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

Photograph by Theo Wenner
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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.

"There's just a lot of stuff in Hollywood that doesn't excite him," says comedian Patton Oswalt, another good friend. "He doesn't mean it in a mean or dismissive way – he's just not into it." The first time Galifianakis hosted SNL was the day before the Oscars, and according to his friend Sarah Silverman, the Oscar people wanted to fly him out to L.A. the next morning to be on the broadcast. "Zach was just like, 'Nah,' she says, admiringly. "What's cooler than hosting Saturday Night Live and then jetting to L.A. to be on the Oscars? I guess saying, 'Nah.'"

The phone buzzes – it's a text from Galifianakis. "Running five minutes late. I got into a discussion with a pigeon. Lost track of time."

He arrives at the East Village bar five minutes later, wearing a blue-and-green-striped polo and brownish pants. His hair is still short from when he shaved his head on SNL a few weeks ago (he walked out for the closing credits with a mohawk and announced, "Unfortunately, we didn't get to the Mr. T sketch"), and his celebrated beard does not disappoint. In his pocket is a rolled-up issue of The New Yorker, and around his neck, a pair of those black-foam headphones you get for free on a plane.

"Hi," he says. "I'm Zatch Gassafanasky."

He takes a seat at a sidewalk table and proceeds to remove his left shoe. He just walked here from his Brooklyn apartment, three miles across the bridge, and he thinks there might be something stuck inside. "I think it might be a dime. Do you know a good shoe detective?"

Galifianakis walks a lot. Back when he was broke and living in New York in the mid-Nineties, waiting tables at a drag-queen restaurant owned by Kurdish rebels, he liked to get drunk and wander through the subway tunnels at night, moving over whenever a train came by. ("It's very roomy down there.") Lately, his walks have been more fitness-related: He just read six pages of The South Beach Diet, and his goal is to lose 20 pounds by September. He's already lost nine – or as he puts it, 36 iPhones. "I want to feel what it's like to be light."

A History of Comedy Stars on the Cover of Rolling Stone

One of his go-to routines is making fun of his beard-and-belly look – calling it the Marijuana Santa Claus, the Fat Garden Gnome, the Amber Alert. But in person, he's handsome, with small, delicate hands and a face younger than his 41 years.

He orders a chardonnay. He's more of a beer guy, but he can't drink it anymore because it clogs his sinuses. He sounds a little congested all the time. ("I'm Greek," he jokes. "My body produces feta cheese.") When the waitress comes back, he asks her for a paper cup, then takes out a wad of something and stuffs it in his mouth. Was that dip? "Yeah – you want some?" He says he started four years ago, when he was shooting Into the Wild. "They gave me prunes, but I couldn't talk with them in my mouth. So I said just give me the real thing. And I loved it. It's embarrassing." But the grossness of it is also funny.

Here are some other things Galifianakis thinks are funny: Skittles. Long John Silver's. Hoobastank.
Tubas. That's So Raven. Mispronunciation. Miscommunication. Puns.

Also, racism. He has one joke that goes, "That show The Amazing Race – is that about white people?" and another that goes, "I like dark comedies. That's why I like the Wayans Brothers." One of his favorite racist jokes he can't tell anymore, because too many people didn't get it. It starts with him confessing that he's used the term "sand nigger," then adding that he's never said it about someone from the Middle East. "When I use it," he says, "it's 'Get off the sand, nigger, volleyball is a white man's game!'"

He knows it's a bad joke – maybe even indefensible. But that's also why he loves it. "I heard that word from rednecks growing up, and it fucking drove me crazy. But I feel like, in context, people should know it's a joke."

He was raised the middle of three kids in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in a part of the Appalachian foothills most famous for its NASCAR track and a chicken plant. His mom, Mary Frances, is Scots-Irish and has roots in North Carolina going back generations; his dad, Harry, was a heating-oil salesman and ex-college-football player (nickname: "the Greasy Greek") who moved to America when he was three. Galifianakis' Uncle Nick was a U.S. congressman who once ran against Jesse Helms.

