It’s 2003 and I’m sitting in a Midwestern college auditorium with ratty orange seats. The air conditioner is cranked despite it being a cool March night, and that’s good, because I’m buzzed from pre-show beers and wearing a multi-layered thrift-store suit. “The battle of the bands only happens once a year,” my sagelike companion observed earlier in the day. “We should treat it with the respect it deserves.”
Zach Galifianakis, invited to campus to emcee this evening, has just snatched someone’s cell phone and is screaming at the person on the other end. He ends the gag by abruptly hanging up and dropping the phone into the gape-jawed onlooker’s lap, only to stomp off angrily and continue his between-act banter.
This is the first time I’ve experienced Galifianakis and the faux-bravado he sometimes employs in his act—an act that will build his cult-comic hero status over the next several years. Given that I’m too young to have followed Andy Kaufman, I’ve never witnessed anything like this offbeat, crowd-baiting, cellphone-screaming performance, which barely resembles conventional comedy. “This is what college is about,” I think to myself, “discovery.”
Turns out, Galifianakis disagrees.
“College, to me, was a gigantic waste of time,” he tells me when we meet for the first time, five years later in Manchester, Tenn. at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. “It really was. If I ever have kids, I’m going to tell them, ‘If you’re 18, go rob a bank. Hijack a train. Don’t go to college. Go to India and open up a 7-11.” He laughs and shakes his head. “That was a horrible joke.”
Galifianakis was born 38 years ago in Wilkesboro, N.C., a town tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, home to annual folk-and-bluegrass extravaganza MerleFest. The Galifianakis house was across the street from a cornfield, and young Zach faced “some challenges with the redneck set.” But this rural environment also helped create Galifianakis’ distinctive humor.
Says the actor/comedian’s mother, Mary Frances Galifianakis, there was “lots of room for exploring and, in Zach’s case, getting lost. His best friend, Edwin McMillan, lived in our neighborhood and knew the way through the woods to our house and back, but Zachy—as we called him then and now—would always get lost coming and going from his friend’s house. Eventually someone would hear him crying and go to his rescue.”
The Galifianakis siblings—Zach, along with younger sister Merritt and older brother Greg—grew up performing for their parents, dressing Merritt as the Ayatollah and putting on sketches about the Iran-Contra Affair. But the real action started when their parents left them alone.
“This happened more than once, but it seems to me that it was always a summer afternoon when our parents would pull out of the driveway with the three of us waving from the top of the hill with our arms around each other,” Merritt says. “Once our parents’ car was out of sight, Greg turned into the devil. He would throw Zach into the shower with his clothes on.”
“My brother was very mean,” Zach says. “He’s now not; he’s the sweetest person I know. But I’d be sitting at the kitchen table, and this is when I was going through puberty, and he’d get me up from the kitchen table, he’d take me outside and he’d rip all my clothes off me until I was completely naked. We lived on this grass hill, and he’d drag me up and down naked on this hill and hold me by the street until cars came by and they could see my naked body. My brother really kind of designed me, because I always thought his cruelty had a creative edge to it.”
I’m standing outside the artist hospitality area at Bonnaroo, waiting for Galifianakis. As he approaches wearing a blue striped shirt and khaki shorts, a sun hat dangling from his neck, he walks a direct line until he’s standing about 18 inches from me. “Austin? Austin?!?” he says, sounding more panicked with each repetition, looking everywhere except directly into my face, despite the fact that he’s right in front of it. “GODDAMMIT!” Finally breaking character after his hilariously awkward entrance, he smiles and shakes my hand.
Intending to become a full-time actor, Galifianakis moved to New York more than 15 years ago in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown brought on by the death of his best friend and also failing his final course at N.C. State by one point in 1992. Finding it hard to keep from laughing at how serious people were in his New York acting classes, he took the advice of a friend and began pursuing standup comedy.
“My first gig was in the back of a hamburger restaurant in Times Square,” he recalls. The first joke he told onstage was about a girl offering him her futon after a night of drinking. He refused, saying, “I don’t sleep on anything that rhymes with ‘crouton.’” Although the style was indicative of the direction his act would take over the years, it was an admittedly shaky start. He had little material, and bombed frequently. “I lied to myself a lot: ‘You can really do this.’ Then you just keep doing it. I really loved it, going out, standing on bar stools with people’s backs turned to you and trying to tell jokes while they watch a hockey game in the background. At least with music, you don’t need an instant feedback. But with comedy, if you don’t have that laugh, you don’t have much to go on.”
Describing Galifianakis’ comedy doesn’t really do it justice, in much the same way hearing it doesn’t. (Despite offers, he hasn’t put out a CD and likely won’t. “My comedy is, I think, a bit physical,” he says. “Words do not come to me easily, but facial expressions are instant and involuntary for me.”) Put simply, he piles up non-sequitur one-liners, presents “characters” he’s been “working on” (such as “the pretentious illiterate”), messes with the audience and plays a piano, but it’s deeper than that. He would never start a joke with, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the club tonight,” unless, of course, he was making fun of traditional comedy. Rather, his bits are a mix of the hyper-intelligent and the low-brow—blink-and-you’ll-miss-them absurdist nuggets. Sometimes the joke is simply the mispronunciation of a word, other times it’s in pushing a button that’s particularly taboo with his audience.
