Zach Galifianakis’s home in Venice is only about 15 miles from Hollywood, but step inside the house of the inarguably successful and uncomfortably famous (at least for him) comedian, and it’s as if the town where he’s made a career doesn’t exist at all. There are no pictures of him and his old Hangover co-stars on the wall; no reproductions of his magazine covers; no photos from the opus of celebrity awkwardness that is his oft-viral online interview series Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, which has featured Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among many notable guests.
There’s not even visible evidence of his current show, the deliciously absurd, frequently heartbreaking quasi-sitcom Baskets. In fact, there’s little indication that the guy who owns this place has done especially well in any line of work.
The drafty bungalow is spartanly outfitted with a wood-burning stove, an unplugged TV, a few well-worn armchairs, some years-old magazines, and, on this January morning, a plate of muffins and a steaming carafe of coffee that Galifianakis, dressed in a rumpled pink T-shirt and cargo pants, has politely set out. “A mug,” he says, snapping his fingers. “You need a mug.” He frowns. “Or maybe they drink it straight from the pitcher in New York, which would be weird, but I don’t want to impose.”
By design, things have gone back to something like normal for Galifianakis since his moment as mainstream comedy’s pudgy imp-of-choice, following the unexpected box-office success of 2009’s The Hangover. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” says the 48-year-old, whose voice retains some of his native North Carolina drawl, “because this business is amazingly open to letting dummies like me make something of themselves, but what it values makes me uncomfortable. The Hangover stuff” — by which he means fame — “was a struggle.” A self-effacing presence, Galifianakis, who’d previously ridden the alt-comedy boom to a stable-ish stand-up career in the early aughts, was very flustered, very quickly, by his movie-world prosperity. “People expect you to be the crazy guy from The Hangover. I’d go out for dinner and there’d be four free drinks sent to my table,” he says. The Hangover director Todd Phillips, who’d long been a fan, tapped him for the film, but, Galifianakis explains, “not long before that, I was trying out to play Bellhop No. 4, and producers would say, ‘Can you come back in to read for Bellhop No. 6?’ Then suddenly I was getting asked to be in big movies. It messes with your mind, because I knew that I hadn’t gotten any more talented or deserving.”
Galifianakis gets up from his chair to check on the wood-burning stove. “But I decided,” he says, “that I was more comfortable doing small things that I had some control over than I was doing bigger, noisier things.” He sits back down. “I feel funny talking your ear off about myself.” (When he’s able to shift the conversation topic over to me, his bushy eyebrows move from furrowed to raised, as if set free.)
There is, of course, an ex post facto element to his retelling of his move from the margins to the mainstream to somewhere more cozily in between. None of the film comedies, such as Dinner for Schmucks or Due Date, that he tried after The Hangover — and he did three Hangover films in total, the last in 2013 — landed with audiences. Which is to say that his backing away from the business might’ve been at least partly mutual — though he disagrees. “If those movies had been hits, it probably would’ve driven me away more quickly.” He self-mockingly rolls his eyes. “I know this all sounds whiny.”
In any case, Galifianakis has plenty other things he’d rather talk about. There’s the book he’s reading (David Grann’s account of skulduggery on an Osage Nation reservation, Killers of the Flower Moon), the comedians he’s loving (the Australian duo of Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney), and the documentaries he’s into (Errol Morris’s investigation of government mind-control experiments, Wormwood, and Icarus, about Russia’s Olympic doping schemes). He’ll talk eagerly about the property he and his wife, Quinn Lundberg, and their two kids visit in British Columbia (“My ideal day is canoeing on a lake”) and slightly less eagerly about smoking pot.
“It bugs me that people think I’m a stoner,” he says. “I do not believe in pot for people in their 20s. It affects their get-up-and-go-ness. I’m not even comfortable passing a joint to someone younger than me.” And then there’s politics: “I was at a café in downtown L.A., and across the way I saw this deranged human being in a T-shirt and a jockstrap, and he was defecating into a tube sock. And my first thought was God, I wish he was president.” He looks away to an imaginary camera. “We’ll be right back with more from the world’s worst public-affairs show!”
It’s disorienting — though not unpleasantly so — to spend time with a comedian who so perfectly wed Andy Kaufman’s surrealism to John Belushi’s hair-trigger intensity, only to learn that what he really wants to do is express himself earnestly — in his life and, increasingly, his work. “Maybe I’ve just matured,” he says. “If you always want to be the fat guy who says things that don’t make sense, that’s great. But at this point in my life I want to try different storytelling.” Hence, Baskets, which is the best and certainly most affecting thing he’s done, though far from the most popular. “The viewership’s up to 700 people now,” he says proudly. “The goal is to get up to 950 and see if we can crack those advertisers.” (For the record, across all platforms, last season the show averaged 2.1 million viewers per episode.)
On the FX show, which has its season-three premiere on January 23, Galifianakis plays rival twin brothers Chip and Dale Baskets, whose mother, Christine, is played by comedian Louie Anderson, who won a 2016 Emmy for his performance. The Basketses, under a purposefully hazy cloud of family tragedy, nobly try and typically fail in their attempts to gain some small measure of happiness. (Chip wants to be a professional clown — but only an artful one.) It’s a show whose governing device is to have its characters do the abnormal thing of aggressively baring their souls amid mundane American settings: performing mournful mime at a Bakersfield rodeo, snapping over dessert at Applebee’s, being a Juggalo just about anywhere. Baskets is tonally and comedically singular, but Galifianakis says that despite its oddness, the show trades in traditional sitcom matter. “A family is the perfect vehicle for getting laughs and creating emotional investment, because it’s made up of forced relationships, which make for funny situations,” he says about the show, which he co-created with Jonathan Krisel and Louis C.K. “Obviously,” he adds, “I’d like it if more people knew about Buckets.” Did I hear him wrong? Nope. “That’s what my parents think it’s called.”
Until this season, C.K., who’d helped bring the series to FX, was one of Baskets’ executive producers. That relationship has since been severed. “It was so disruptive in a harmful way to so many people,” says Galifianakis when I ask him about the aftereffects of the comedy star’s sexual misconduct. “We just kind of put our heads down and worked on the new season.” Then he slumps forward in his chair, his head hanging. He’s closing his eyes tightly, as if to hold back tears. It’s the kind of gesture Galifianakis has so perfected as a part of his comedy that to see him doing it sincerely is disarming. After a long, tense pause, he says, in a shaky voice, “This is the poison of celebrity culture: The fact that someone can think that just because they’re loved, they can do what they want. It grosses me out.” He exhales.
“That’s all I want to say.”
There are days, and they’re not infrequent, when Galifianakis imagines walking away entirely. “I think about it all the time. My life is more important than my work. The stand-up would be hard to not do, but my interests are more homesteader interests.” (For example: He loves his tractor.) Still, for the short term, he’s got Baskets, which he thinks will have a fourth season, and in March, he’ll co-star in director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the classic children’s sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time. “I know, I know,” he says bashfully, “it’s a big Disney movie.” But he’d seen DuVernay’s documentary about incarceration and racial injustice, 13th, “and I mostly wanted to meet her and ask questions about that. I didn’t think she’d hire me — because I’m dead inside — but the next thing you know, you’re in a movie with Oprah Winfrey and she’s asking if you’d consider being her running mate.” He waves his hand dismissively. “I had to tell her that secretary of Agriculture is what I’m more comfortable with.”
*This article appears in the January 22, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.