"Zachy was a great little baby," his dad says. "Went to bed when he was supposed to. Never really cried." One of the few times in his life he ever got in trouble was when he said something inappropriate in school and had to go to the principal's office. "It was a word that rhymed with another word," his dad recalls. "I think it was something about ass."

Galifianakis had an "incredibly happy" childhood – soccer team, Eagle Scouts – and says he "wasn't a nerd or any of that stuff." But he was also small for his age, and quiet and emotional. "You know when you see sensitive kids, how things just affect them?" he says. "That was me." One day he wanted to be an architect, the next day a Wimbledon champ. But his dad says he knew all along that Galifianakis would be an actor. When he was four, he pointed at the TV and said, "How do I get in there?" He wanted to move straight to New York after high school, but his parents persuaded him to try NC State instead. He didn't have many friends. He says it was "a lonely time." (Dare we call him a . . . one-man wolfpack?) He majored in communications and took a class called Mud Studies. In 1992, when he failed his final class by a point, he moved to New York and started taking acting classes.

The next few years were straight out of a struggling-comic montage: the shitty apartments (walk-in closet; crack house), the shitty jobs (busboy; nanny; menu-passer-outer). He had his first stand-up gig in the back of a Times Square hamburger joint, where he told a joke about a girl who offered to let him crash on her futon. His reply: "I don't sleep on anything that rhymes with crouton."

Success came very slowly. He did a couple of sitcoms (he calls them "shitcoms"), and a lot of bad movies. He was in Bubble Boy for two minutes, and Corky Romano for 59 seconds. In a movie called Out Cold, he played a snowboarder who gets his penis stuck in a hot-tub jet. At one point, he was hired to write for SNL, where he pitched a sketch to albino-python-era Britney Spears in which she's being interviewed on Entertainment Tonight when she suddenly, and without explanation, starts bleeding from the mouth. She didn't laugh. "I remember staring at the ground for, like, 20 seconds, just silent," Galifianakis says. "45,000 open mics, and I'm trying to impress this 18-year-old pop star." He was there two weeks.

His longest job was on a Fox drama called Tru Calling, about a mortuary attendant played by Eliza Dushku who could commune with the dead. He tried his hardest to get fired. He'd tell Dushku she was eating her way to cancellation, or stand up after a table read and say to the writer, "Great script, Karen," and throw the script in the trash. When he got his wish and the show was canceled, he did another show called Dog Bites Man, which he hated for a different reason. It was about a fake local-news team that interviewed real people, like The Daily Show meets Borat; he got to do things like ask the Grand Wizard of the KKK if he'd seen Big Momma's House 2, which he still considers a highlight. But mostly he was uncomfortable preying on innocent people's kindness and vulnerabil- ity. The worst was the day they interviewed a pastor at a megachurch, looking for some easy laughs, and the pastor opened up with a heartbreaking story about the death of his son. Galifianakis started crying and had to walk away.

He never really did commercials. "I tried a few times," he says. "The last one I went on, they wanted me to crawl on all fours and eat a cracker." He says he once turned down $700,000 to be a spokesman for Time Warner. After The Hangover, when offers were flooding in, he was also approached about doing something with Nike. "We had a conference call, and the first thing I said was, 'So, do you guys still have seven-year-olds making your stuff?'" That was pretty much the end of that.

For nine weeks in 2002, VH1 made the half-visionary, half-moronic decision to give Galifianakis his own talk show, Late World With Zach. He was a compelling host, which is to say, a terrible one. He couldn't care less what his "celebrity" guests (Art Alexakis! Wayne Brady!) had to say. He'd zone out, or slyly insult them; for a while he lobbied to have a trap-door installed under their chairs. (The episode with a then-unknown Bradley Cooper is worth YouTubing.) When the show was canceled, the network kept him on the air for a few more weeks, and that's when things got really good: He did a monologue at a preschool ("Don't you hate it when you eat red Play-Doh and it ends up tasting like a blue crayon?"), and another on a city bus ("Tough bus, tough bus"). He called Rupert Murdoch a warmonger and VH1 executives pigs. It's around this time that you can start to see the DNA of the Web series he hosts now, Between Two Ferns, which is his fantasy version of what a talk show should be. (To Bruce Willis: "When you were making The Whole Ten Yards, were you ever worried it would be too good?")

