Zach Galifianakis, Reluctant Superstar: The Rolling Stone Cover Story

The Hangover's superfreak is one of Hollywood's biggest stars – but he's trying his best to stay the slacker he's always been

June 23, 2011
Zach Galifianakis, Reluctant Superstar: The Rolling Stone Cover Story
Photograph by Theo Wenner

So there's Zach Galifianakis, wearing a tuxedo at a fancy afterparty in the backyard of the French ambassador's house. He just came from the White House Correspondents' Dinner, where he laughed so hard at Obama's Donald Trump jokes that his buddy Jon Hamm had to tell him to keep it down, because Trump was right there. Now he's nibbling on hors d'oeuvres on a patio so heavy with Hollywood-Beltway power it threatens to collapse under its own self-importance. Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson are here. So are Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin. Rupert Murdoch is kibitzing with Michael Bloomberg, and Carmelo Anthony is eating French toast and being tall. Inside, Newt Gingrich and Buzz Aldrin are talking Republicans, or maybe space.

Galifianakis spends time catching up with some comedy pals – Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Andy Samberg, Seth Meyers – but eventually he needs a break from the schmoozing, so he wanders down to the pool. There, in the ethereal aquamarine glow, he's introduced to two couples: Jane Lynch from Glee and her wife, and the redheaded guy from Modern Family and his boyfriend. Galifianakis only watches Frontline, so he's never seen either show, but he was raised a good Southern boy, and he greets them warmly.

"Nice to meet you! I didn't realize it was Gay Night by the swimming pool."

"Now, I thought I was being really clever," he says when he recounts the story in New York a few days later. "I walked away like, Another good one! But my girlfriend, who is a very wise person, said, 'I gotta tell you, Zach – that did not go over well. You have to watch people's reactions!'"

As his character in The Hangover might say: Classic Zach. He sees an opening and he goes for it, consequences be damned. It's the kind of unchecked comedic id he wields as The Hangover's Alan Garner – the potbellied man-child with a purse full of Skittles and a propensity for not wearing pants – as well as his MO in real life. Like the time he texted Hangover director Todd Phillips – who was raised without a dad – on Father's Day, and said, "Thinking of you today." Or the time his friend and Hangover co-star Bradley Cooper called to tell him that he and his girlfriend had just broken up, and Galifianakis' response was, "She saw Limitless?"

"Inappropriateness is funny to me," Galifianakis says. "Rudeness is hilarious.  I'm in awe of the non-self-awareness of it – the idea that you can be so clueless as to be that disrespectful of another human being."

Somehow, people love him for it. "I think he's cultivated sort of a harmless persona, where he can say something weird and you're not threatened by it," says his close friend A.D. Miles, the head writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, who first met Galifianakis when Miles waited on him at a Bennigan's 20 years ago. "He's just the kindest motherfucker," adds Cooper. "You're happy to be the butt of his joke." Phillips calls him a "conductor of mayhem," but also says he "has this natural gift, which is that he was born with these incredibly warm eyes. It enables him to get away with so much stupidity and say so many awful things, because his eyes project that he didn't really mean it."

How Zach Galifianakis Became Comedy Royalty

Galifianakis came up in the alt-comedy scene, where he specialized in conceptual one-liners ("Have you seen that show on Lifetime about that woman . . . ?") and bizarre performance-art bits, like lip-syncing to songs from Annie or doing a set as a comic from 1778. But as Saturday Night Live's Meyers says, "It's a mistake to label him an alternative comic. I don't know anyone who doesn't like what he does."

Over the past few years, mainstream Hollywood has crept steadily Zach-ward, tapping his off-center charms for comedies like Due Date (where he played a strange, bearded man with a dog), dramas (It's Kind of a Funny Story – strange, bearded man in a mental hospital), as well as a starring role in the HBO comedy Bored to Death (strange, bearded man who draws comic books). And, of course, the Hangover blockbusters. But he hasn't made it easy for them. When Sean Penn called to offer him a role in Into the Wild, Galifianakis told him he had an appointment at Arby's and to "send my Jews the script." When he first met with Phillips and Robert Downey Jr. to discuss Due Date, he rode his bike 15 miles to Downey's house, showed up sweaty and late, and jokingly insulted a woman Downey used to live with. By the end of dinner, he'd drunk four glasses of wine and couldn't ride home, so Phillips had to put his bike in his trunk.

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