Q + LA Zach Galifianakis
by Robin Sayers / illustration by STEVE BRODNER
The overlap in the Venn diagram connecting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zach Galifianakis is too large for our liking: well known, bewhiskered, October born, pentasyllabic surnames. Plus, would you put it past the actor and comedian to have a stash of Members Only jackets?
The many mispronunciations of their last names only widen the sector, although we’re certain the latter would find the funny even in this intersection with the former. Despite gaining worldwide iconic fame thanks to The Hangover—which has him filming a sequel just as his newest flick, Due Date with Robert Downey Jr., hits theaters—many can’t, or won’t, reference Galifianakis by his melodious cognomen.
Instead, they employ descriptors related to circumference or wooliness. (We’d sooner cite those Aegean Sea–hued eyes or that drachma-worthy profile.) Even esteemed journalists mangle his name. Not that the North Carolinian hasn’t made hay of such boorishness: “My name is Zach Galifianakis,” he says to an audience, before adding, “I hope I’m pronouncing that right.”
Of course, context renders this a commentary on laziness or prejudice: It’s either humorous or anything but. When his paternal Uncle Nick, a congressman and first-generation Greek-American, was leading in the 1972 Senate race, the opponent scored a stunning upset with the xenophobic campaign slogan, “Jesse Helms: He’s One of Us.” Perhaps this execrable episode fomented in his wee nephew Zacharius, now 41 but then 3, a sense of otherness that helped forge his outlier genius. (That, or maybe it was older brother Greg’s penchant for stripping him naked, dragging him roadside and hoisting him up by the ankles for the gawking pleasure of passersby.)
Consider this: Though Galifianakis entered an industry in which name recognition is paramount, he went with pride of heritage over the lure of fast-track celebrity. If all else fails to inspire appellation mastery, then just be mercenary. His bittersweetly poignant turn in It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a gut-wrenching revelation. Don’t risk screwing up your Oscar bet.
So, tomorrow’s your birthday?
Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting.
Happy birthday! Is it bad that I reminded you?
No! I just forget. I’m having a surprise party for myself, so I should try to remember.
On a Chinese calendar, you were born in the Year of the Cock.
Not to be confused with a porn-industry thing. I think it’s more of a bird reference.
What’s your earliest memory of getting a laugh?
I think it had something to do with me breastfeeding my mom. We laughed and high-fived, way before high-fiving was invented.
How much TV were you allowed to watch growing up?
There weren’t strict rules, but I’ve never really been a TV person. I was fascinated by this program called Shields and Yarnell. It was a married couple who were mimes, and they also did the robot. I started to emulate them at talent shows in elementary school.
A lot of people put mimes on the list of things that upset them.
I think that’s a bandwagon thing—it’s just popular to say.
Was there any technology that blew your mind as a kid?
I remember my dad got my mom a new Toyota Camry. My brother, sister and I were in the backseat, and my dad went, “Great stereo, kids!” It was just AM/FM, with two speakers in front, but he was really trying to impress us. He was overselling.
Are you as claustrophobic as the scene in your comedy DVD, Live at the Purple Onion, implies?
I was, but it’s gotten much better. I had a panic attack in an elevator on my way to a dental appointment right before that was filmed. I’d never felt that before. That’s the thing about claustrophobia, and anxiety in general: If it’s new to you as an adult, what do you do? A lot of people take medication. I tried desperately to avoid clown cars and those 1950s pictures of people crowded into phone booths. On airplanes, I started ordering three whiskeys right away. But whiskey makes me cry. I’d rather openly weep than be claustrophobic. I think crying is very good anyway—it’s cleansing.
Are you cognizant of the fact that your comedy might not just be casually amusing but rather something of a lifeline for people in dark moments?
I talked to my father about this, and it sounds incredibly corny, but when you step back, what I do for a living is about reactions. And these happen to be happy reactions. That’s what you try to evoke. There’s probably no better job. When people say that to me, it’s really emotional.
Your network stand-up debut was on Late Show, and you did your set at the piano. What made you more nervous—the piano playing or the joke telling?
I don’t really remember that Letterman thing. I probably looked a little nervous—but I don’t get nervous. I don’t really work on routines that much. It’s just written out on a piece of paper. Not that I don’t repeat jokes—I repeat jokes constantly. But I don’t look in a mirror—that doesn’t work for me. I know a lot of comics who record themselves and then listen in the car. That just seems painful.
I see fame as something that happens to someone and celebrity as something one pursues. You don’t seem much interested in the latter.
People always say, “Why didn’t you change your name?” I mean, change my name for what? I’d never do it to be marketable. It was never about that. Just do what you think is funny, and, well, if you make a little walking-around money and, you know, have a nice little house, why would you change your core?
I bet a lot of people think you’re crazy for living in North Carolina most of the time—like you’re squandering this gift of celebrity, of being treated better.
I know exactly what you mean, but that is such a...that’s the big disappointment. No one treats you better!
But you know what people think is the motivation: I’ll get all the sex I want; I’ll get better seats at restaurants.
I haven’t really experienced that. People smile at you more, which is very nice. But it also comes with people bugging the s--t out of you more. I guess that’s the trade-off—you feel like you’re running for mayor. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t wanna get into the back of a black car versus riding a subway, you know? It’s a complicated thing I’m trying to figure out.
When did you first come to Los Angeles, and what were your initial impressions?
It was ’96. I lived in a van beside Birds restaurant on Franklin for a couple of weeks. And then I lived at a youth hostel for about a week. Actually, I liked L.A. a lot. I was really poor and sick of New York, and I felt it was lighter. But that quickly turned.
Well, no, actually—the weather’s so nice. I was living on the Westside in Venice and Santa Monica. I loved it, but then there were too many conversations about f--king pilot season!
It is an Industry town.
Yeah. I guess if you lived in D.C., you would be talking about the Libertarian Party, and if you lived in Detroit, you might be talking about radial tires.
Have you been to Greece?
I’ve only been twice. My cousin [cartoonist Nick Galifianakis] is there right now, researching and writing a movie that takes place in Greece. We want to do it together, so hopefully I’ll be living in Greece in the near future for about six months.
How’s Funyuns doing?
My brother’s dog? I don’t talk to Seth* anymore, so I don’t know how Funyuns is doing.
It’s really sad that the pet has to suffer just because you two are having problems.
I know, I know. That’s what I tell Seth all the time, but he’s such a hard person to deal with. He’s a disaster.
Considering you two are estranged, he sure does a lot of favors for you, like interviewing Sean Penn for your Funny or Die “Between Two Ferns” segments.
That was more about wanting to be seen. He would have done it for anybody.
You know you’re kinda coming off as an ingrate.
Yeah, but if I asked him to mow my lawn or take care of something that was not in front of the camera, he wouldn’t do it. He’s doing it to get into the public eye. He’s like a whore with that.
Is it a coincidence that your VW van and your tractor are both painted orange?
I never thought about that, but orange is my favorite color. They don’t make orange vehicles anymore. These days, all cars seem to be the same boring colors. Maybe [for me] it’s about safety? “Don’t hit me!”
* “Seth” is the mustachioed, fanny pack–loving, twang-talking twin brother created by Galifianakis. Google him.