At this point in television history, there is a very long tail of late night programing. You have your massive monoliths of success that have been running for decades like Saturday Night Live, you have your notoriously short-lived failures that more people have talked about than ever actually seen like The Chevy Chase Show, and then you have the third, catch-all category: the forgotten. There’s a lot of fine late night shows in that third category, there’s a ton of garbage, and buried in there are a handful of shows that were brilliant but just didn’t get seen. Late World with Zach fits neatly into this category.
In 2002, Zach Galifianakis had developed a cult following for his unusual brand of standup. He’d done a Comedy Central Presents, made a number of appearances of Late Night with Conan O’Brien behind a piano, and shown up in films such as Corky Romano, Bubble Boy, and Out Cold. Then in 2002, VH1 made their first step away from music programming into the all-reality show channel they presently are by launching two all-new comedy shows: an American version of the popular British panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks hosted by Marc Maron, and a late night program entitled Late World with Zach.
A number of segments from the program still exist on YouTube (Splitsider writer Brian Boone did a fine job of compiling many of the best a few years back over here), so instead of throwing a bunch of those at you, let’s take a look at what Zach did differently with his show. If you’re at all familiar with Galifianakis’ style of comedy, then you know that he is unlike most others. His sets are filled with non-sequiturs that are hurled at the audience in any number of different intonations, one-liners, glitter bombs, Annie dresses, large easels with messages revealed in time to musical numbers, often scored by Zach’s own brand of self-taught improvised piano. What on earth would a show hosted by this guy look like when thrown through the meat grinder of network notes?
Well, in a lot of ways, the audience got two different shows with Late World with Zach, depending on when they started watching. The launch version was a compromise. We got some of Zach’s style of humor embedded into the show, but it had to be run through the VH1 filter. “VH1 put up a list, in the office, of artists — Cher, Nickelback, whoever was big at the time — that I wasn’t allowed to make fun of,” Zach recalls in a 2009 New York Times profile. But having said that, the show also wasn’t just Zach in a suit and tie telling monologue jokes in front of a curtain. He made his entrance every night on a dolly pushed onto the stage by a burly stagehand, while playing a grand piano. His nightly monologue was a mixture of his usual brand of one-liners, a few topical jokes, and strange visual non-sequiturs. For example, on one evening, in between jokes Zach would continue playing piano and there would be cuts to angles of Zach’s hands playing the keys. Later, once the audience had gotten used to the rhythm of the monologue, footage of a chimpanzee sitting at the piano was inserted.
Even the interview segments could fall into the anarchic comedy of Galifianakis. When Harlan Williams, Michael Rosenbaum, and Barry Watson from the film Sorority Boys appeared, Zach arranged a roundtable interview and, parodying The McLaughlin Group, barked questions about the movie and why there are no black people on Friends to the trio as they shared an assortment of fried chicken. When his friend Sarah Silverman was on to promote the show Greg the Bunny, he makes the decision to nod his head constantly as she earnestly answers his questions about the show.
Once the writing was on the wall that the show was going to be cancelled, then the show spread it’s wings a little and did what it wanted to do. One particularly inspired episode, making fun of the show’s lack of success, featured Zach doing the show for just one person in the audience (who eventually leaves before the taping has finished). Hoping to fill out the sound a little, Zach requests some canned laughter to be piped in. He tells a joke, and the punchline is immediately followed by a loud, obnoxious car horn as the camera cuts to the stricken, un-laughing face of the lone audience member. In another episode he decided to shave his trademark beard throughout the course of the show, a trick that he would repeat on Saturday Night Live years later.
Here’s the thing: when I was a little guy, flipping the channels and chancing across Late World as a high schooler, I was an instant fan. I found myself inspired by the amount of insanity and weird stuff that Zach was able to get on the air. Looking back on it now, and in reading the rare occasional interview in which Zach is asked about the show, it’s clear to see that it was not the right fit for him, and that he found the experience incredibly restrictive. But even from that lens, it’s amazing to see those glimpses of where the true Galifianakis was able to spring forth from the chains of VH1. In an alternate universe in which Late World lasted longer than nine weeks, I think it’s fair to say that Zach would have felt burned out, to say the least, from the constraints of basic cable in this format. Thank goodness we instead have that third category of late night television, in which we remember the brilliant but forgotten.