As a performer, Zach Galifianakis stretches what audiences expect from a stand-up comedian. He has incredible jokes, one-liners which twist as explosively as any by Steven Wright. But what surrounds that material is equally fascinating; diverging into moments that are joyful, strange, or uncomfortable but can always be hyphenated with a funny (joyful-funny, strange-funny, uncomfortable-funny). Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion, his new DVD, gives audiences a chance to see Zach naturally, not how he is in any moment but at this one moment. I talked to Zach about being polished, comedy nerds and the ethics of pranking.
The DVD is shot very differently than a lot of other stand-up specials. It’s a much more intimate experience. What was the goal when you were deciding how it should look?
As far as the execution of it, I think I and the director Michael Blieden wanted to show the bare bones of stand-up. Because a lot of stand-up things you see are much more polished. I just wanted to make sure the audience got to see the rawness of stand-up performance. A lot of times they are edited where it is more streamlined. I’m not really interested in being polished.
It kind of dispels that illusion of making it look easy. There’s a real awkwardness, and the pauses and the mistakes are left in.
The mistakes. (Zach laughs)
There are parts where you say that “this won’t be on the DVD” and then it is.
I also wanted to comment on that I was being taped. You don’t see that either.
Definitely. You talk to the camera a number of times.
So it’s more interesting to me to show the tumbleweeds, if you will, sometimes.
Do you feel people don’t appreciate the process of building a set?
I mean, people either get it or they don’t get it. It’s not for everyone. If you see a special on television – a Comedy Central special – it’s very polished and very staged. And every beat worked out. To me, I don’t perform like that. I perform a bit of a high-wire act. Some people don’t want to see that, though, and I understand that. To me, that’s what I wanted to show.
I was looking at NetFlix reviews of it and there’s a love it or hate it theme through them, which is always a sign to me that you’re doing something interesting at least. So you expected that to happen.
People who have seen me on Conan or whatever TV show, they expect the jokes. And I get quite bored with that. As a viewer and also as a performer. So we said, “Let’s show everything.”
Your comedy seems to have these amazing mood shifts. There are those moments when you explode in mock anger – and they’re funny but also a little scary. And then you’ll have these transcendent little moments of joy where you’ll bring on a chorus. How much of that is something that just happens and how much of that is calculated out, if you will?
The crowd stuff is not at all planned out. I’m very easy to distract. So if I hear something or if I feel someone has bad body language, I will comment. Or if they’re not enjoying it, I want to make sure that they’re enjoying it and we’ll just dissect perhaps why they’re there and what the deal is.
But as far as different elements on stage, to me I really like the elements of surprise. I like to keep the audience on this roller coaster. I don’t know. Obviously, a lot of it is organic. I never say I’m gonna…
yell three times in this set.
I definitely don’t do that. But if I’m in a mood, I try and be honest to that mood.
So much of stand-up is about honing that five minutes or ten minutes until you can do it in your sleep. But you don’t want to be asleep on stage.
I think a comic that’s been doing it for a long time can definitely walk through it and go through the motions. But, selfishly maybe, I’m trying to bring a bit more improvisation to it. To me it’s just more interesting if you don’t know what’s going on.
I always call comedy the art of surprise. But that’s always butting up against an audience’s expectations – there’s only so much surprise that’s allowed. But you want to expand how much you can surprise people, which is admirable.
When I hire a boys choir, I want the audience to… obviously they’re not going to expect it. So I’m more in tune with staying away from my material. I’ll do my material but I like to mix it up as much as possible.
How do you deal with the other facet of stand-up, repetition. After creating something, does it sometimes feel like a burden to have to keep doing it?
There are bits that I just won’t do anymore, because I just feel like I’m done with it. In the Comedians of Comedy I do that character where I play a comic from the 1700s. I’ve been doing that for maybe three years. But I was just, this is the last time I’m doing this. And you just move on. You hopefully keep growing.
As opposed to a few years ago, you’re right, comedians really only had to have, I think, fifteen minutes of good material. And hopefully somebody will see you and you’ll get on some kind of shit-com. That stuff has all kind of changed now. You have to keep up a little bit more. And plus it’s a lot more fun that way to always dream up ideas.
Why do you think it’s that way? Is it just that people can see you in more mediums?
Yeah, that’s it. Unfortunately, you’ll go do a show and people will record a bit on their cell phones and it’ll be out there. There’s so many capacities for people to see things now that you’re a bit forced that once you’ve done that enough, you have to keep moving.
But even if that weren’t the case, those big performance pieces I do, I’ll stop doing them after a year or so because I feel it’s time to move on. I used to this whole big thing where I apologized for a racist joke. And I had black dancers on stage. And I don’t do that anymore because I feel like it’s been done enough.
Do you ever get people coming up to you after a show and saying, “I’ve already seen that.”
Yeah, it’s hard to please people. Because there’s these comedy kinda nerds.
Unfortunately, you’re talking to one of them.
Right. I understand that. I think sometimes that they think that they’re the only ones who are out there watching comedy. On the other side, there’s a lot of people who haven’t seen a lot of stuff. You can’t please the nerds and the masses at the same time. You hope to maybe strike a balance.
I’ll go to shows in New York and I’ll see the same guys showing up. And that within itself forces you to be on your toes. There’s a very incestuous community and these diehard fans who I do make fun of but also really do appreciate. But once you go do a theater with a 1,000 people in it, there’s only going to be a few of the nerds around and the show is not necessarily for them.
