Anyone who was suckered into seeing the original theatrical run of Mars Attacks! knows that humor is a very subjective thing. Some people like a loud whoopee cushion while others prefer projectile vomiting to get a good chuckle. Amazingly, some even enjoy Carrot Top. The only constant is that you can’t please everybody…so comedian Zach Galifianakis has focused his career on pleasing himself.
Don’t feel ashamed if you’ve never heard of him. Zach’s the kind of guy who can disappear into a crowd, only to reemerge when we truly need him. He’s like a hilariously bearded comedic superhero. And in these times of watered down mainstream comedy, we need his beard more than ever.
So consider this your introduction to Zach Galifianakis, the North Carolinian, Greek Orthodox comedian who has jumped from television and movies to music videos and tractors. He’s even done a little reality TV. I’m not promising you’ll like every joke he has in his arsenal, but at the very least you’ll learn how to say his last name without looking it up on Wikipedia.
I know from personal experience that you don’t like phones. Is that some kind of rural North Carolina anti-technology thing, or is it more that you’re not a big fan of forced, human-on-human via microwave transmission method of interaction?
It is a number of things and here they are: first, I have terrible phone etiquette. Sometimes the phone will ring and I will answer a banana by accident. Secondly, I do think I am beginning to hate technology. I despise being able to be gotten in touch with. Lastly, I am afraid that the government is listening and will cancel my subscription to America.
I read you were raised Greek Orthodox, which seemed to me to be an odd upbringing as a path to comedy. What exactly does it mean to be raised Greek Orthodox?
It means that I was baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. Annoyingly, you are baptized completely naked in front of onlookers. That was my first memory of the Greek Church. I was old enough to be embarrassed, and almost old enough to have an erection. Later, as we grew older, my brother and sister and I learned to mock the church experience. So, in a way, it was a perfect path to comedy.
Do you think that your family life contributed to your unique comedic style?
I come from a very close family — too close, sometimes. My father is so overly loving. He cries out of joy all the time. We have given him hell for it for years. Having said that, I now know that my family designed me, especially my older brother who is funnier than I can ever be.
However, he was quite cruel growing up. He used to strip me of all of my clothes. All. I would be as naked as my baptism day, but now I was a teenager. He would drag me up and down our grass hill and then hold my nude adolescent body by the street so cars could see me being tortured. These kind of things start making you think differently perhaps. But I must say I truly love my family.
Who do you consider to be your personal comedy heroes?
Growing up it was for sure my older cousins. They were a few years older and I would watch and listen to them. I also watched Spinal Tap all the time. That movie appealed to me because it was so smartly stupid. “MASH” was big in my home, but so was [“The Benny Hill Show,”] so it is a bit confusing.
How did you first get into comedy and comedic acting?
I moved to New York City to try acting. I was very disenchanted with the whole acting class thing. Many classes are really just therapy sessions. I could not stop giggling in class because I find that actor types really are wrapped up in their own love of themselves. So I quit. I met a woman in a bar who told me I should try stand up. So I did. After bombing for a while I got a little better then started auditioning for stuff.
I saw some film and press pictures of you pre-beard and could hardly recognize you. What was the impetus behind growing it in the first place?
When I shave I look like Jodie Foster. That is one reason. The other is that I have never been that into grooming.
I heard you keep a farm in North Carolina as an escape from the tension of your professional life. Is it of sentimental value, or do you actually get out there and do genuine farm work?
No, it is a place that will hopefully one day be a full-fledged farm. I will admit [that] I have no idea what I am doing, but neither does our president. It is a lot of work. It will take years to get it where I want it. I have a tractor. I am trying to nurture the land first, then I will grow my magic. I trust you know what I mean by magic.
You’ve made quite a career of being “that funny actor guy that people recognize without knowing where they recognize you from.” You’re a familiar face but also kind of invisible. At the same time, you’ve acted in a ton of stuff: “Dog Bites Man,” “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Boston Common,” “Tru Calling,” and others. You even had your own show at one point. What is your professional goal in terms of acting and comedy? Do you want to transition into a front spot of a hit show, or did the experience of having a show sour you on the process?
Well, I just take jobs that come my way, really. I feel like in American society there is such an emphasis on “success” and I do not really live like that. My life is much more important than work. I feel that those who are in the spotlight have given up their life for work — they have been tricked by Madison Avenue and Details magazine that keeping up with the Joneses or being in the spotlight is the key to happiness. As far as goals? I hope to make little movies here and there. I do not pursue acting that much, though. But if it comes my way easily enough, I will take it.
How did you get involved with your music video appearances, specifically with Fiona Apple and Kanye West?
They both had asked me to do one for them after they had seen a video I did for Anita Baker (without her knowledge). Kanye came to one of my shows and asked me after the show, and I think Fiona came over to my house and asked me.
I’ve seen some bits where you’ve taken stabs at Dane Cook. And recently, I’ve heard some general negativity directed at Carlos Mencia for supposedly stealing jokes, which revealed to me a kind of behind-the-scenes comedy culture. So, how much in the comedy community is just ball busting, and how much is genuine animosity? For example, do you really not like Dane Cook’s form of comedy?
Well, some of it is jealousy, I would imagine. But for me it is just fun to pick on the top dog. I could care less about all that rivalry. I make fun of most everything and everyone. I mean nothing personal whatsoever. I am not malicious, but if I find it funny to pick on a millionaire comedian who wears Diesel Jeans and probably spends four and half hours in front of a mirror every morning then so be it. It is just good-natured fun. I like to be made fun of. People make too much of this “he is funny, he isn’t funny” stuff. Comedy is like music to me. It is subjective. Some like Bob Dylan, and some like Rascal Flats.
What was up with that onstage feud with “Survivor” reality TV “star” Johnny Fairplay?
At the time I was taking a camera with me to shows to capture [myself] bombing or in awkward situations. He happened to be up front running his awkward mouth and it just kind of unfolded.
Recently you acted in the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild. I know you probably spent a short time on set, but what was your experience working on that film?
I spent two weeks working on that movie. It was me and Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn and Sean Penn staying in a hunting lodge together, which was quite fun. I very much liked working on that movie because I had read the book and I got to retrace the main character’s footsteps. It was all very authentic. I even drove in the actual truck that Chris used to drive. We drank in the bar he drank in. We worked at the place he worked at.
I heard stories that your sense of humor on set shocked and confused the locals. Do you have any stories from those interactions?
I just kept asking the local South Dakotans in this very small town where the closest gay bar was. It never got old.