Zach Galifianakis on Baskets, Getting Angrier With Age, and His Theory of Comedy

Photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage

If you like seething angst, the spiritually parched landscape of the urban American West, making fun of the French, and dejected clowns, then by God, you're finally in luck: A show about all that now exists. 

Co-created by Louis C.K., director Jonathan Krisel, and Zach Galifianakis (who also stars), Baskets, premiering January 21 on FX, is about an aspiring clown, Galifianakis's Chip Baskets — though his clown name is Renoir — who returns to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, after flunking out of clown school in Paris. Now that he’s back, he has to deal with his mom, played beautifully by Louie Anderson (in understated drag), his successful and condescending twin brother (also played by Galifianakis), his emotionally dismissive French wife, Penelope (who married Chip for a green card), and the sympathetic overtures of a potential new friend, Martha, whom Chip basically treats like doo-doo. Mostly, though, Baskets is about the struggle to overcome the despair of feeling like the life you're living is not the one for which you were destined, and the effort it takes to build a life you can believe in anyway.

Galifianakis called Vulture on the day of the Oscar nomination announcements to talk about the show and, graciously, to check on a (nonexistent) pizza order.  

[Phone rings.]
Hi. This is David at Vulture.
This is Zach. You ordered a pizza?

Yes, and it’s late, thank you very much.
Was it half pepperoni and half pepperoni?

No, no, no. I wanted one quarter of it pepperoni, and the other three quarters pepperoni.
Oh God, all right, I gotta call my manager. Hey, David, I called you a minute early. I hope that’s okay.

It’s not ideal.
Neither is doing this interview.

How about we just try to make the best of the time we have left?
For the next 29 minutes?

Thirty-one minutes. I’ve got you till the top of the hour.
Shit. Okay. My plan is ruined.

The Oscar nominations were announced today. Did you get any?
You know, I haven’t checked. I probably did, though.

For what even?
There were so many pictures that I was in this year. I think I got nominated once again for Worst Attitude on Set.

The streak continues. But I want to talk about Baskets now. I don’t mean this as a backhanded compliment—
I’m used to those. I’ve never gotten just a front-handed compliment. There’s always some sort of attachment to it.

You’ll be ready for this, then. But given the kind of comedy you do, and the fact that you got your big break relatively far along into your career, your success has been surprising. Is it harder to connect with a character like Chip, who feels like such a failure?
You’ve taken the words right out of my asshole! That's exactly it!

You know what I mean, right?
Yeah. As my friend has said, referring to my career, “This was not supposed to happen at all.”

It's like, Mick Jagger hasn't sung an emotionally plausible version of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" in 45 years. It's obvious the emotions of that song don’t really have much resonance for him at this point.   
I know what you're getting at. For me, that kind of often-misplaced rage is funny. The older you get, if you pay attention to the world, you have a certain amount of anger and rage, but hopefully you handle it in a mature fashion. Unfortunately, I’m the same person I've always been, so it hasn’t been difficult to navigate the waters of success as far as my comedy. Personally, I don't think Chip is much like me. As you get older, you see the world at a different angle, maybe more cynically, but I just bury my anger. I don't lash out like Chip.

The mood-swings of the show are so unusual, the way it’ll go from almost slapstick to artful melancholy, and it's not something I've seen a lot of on television. Was it difficult to find the tone you were looking for?
I’m saying to myself right now, Oh God, don’t discuss comedy theory, Zach, it’s so boring. But yeah, the tone of the show was difficult. We knew we wanted to have serious overtones with also very silly jokes and physical gags — I don’t mean this as a brag, or even an endorsement, but we wanted to try doing something new. We didn’t want a bunch of fast-talking witty people like you see on TV. I don’t hear people talking like that in real life, and we wanted the show to be grounded. The director, Jon Krisel, calls it a "slapstick drama." It’s not going to appeal to everybody, that’s for sure, but I hope people like it.

I think it’s indicative of the good weirdness of the show that one of the things that keeps it emotionally grounded is Louie Anderson’s performance — as Chip’s mother. Was the idea always to have that role played in drag?
I think Louie’s gonna break a lot of hearts. The original idea, though, was to have Brenda Blethyn play the mom. I just love her acting so much. We reached out to her and she was not available, but then I started thinking in terms of a voice for the character. I had a clear voice in my head. And I remember telling Louis C.K. about it, and I kind of imitated the voice, and he goes, “You mean like Louie Anderson’s voice?” And I said, “Yeah, like him.” It wasn’t intended to be a gimmicky thing, even though I’m sure it’s going to be seen that way.