Galifianakis has said he never wanted to be a star – that he was perfectly happy to play Bellhop Number Two and smoke his pot and have his little thing. On the other hand, A.D. Miles remembers him once chasing Chris Rock down the street to ask for advice, which is not an act of someone who lacks ambition. "Honestly," says Phillips, "I think the hating of Hollywood is a little bit of a defense mechanism. There's a truth to it – Zach has a very severe bullshit detector – but I think some of it has to come from dealing with rejection for so long. Living in a van. Having to go to audions in Burbank. People not getting it."

Now, everyone gets it.  His Hangover lines ("The real Caesar's Palace," "ruhtard") are modern classics, his visage a guaranteed laugh.  He kind of wishes this weren't the case. "Nothing funny comes out of comfort," he says. "I think for a comic to get accolades goes against what brought them there in the first place. I get mad at the audience: 'How dare you like me?' I want them to be judgmental. But when you're making movies and stuff, that kind of goes away."

One night, Galifianakis does an unannounced stand-up set at a tiny theater in Manhattan. He emerges from a black curtain (he calls it "Precious' vagina") to surprised, rapturous applause, and pulls out a green five-inch-by-seven-inch Mead notebook into which he just scrawled a bunch of new jokes. "I'm gonna do some readings of sentences," he says. "They're supposed to be jokes – but right now most of them are still just sentences."

He flips the notebook open to the first page. "You know what I like to avoid when I put suntan lotion on my sister? Eye contact."

He turns the page. "This is a character I've been working on for a while called the Wrong Gesturing Guy." He clears his throat. "So I met this woman the other night. She, uh . . ." – he mimes a well-endowed chest – "has breast cancer."

(Galifianakis' characters are some of his best bits. There's the Timid Pimp: "Hi – Amber? Hi, it's Marcus. . . . Yeah, I can hold." The Pretentious Illiterate: "Uh, I told you. I don't know how to read." The Forgetful Vegan: "Man, that sure was good pepperoni pi— fuck!" The Guy From Queens Who's Obsessed With Cargo Shorts: "What are those, cargo shorts?" And a personal favorite, the Kid Who Doesn't Know, Down in His Living Room, That His Uncle, Upstairs, Has Suddenly Gone Deaf: "Uncle David? Uncle David . . . Uncle David!")

He flips another page.  "What other goof-abouts do I have? OK. This is what I imagine it's like to be on the phone with James Franco." He holds his phone up to his ear. "Hello? Oh, hey, James. Oh, really? Good for you. Oh, you're doing that, too? That's cool, I didn't realize. Oh, really, no way. Wow, that too, huh? Oh, that's cool. Oh, you must be excited about that. . . ."

He flips the page again. "I'm not reading that one. It just says, 'I killed a dog with an air horn once.' "
After the set, he's outside on his phone when two fans walk up. They apologize for interrupting. "It's OK," he says, covering the mouthpiece. "It's just both my parents in the hospital." They snap a photo and walk away giggling.

Just a few steps later, he's stopped again.

"Hey, aren't you that guy from The Hangover?"

"No, no," he says, "I get that all the time."

"Really? You look a lot like him."

"No. I hate that guy. I think he's a terrible actor. And he's fat."

When Galifianakis says The Hangover ruined his life, he's only half-joking. He can't go five minutes without being approached – probably because he seems so approachable. His life is a constant barrage of minor intrusions. "I'm terrible about people wanting to take pictures with me," he says. "I'm a giant baby about it. They treat you like a cartoon. There's nothing you can do except make light of it. That's if I'm in the mood – sometimes I get superbummed."

