Zach Galifianakis, man-child no more

The comedian, known for playing stunted, offensive characters, returns to his roots of drier humour in Baskets

Zach Galifianakis co-creates and stars in the Emmy-winning show, Baskets[/ ], about a man struggling to find success as a professional clown.
Zach Galifianakis co-creates and stars in the Emmy-winning show, Baskets, about a man struggling to find success as a professional clown.PHOTO: FX

On screen, comedian Zach Galifianakis typically plays an emotionally stunted or otherwise challenged man-child. Alter-egos such as Alan - the catastrophe-inducing instigator from The Hangover films (2009, 2011 and 2013) - are also oblivious to how offensive and outrageous they are.

In person, the 47-year-old Galifianakis is neither, although he turns up for an interview in Los Angeles with the same dishevelled, oddball energy of his characters.

But it is clear that this is just a persona when he starts sharing his insights on the role of American comedians in speaking truth to power and how he does not want his new television series Baskets to be "edgy".

The star co-creates and stars in the Emmy-winning show, which is about a man, Chip Baskets (Galifianakis), struggling to find success as a professional clown.

Airing on FX (StarHub TV Channel 507 and Singtel TV Channel 310) on Mondays, it won co-star Louie Anderson a Best Supporting Actor Emmy earlier this year for his role as Chip's mother, which Anderson plays in drag.

I'm more interested in getting back to those roots of being weird because I miss it. I've always liked odder, bizarre things - those things are what make me laugh.


Baskets rounds out an impressive resume that ticks every item on the checklist for a popular comedian: a cult following from Galifianakis' early days as a stand-up, a lucrative film franchise with The Hangover, and a viral hit with his Between Two Ferns Web series.

But being professionally funny today means you cannot get away with recycling your material the way comedians used to, he says.

"Twenty years ago, you could get away with just having an hour of material and do that on the road for a long, long time. Now, you can't do that.

"It's made the juices flow a bit more and the Internet also gave us different outlets. And those making the decisions in those big buildings, they're not needed as much because there're more avenues, which allow for more creative things to happen. Comedy has taken on different forms because there're just so many channels and avenues to do it."

In the United States, there has also been a proliferation of political comedy in the form of satirical news programmes such as The Daily Show and online videos such as his Between Two Ferns series, where he conducts spoof interviews with politicians such as Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.

The star believes there has been a resurgence of comedy in American pop culture as a whole and that it is a direct result of comedians feeling compelled to comment on wars and other political controversies.

"I think what happened was we (would engage in) a war that is questionable and comedians started becoming the new folk singers - comedians such as Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, Al Franken, Chris Rock and Bill Maher. Even comics who aren't known started questioning all this. And I think that's why comedy has become so big.

"Because comedy is a great bull**** detector and also a wonderful tool to make points with. I think it's much more important than we give it credit for."

Baskets, however, is not so much satirical as absurd and occasionally surreal, with a singular comedic tone that is as doleful as it is humorous.

It follows the misadventures of Chip after he returns to the US from Paris, where he has flunked out of a prestigious clown school. His new plan: Become a rodeo clown in the small town of Bakersfield, California.

Galifianakis agreed to co-create the show with comedian Louis C.K. because C.K. promised they would enjoy the same freedom he had when he made his acclaimed comedy series Louie (2010 to present) for FX, the same network that airs Baskets in the US.

"I've known Louis for more than 15 years and when he asked me if I had any interest in writing a show, I really didn't. But he explained his process and that this network kind of left him alone and that I didn't have to go to meetings. It's a rare opportunity to have somebody promise that kind of stuff. So I said okay.

"And then he and I started chatting with the director, Jonathan Krisel. And the show kind of came out of the conversation between the three of us."

Creative freedom was necessary because the series takes a bit of a risk with its subdued tone and slow pace. Galifianakis was also determined that it not be too cool.

"The thing I kept saying was that I didn't want the show to be edgy. I wanted it to be more innocent and silly. Edginess, to me, has become boring and I want it to be a quieter show."

Besides C.K., the series reunites Galifianakis with another old friend, Martha Kelly, who plays Chip's insurance agent-turned- friend.

In a separate interview, Kelly, 47, tells reporters she has known Galifianakis since the 1990s, when they were little-known comics. But she did not try to reconnect with him after the first Hangover movie because she knew he would be swamped with offers, and was surprised when he offered her this role.

Galifianakis confirms that the breakout success of that film did alter how people treat him, but that his core friendships remain unchanged.

"People come out of the woodwork to give you scripts. I was getting a house built and my contractor gave me a script. He goes, 'Have you read my script yet?' I said, 'No, because I'm still reading your plumber's script.' So that stuff happens, for sure. And why wouldn't someone try to give you his thing?

"But I maintained a friendship with all my comedian friends. Martha and I remained friends throughout that Hangover stuff."

"That Hangover stuff" refers, of course, to the movies' phenomenal popularity, which made international stars out of Galifianakis as well as castmates Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms.

"It hit me out of the blue - I wasn't prepared for it. You know, I was performing in coffee houses. So it changes your life in a way that can be very scary.

"And no one wants to hear 'boo hoo'. But when you're looked at as a success, you're not able to observe people anymore. That changes because you're recognisable, and it bummed me out, because I have to get comedy by observing people, I have to be anonymous," says the star, who is married to 33-year-old charity worker Quinn Lundberg. They have a three-year-old daughter.

"And that's why I think I lost weight," he says, referring to his trimmer figure in recent years. "People don't recognise me now. It's really nice."

Baskets also represents a return to his roots from the bigger, broader, shock-value comedy of The Hangover trilogy to the drier, more alternative humour of his early stand-up days.

While he says he is proud of his work on those films, he is happy that he is now getting "to do jokes that maybe aren't too mainstream".

"I'm more interested in getting back to those roots of being weird because I miss it. I've always liked odder, bizarre things - those things are what make me laugh."

•Baskets airs on FX (StarHub TV Channel 507 and Singtel TV Channel 310) on Mondays at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'Zach Galifianakis, man-child no more'. Subscribe