,” “Out Cold” and “Bubble Boy.” Meanwhile, he worked with “indie” comics like Sarah Silverman who were rejecting traditional comedy clubs to perform at avant-garde spaces such as Cafe Largo.

In 2004, Galifianakis joined friends Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford on the Comedians of Comedy Tour, which was documented in a film and a cable series.

“People around the country could watch it and see that there was a newer type of stand-up, a scene where anything goes. You didn’t have to do the usual kinds of jokes you hear at comedy clubs.”

Galifianakis recounted how he once hired some street-corner laborers for a routine, and as he was driving to the gig and explaining their role, he had second thoughts. “These guys were so desperate for work, they were willing to be exploited in public. It was sad. So I paid them and canceled the bit.”

Galifianakis has showcased his serious side in the films “Into the Wild,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “Up in the Air.” He is currently in talks to star in an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s comic novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” (a project previously attempted by Ferrell). But no matter what else he does in his career, he’s unlikely to shake “The Hangover,” the highest grossing R-rated comedy ever, which spawned a carbon-copy sequel that made Galifianakis a rich man.

When asked to respond to rumors that “The Hangover Part III” would entail yet another wild animal in a trashed hotel room and more mutilation of uptight dentist Ed Helms, Galifianakis insisted that the upcoming sequel would restore our faith in American ingenuity.

“That’s a promise,” he said.

Spoken like a true politician.

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