He has a few different strategies when people ask for a picture. Sometimes he'll thank them, say he's a private person, and ask if he can shake their hand instead. Other times he'll deflect it with a joke: "Sorry, could we not? I'm with my husband. We haven't seen each other since Haiti." If he really wants to avoid them, he'll fake a phone call ("When's the funeral?"), and if he's trying to eat and some-body bothers him, he'll pretend they're a server: "Yeah, could I have the veggie burger, please? And the yogurt." A couple of weeks ago he was at an Indian restaurant when he caught a teenager trying to sneak a photo. So he gave him the finger. "I thought it was funny. A grown man giving a 15-year-old the finger. But they all put their cameras down. I felt terrible."

It's not any worse than what any famous person has to deal with. The difference is, Galifianakis is out there. He doesn't have a publicist. He doesn't have an assistant. He makes no attempts to cloister himself in VIP sections or corner booths – not because he likes the attention (he clearly doesn't) but because to do otherwise would be a concession to something, the first step down the road to becoming the kind of celebrity he hates.

Galifianakis says he has struggled with depression before. (Usually he follows his dad's advice: "Go to a park and talk to old people.") There's a great scene in one of his live DVDs where he talks about "the fragility of the human psyche," and how he thinks all comedians are a little mentally ill. It spooks him, the idea that his fame is outpacing him.

"I'll be honest with you: I'm not adjusting to it well. I don't mean that as a complaint. Most people wouldn't be well-adjusted. I just get confused by people asking me questions. For years, nobody asked me a question, ever. So now when someone says, 'Oh, you're going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone,' my first reaction is, 'Ehhh, I don't think that's a good idea. I mean, it's cool – but does it have to be the cover? What's Blink-182 doing these days?' "

He takes another sip of wine. "I think it's made me more guarded," he says. "I just like jokes, and I'm private, and I'm emotional, and I drink too much. I don't know. I have to figure it out."

After a few drinks, we decide to share a cab back to Brooklyn. "Taxi!" Galifianakis says, whistling at a passing bus. Eventually, a real cab stops, and soon we're zoom-ing across the bridge under a 20-foot bill-board with his face on it. He talks about how he ate a bunch of pot chocolates last night and walked around listening to the new Fleet Foxes record. I tell him that sounds like fun, and his eyes get wide: "Do you want to come over to my house and eat pot chocolates?"

We pull up to his apartment, on an industrial block in Brooklyn across the street from a pita bakery. "That fucking place," he says. "It's keeping me up at night." Then he catches himself, and slips into a mock-TV-announcer voice: "We'll be right back, with Millionaires Complaining!"

Inside, he's embarrassed by the luxury of the apartment. "HBO is renting this for us," he says. "We do not live like this." In the kitchen, his girlfriend, Quinn, is doing the dishes. They've been together for several years; she runs a nonprofit that helps fund Third World charities. When you ask Galifianakis if he has any crazy stories from filming The Hangover Part II in Bangkok, and he says Quinn has a great story about going to a Cambodian sex-slave camp, he's probably not joking. "Quinn is the coolest," he says. "The coolest."

They make drinks, and we head out to the roof deck. There's a single bird singing in the darkness. "He's lonely," Galifianakis says. "He doesn't have any buddies."

He mentions Quinn was in Africa recently. I ask her where.

"Epcot Center," he says, spitting tobacco juice into a Snapple bottle.

Quinn smiles. "I was in Malawi."

I make a dumb joke about them adopting a kid.

"Yeah," Galifianakis says, "where is that kid?" He spits again. "Kate Middleton was his name. We named him while we were watching the wedding." He scratches his head. "We gotta find that kid."

