Zach Galifianakis’ Risky Superstar Year

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In eight years, Zach Galifianakis had gone from piano-accompanied non-sequiturs on Comedy Central Presents – where he wowed us with a routine all at once Hedberg and Kaufman – to a memorable role in Todd Phillips’s 2009 hit, The Hangover. As Alan Gartha, the soon to be brother-in-law of a betrothed Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), Galifianakis is at his very best. A perfect blend of obliviousness, psychosis, and childlike wonderment, he floats out one liner after one liner with the lovable aplomb of someone who doesn’t seem to know he’s performing in the “hot new movie of the summer”. And that’s precisely why he’s so good. That’s precisely why his Hangover performance catapulted him from “that fat guy with the beard” to a near household name. It’s why “Rah-tard” entered the adolescent lexicon and why the film’s infamous “wolf pack” monologue atop Caesar’s Palace was probably recited hundreds of thousands of times in frat house basements across America. He was “just mainstream enough”. But that was 2009. In 2010, Zach became a bonafide star.

That’s why I’m worried.

The contemporary humor zeitgeist is about two things: eccentricity and quotability. Comedic performers win audiences over with the former and then resort to the latter when their unique voices are popularized, packaged, and mass-produced. Over. And over. And over. Think the 2000’s Frat Pack kingpins and their diminishing originality: Will Ferrell in Old School versus Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro. Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers versus Vince Vaughn in Couples Retreat. Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents versus Ben Stiller in…Little Fockers. All the red-faced screaming, lightning-fast car salesman babble, and frenetic New York neuroticism that once made each of us feel like we had discovered something special in these greats has been tainted by merciless repetition. We’ve been overloaded. They’re still funny, but in a “high-school reunion, remember when? finishing-old-friends’-sentences” way. The spark has been lost. We, as engaged, participatory audience members, have nothing left to discover.

“The Zach Galifianakis thing” hasn’t been exhausted yet. Not nearly. As an innovator in a post-Frat Pack wave of awkward, self-deprecating humor (an early twenty-first century cinematic goldmine that Michael Cera and Steve Carell have parlayed into numerous headlining roles), Galifiniakis has demonstrated his value as surprise scene-stealer rather than overt leading man. Bored to Death, Funny or Die’s Between to Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, and a groundbreaking series of Absolut Vodka commercials (also starring Tim Heidecker and Eric Warheim) are testament to his unparalleled capacity to support, even when he’s the ostensible “host”. This year, things changed. Hollywood has raised its voice and it wants more facial hair.

In 2010, Galifianakis’s persona made him an entertaining addition to three major films. In two of the three, this proved to be a very good thing. In one, it may have been a warning sign.

1.Dinner for Schmucks: As Thurman Murch, mind-control guru/IRS middle manager, Galifianakis provides the deranged breaks in context and pacing upon which we have all come to love and rely. The scene in Thurman’s expansive cubicle, where he addresses a baffled Tim (Paul Rudd) crystallizes what it is about Galifianakis that is so damn good. His Schmucks performance gives it all. The stone-faced, deadpan delivery. The slightly feminine strut. The complete disregard for physical boundaries. All these things are embellished carry-overs from earlier roles, but they’re in short enough supply that they leave us wanting more.

2. It’s Kind of a Funny Story: The scene in the Emergency Room where Bobby (Galifianakis) first meets Craig (Kier Gilchrist) seems at first to be a silver-screen homage to Between Two Ferns but is actually something deeper. Galifianakis delivers with a seldom seen smile Bobby’s “Yeah, gotcha” response to Craig’s searching confession that there’s “a lot going on in [his] mind lately”. It’s a heartfelt, new-agey fraternal moment that neatly skirts sappiness. Galifianakis manages to be hilarious while being genuine and sweet and, maybe most importantly, versatile.

3. Due Date: This one was the problem and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the film placed a fifty-foot tall Galifianakis on a gigantic Times Square billboard. Though he was not the film’s leading man, Galifianakis veered close to that territory. That’s not to say he wasn’t funny. He was. But, as I watched, I couldn’t put out of my mind the idea that he was imitating a more authentic version of himself. The way his character carried his dog. His bulbous scarf knot. His heavily affected gait and postured arm. The movie was based on Galifianakis’s sometimes lovable, always staggering incompetence, instead of saving it as an unexpected sweetener, a la The Hangover. The whole thing foreshadowed a possible Frat Pack-esque shtick-overload.

Galifianakis’s appeal lies in his obscurity; the reality that to get him, maybe we need to be a little weird ourselves, a little quirky, a little artistic. Instead of bullying his audience into laughing, he makes it all seem accidental. There’s a human element in even his most ridiculous moments that engages and perplexes us to the point where we can’t decide whether we want to make fun of him or give him a hug. Galifianakis makes us feel good about ourselves as self-identified comedy connoisseurs. Liking him is a badge that we’re somehow deeper than Anchorman-quoting drones even when we yell out “milk was a bad choice!” Liking him helps us convince ourselves that our underlined New Yorkers, moleskins, and bold-framed eyeglasses actually mean something. We feel like we’re reflective, like we’re cutting edge. As pretentious as it sounds, I felt like one of the masses watching Due Date. Galifianakis wasn’t my quasi-indie discovery anymore.

2001 was the first time I saw Galifianakis on television. He was doing an appearance on Conan O’Brien. The jokes were terrific, as always. (“Today before the show, I went to my stylist. She said: ‘Zach, what kind of look are you going for?’ And I said: ‘Just give me the rapist’.”) What drew my attention though, came near the end of his five minutes. After he’d finished his material, He stood up from his piano and Conan came over to greet him. There was a beat. Then, he bowed his head into his chest and extended his hand without making any eye contact with his late night host. The mannerism was odd, fast, and a bit jarring, and it wasn’t meant to be funny or rude. Galifianakis seemed humbled and maybe a little embarrassed. It didn’t matter that he’d just made everyone belly laugh for five whole minutes. He wasn’t used to the spotlight. In that instant, he was the archetypical understated class clown, the one who is hard to fully grasp and is therefore intriguing. In that instant, a star was born.

If Galifianakis can find a way to conquer superstardom without losing the trademark peculiarity that got him there, he’ll help define twenty-first century comedy and we can all continue to pat ourselves on the back for noticing him.

If he can’t, I know I’ll laugh anyway.

I’ll just have to get a new pair of glasses.

Luke Kelly-Clyne is a writer, etc. living in New York City.