I saw you at the Comedy Festival in Vegas do what seemed like a very polished set. Do you feel that if you put out a DVD of something like that, it wouldn’t be representative of you as a stand-up right now?
It depends. If there’s a variable thrown into a performance, like someone sitting in the audience who I think isn’t enjoying the show, then I’m going to comment on it. At that show, I probably did 20 minutes. It’s a lot easier to do a polished 20 minutes. The geography of time allows you to be more polished. But if you do an hour, you’re going to have more distraction than you will in 20 minutes. More curveballs will come up. So if [the Vegas show] had gone longer or I felt the show wasn’t going as good as I thought it should, I probably would have commented on it.
I’ve heard you say that you’re still working on keeping your legs from shaking while performing. Do you ever feel that you’ll be fully comfortable or fully confident on stage?
No, I’m pretty confident on stage. It’s just sometimes shows don’t go well. I really do believe that sometimes the stars and planets just line up and for some reason it’s not going to be a good show. That’s always in the back of my mind. And having said that, I don’t like anybody who I know personally to come to any of my shows. So if my leg is shaking, it’s probably because one of my cousins has snuck in and I know that and it’s driving me crazy.
There’s a note on the back of the DVD where you say you hope your mother never watches it.
And I pray to Jesus that she does not find out about it. (laughs) She’s fine with me comedically but there’s certain material I just don’t think… I tell my parents when they try to come to my shows that it’s not for adults. My show is not for adults.
It’s for grown-up man children
When you talked about Dog Bites Man, you were very uncomfortable with pranking people. But when you’re performing stand-up, there’s a level of putting people on that’s involved in that – like with the awkward slapping bit extra. Is that a contradiction I’m seeing or am I just being crazy?
No, there’s a huge difference. People are going to a comedy show versus people being duped, and being told it’s one thing and it’s not that thing at all. There’s a lack of honesty in doing Dog Bites Man. We’re going under this auspice of something completely different. That veil was what I was uncomfortable with. But I enjoyed doing it.
The same guy who did the Ali G and the Borat movie is also the producer of Dog Bites Man. And I actually talked to Sacha Baron Cohen about this. The difference is Sacha is going after, especially when he’s doing Ali G, people of power. We were just whoever we could get, we’re screwing with them. And there was a different element.
What me and the cast members wanted was to look stupid. I feel like we did a lot of times but also at the expense of making other people look quite stupid.
There was a time, Todd, when I cried during an interview. I was so not wanting to be there and I got really upset. And I started sobbing.
There were a lot of times where you seemed like you were off doing your own thing. Like the “up in your guts” bit, where you could have been doing that for Comedians of Comedy.
Yeah, that’s true. But again, I was in character. I wasn’t playing myself. And there’s a whole different psyche going on when you have really pulled the wool over people’s eyes. And you feel a little dirtier than you do if you’re screwing with people and they know you’re a comedian.
If they think you’re something else – a director of a local news team – in my mind, it makes the execution much different.
Now I’m curious. How did you feel about the Borat movie?
I thoroughly enjoyed Borat. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I actually got more of a kick laughing at this old couple who were in their 80s who were dying laughing. (laughs) That gave me such joy. I got more enjoyment out of that than the film itself. I laughed so hard.
However, there was a great column that George Saunders did for The New Yorker about the DVD extras. It’s two sided. There is a huge machine behind it, and they do probably mess with people and it does change their lives. That woman at the dinner party, where he says she’s unattractive. That was just mean-spirited.
There’s a lot of choreography that goes into doing a show like that. And you do step on toes. In the end, it’s all for comedy and it does make people happy. But at what cost? You don’t really know how people’s lives are affected by it.
Having said that, it was so goddamn funny.
I’ve heard you talk about being resentful of audiences—a little bit jokingly and other times not. The audacity for them to come see you to laugh. Is there anything to that?
I said that once to Louis C.K. as we were getting ready to go on stage and I was despising them from the back of the room. (chuckles) I don’t really mean it. But I do think it’s funny.
The whole premise of a comedian a lot of times is to make an audience like you and to win them over. I think it’s more challenging to say “How dare you guys.” That’s just kind of funny. I don’t know if there’s kind of a real germ to that at all.
Well, it is part of the relationship. To get to the most base level with it – the comedian killing the audience, “I died out there.” It is an adversarial relationship to some degree.
It can be. But you can be ready to go on stage and be at the bar and another comedian will come up to you and say, “They’re horrible in there. Terrible.” And a lot of times it is the crowd’s fault. And I like to blame the crowd rather than blame myself, whether I’m right or wrong. It’s just innately more funny that way. Especially if I’m wrong. The nerve of me to blame an audience who paid a cover to come in and sit patiently.
I like that going up against the grain. When you first start, you’re trying to win the audience over. And then you realize, “Well, fuck. It might be their fault.” (laughs) “I’m tired of trying to impress people who aren’t that smart.”
Having said that, I don’t want to come across as arrogant because I don’t feel that I am. I just think that’s funnier.
It seems like that’s a good strategy to develop in that so many performers can come across desperate, that thinking of it the other way can keep away that desperation that audience sense.
I do like to be confrontational with the audience rather than [sunny], “Hey guys, how you doing?” (laughs) That to me is so fake. I hate that “Hey, I’m in a great mood. Let’s hear some jokes.” To me it’s more like, “Fuck, I had to drive all the way from Venice Beach to Hollywood. Who knows if these jokes are going to work?” I like to approach it as an inconvenience. (laughs)
Jesse Thorn of The Sound of Young America just interviewed Zach as well. Go give it a listen if you want a double dose of the comedian.