“And when I make horrible racist jokes, that’s because I think racism is so stupid that it’s funny,” Galifianakis says. “If people get it, they get it. I’ve also noticed that certain races are okay to make fun of and certain ones aren’t. I used to have a joke about a Chinese roommate and everyone would laugh at that joke. But if I did more touchy things about people who had more representation in our culture…” he trails off and considers the thought. “To be quite honest with you, not a lot of Chinese people go to comedy shows. So I kept thinking, ‘Why is it OK to say that?’ I respect you if you’re offended by all of it. That’s fine. But don’t be offended by one thing and think another is OK. That just blows my mind. I’ve tried to preach to audiences that are uptight. But then I’ll do a joke that has the n-word in it and black people are the first to laugh.”
While trying to build a reputation in the comedy world, Galifianakis found all manner of ways to make ends meet in expensive New York. He scammed drinks from men at gay bars, cleaned houses, worked as a busboy in a strip joint and even watched children as a nanny. An instance at the latter position proved just how unsuited he was for these odd jobs.
“One time, I was like, ‘Emile, turn the TV off; it’s time to do homework,’“ Galifianakis recalls. “He’s seven years old and he’s like, ‘No, I don’t want to do homework. We’re watching Beavis and Butthead.’ And I was like, ‘It’s time to do homework,’ and I go up and I turn the TV off. He turns it back on, looks at me and says, ‘Look, you do what I say or I’m going to tell my mom you’re touching my penis.’ At that point, I was like, ‘Well, I might as well touch his penis!’ No, I freaked out and realized I had to get out of this. After that, I quit nannying.”
I’m sitting on a flimsy plastic folding chair beneath a Bonnaroo tent, and Galifianakis is telling me how he’d love to make people cry: “I really wouldn’t mind being a serious actor. I don’t know if I could pull it off, but I think a lot of comedians really kind of want to be taken seriously sometimes and I feel I’m a bit guilty of that.” You wouldn’t be faulted for calling shenanigans on this quote after glancing at his filmography (2001 snowboarder flick Out Cold, Corky Romano, this year’s What Happens in Vegas and short-lived Fox drama Tru Calling, among others), but Galifianakis’ acting career—which officially began in 1996 with television series Boston Common—has indeed taken a steady upward trajectory in recent years. For Galifianakis, it’s about mixing his various passions in an attempt to stay fresh and pay the bills. The result is a multi-faceted talent who can switch between a stand-up tour (he’s done several, both on his own and with Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford as the Comedians of Comedy), a TV show (he’s guested and starred in a few, including his own short-lived VH1 program, Late World with Zach) and any number of video-clip-based side projects (including a Fiona Apple music video, a spot for Absolut vodka, and a video with Will Oldham to the tune of Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”).
“I take things that come my way,” he says. “When I go do acting jobs, I really miss standup, and when I’m on the road for a while, I need to go act. If I’m in an Ashton Kutcher movie here and there, I know it’s really against my style, but I’m not so elitist. One day I hope to be that, don’t get me wrong; I’d love to be so snobby.”
The film that might allow him to pick and choose a little more freely going forward is called Visioneers. Starring Galifianakis as lead character George Washington Winsterhammerman, Visioneers focuses on the Jeffers Corporation, where employees greet each other with the middle finger and, very literally, explode from stress. George is forced to come to terms with his rather ordinary existence (a kid, a wife, a nice house and a mind-numbing job) and the threat that he could meet his end in a rather extraordinary way (spontaneous combustion). As touching as it is unorthodox, Visioneers has the potential to be a breakout indie hit this fall, in the vein of similarly minded films like Stranger Than Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. But where the films above are simply marketed as indie, Visioneers truly is an independent film, a fact that makes mainstream success that much more difficult.
“I remember working on it and I ask the production assistants what they were getting paid,” Galifianakis says. “People getting coffee were getting paid more than I was. I liked that, actually; it made me feel good.”
Following an Audience Award at CineVegas and sold-out screenings at the 600-seat Egyptian Theater during the Seattle International Film Festival, Visioneers certainly has buzz behind it, though at press time it has no distributor. The fact that it even exists is a notch in the belt for both Galifianakis and its creators. “My brother and I graduated from film programs at UCLA wanting to make our own movies,” says Visioneers director Jared Drake. “Like everyone else that goes to a film program, we thought we’d walk out with million-dollar movie deals being placed in our laps. That didn’t happen, so we decided to bum-rush the playing field and shoot a feature for very little money in our parents’ back yard … The point is we did it and we’re proud of it. And however our dream evolves, we will evolve with it. Aside from that, we knew this dude that spontaneously exploded one day and thought it would be fun to make a comedy about him.”
Galifianakis is standing on the Which Stage at Bonnaroo, about to sing a song with one of his favorite bands, My Morning Jacket. It’s an ungodly hour, and he’s wearing a skin-tight Little Orphan Annie dress. “There’s this thing in my head,” he explains the next day, “like, ‘What am I doing?’ A grown man. It’s 3:45 in the morning. I’m having trouble with my zipper and I have to ask one of the sound guys, who was asleep, to zip me up in the back. But as soon as I step out, I’m like, ‘OK, this will be a lot of fun.’ I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Turns out, his career has thrived on this type of odd confidence since day one.
“My husband and I had no doubt Zach would go wherever his dream would take him,” his mother says. “When he was three or four years old, he named his stuffed Easter bunny John Newman for John Chancellor and [Edwin] Newman, NBC [Nightly] News co-anchors. Around the same time, he pointed to the TV screen and asked, ‘How do I get in there?’ I guess we always knew he would eventually figure that out.”