Did it take much convincing to get Louie to do it? 
I remember the conversation almost verbatim. Louis C.K. called him and he goes, “Hey, Louie, it’s Louis. I’m writing a show with Zach Galifianakis. Here’s the thing, we’d like you to be in it — but one caveat, we want you to play his mom.” He said, “I’ll do it.” That’s exactly how it went down. It was really easy. I also remember, we were shooting the pilot, and they put a bunch of makeup on Louie, and I said, "Don’t over-womanize him, he’s fine." The idea is not to make a big deal out of the gender-switch.

Tell me about the genesis of the show. Where does such a weird idea come from?
Well, the original show was going to be behind the scenes of Between Two Ferns, and I couldn’t make that work in my head. I knew we would probably have to count on celebrity guests for that, and I just, I didn’t want to do that. But I liked the character of the Between Two Ferns guy, and I tried to figure out a situation for an angry guy like that to be in, and rodeo clown seemed to make sense.

I think if you’re a rodeo clown and you’ve studied clown theory in Paris, you already have a chip on your shoulder, and characters that have a chip on their shoulder are comedically very fun to play. Have you fallen asleep yet, David?

Not yet! I know you said earlier that you’re very different from Chip, but it’s hard not to see you playing an unfunny clown and wonder if, in terms of your own career, you’re also interested in a kind of audience alienation. Almost like you’re drawing a line in the sand and saying that you’re not interested in making it easy for people to like you anymore. 
What’s important is to try and do something different. I think we tried, as the show goes on, to give a little glimmer of likability, some sense that this guy can break out of his anger. But conflict is very friendly to comedy, so being against the grain is funny to me. If he was nicer, I don’t know where that goes. You want an emotional arc to play.

Does doing a show like this make the prospect of working on bigger Hollywood film projects less appealing?
Boy, I tell you, FX has been so easy and nice. Creatively, there’s been no, "Oh, you've got to go hop on the phone with the executive about the casting decision of the third episode." That shit happens a lot. But I think TV has become the more artful place to go, whereas the movie business seems to be controlled by guys who used to run hedge funds.

Do you feel like your film work has been satisfying overall? It always seemed to me that your sensibility wasn’t necessarily an easy one to translate to film.
When you first start doing this weird business, you look for work that you know helps you maintain a life so you can pay off your rent and all that stuff. You can’t be that choosy, that’s just the way it is. Some people can be choosy because they’re ultratalented or lucky or whatever, but yeah, there are certain things that might not be the greatest thing on my résumé. But I don’t sit back and go, "Gosh, I wish I didn’t do that." It’s all part of the growth of a career, whether you’re an entertainer or a librarian. We all take work that we don’t really agree with or like. You have to do it because that’s what pays the bills. But I’m real lucky — and I was even in the early days, when I wasn’t getting any jobs — because I always had stand-up to fall back on. I could always do that.  

Is there ever a conflict between trying to do the things that you want to do and maybe pursuing things that agents, managers, and publicists think are good for you to do? It feels like the larger interests of those folks might not always be aligned with your own.
I don’t have a lot of discussions about that. The creative stuff is up to me. There’s not a lot of, Well, is it going to be good for your brand? All that brand crap is Wall Street seeping in. I talk to younger actor types, and they bring up that word, brand, and it’s like, all right, if that’s the way you want to look at yourself. Diet Pepsi’s a brand; you’re a human being. Some people want to get away from being a human and [are] more interested in being the thing that Hollywood has shaped them into being. I think that’s just all bullshit. I really do.

I would hope, in a humane way, that thinking of yourself as a brand is also ultimately less fulfilling.
It’s less fulfilling, and also less sustainable. These are okay questions, by the way. I’ve only rolled my eyes twice.

Get ready to do it a third time: Is clown theory a real thing?
Yes, it’s real. When we shot in Paris, I walked past the clown school we were basing ours on. I know people that went to school in Paris for clowning.

How well versed are you in clown theory?
I have my own personal clown theory. I mean, all comedians have theories about humor. There’s no way your readers haven’t stopped reading by now, have they?  

I bet our moms will read this to the end. Or nearish the end. I’m not asking this facetiously: Can you tell me a central tenet of clown theory?
I don’t know the classes that are being taught at clown school, but I did look them up online at one point. I think they discuss different clowns’ approaches, some of it’s physical, some of it’s nonverbal. You look at a guy like Marcel Marceau — who has a wonderful podcast, by the way. A fantasy of mine is to do a podcast that’s Marcel Marceau and I, and you only hear me laughing at him and trying to figure out what he’s doing.

How’d you get stuck in that box, Marcel? That kind of thing?
Yeah. I know you’re pulling a rope, but what’s it attached to? The French have that kind of high art in clown—

I’m sorry to cut you off, but it’s been 31 minutes.

That was the deal.
I wish I had thought to hang up on you when we got to 29 minutes. Actually, you have to be careful with comedic exaggeration. Here you go, here’s my own theory of comedy: The element of surprise is important, so sometimes it’s better for a comedian not to be funny at all.