He jokes, but he really does want to be a dad. "I've been wanting kids for 10 years. I'd love to adopt, have them naturally – all of it. I want, like, 15." He used to be a Big Brother to a boy with Asperger's. He also fantasized about adopting a kid and driving around the country in his orange Volkswagen van, doing stand-up in people's living rooms. "I was kind of obsessed with it for a couple of months. Then I found out it's very difficult for a guy with a van to adopt a kid."

Back inside, Quinn puts on a Beatles record. Galifianakis cuts up a pear. "Try this," he says. "This is the best pear you've ever had." It's a pretty good pear. On the other hand, we're also very high.

(He and marijuana go way back. When he lived in Vancouver a decade ago, he had a girlfriend named Watermelon who sold pot cookies on the beach.  He has also said he took G-Force – that Disney action thriller about crime-fighting guinea pigs  because he was stoned when they asked him to audition.)

He says they need to get back to the farm.  They have 70 acres in North Carolina, near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Galifianakis called it Farmageddon. (You may have seen him there, riding his tractor in the video he shot for Kanye West's "Can't Tell Me Nothing.") They grow pumpkins, blueberries, grapes; he recently planted a walnut tree.  He also built a toolshed, and a barn for some goats. There's no cell service, no TV.  Their closest neighbor is a dairy farmer named Junior, who calls Galifianakis "Hollywood" and gives him manure. It's the one place in the world where he can hang out and eat Bojangles' sausage biscuits and almost pretend like nothing has changed.

"This is going to sound so Norman Rockwell," Miles says, "but one time Iwas at the farm, and Quinn had found a bunch of kittens on the side of the road and was taking care of them. One night, she was sitting on the porch with all these kittens in her lap, and Zach walked around the corner on the other side of the screen door and gasped and covered his mouth.  He was just so taken by that scene.  That's a little peek into what he really cares about – those little moments of beauty."

Galifianakis' life hasn't changed much, materially speaking. He still lives in the same ramshackle house in Venice, California, he's had since his shitcom days. He still drives the same old '98 Subaru. He says the only things he splurges on are good food and repaving his parents' driveway, and he doesn't even know how much he got paid for The Hangover Part II. When I tell him the reported figure was $5 million against four percent, he stares blankly. "I don't know what that means."

Basically, if this movie earns as much as the last one did, he gets $10 million.

"See, you say that. But I don't even know how to access my bank account. I don't know the thing."
So how does he get money?

"I have $10,000 in a Bank of America account. My accountant, whom I've had since I started doing open mics, occasionally I'll e-mail him and say, 'Will you tell me what's what?' And he does. It's kind of embarrassing. I'm smart, but I don't know what things mean. There's a lot of business terms – like 'fiduciary'? I don't know. I gotta educate myself more."

He rubs his eyes, like just thinking about money gives him a headache.

"But what is one to do?" It's not a rhetorical question.

"It's new to me," he says. "I see these people with mansions and stuff – I just find that bizarre. I don't know. I'll probably end up giving it away." He pauses, realizing how this could sound. "Not because – only because I'm lazy. I shouldn't say I'm giving it away. I don't know. I gotta get a rein on things."

Later this year, he has a small role in the new Muppets movie, playing a guy named Hobo Joe. (It's the fourth time he's played a homeless guy. He really likes it: They hardly have any lines.) He's also shooting an election comedy with Will Ferrell called Southern Rivals, where they play sparring politicians. For the first time in a while, he won't have a beard. He'd like to write something for himself, although he doubts he can pull it off; he's talked before about a screenplay called Schindler's List 2: Let's Get This Party Started, but that's probably a joke. He also fantasizes about holding up trains. "But in a Robin Hood way – with bows and arrows. No one does that anymore.

"But now they want to do a Hangover III," he continues. "I'm getting fricking phone calls already." He's excited about this one: According what he's heard, they ditch the format of the first two and help his character escape from a mental institution. Still, it's hard for him to take any movie too seriously when he's been to Malawian villages and had parents beg him for a pencil so their kids can do their schoolwork.

"It's a constant thing," he says. "If you're on the phone, talking about doing a movie with Ryan Reynolds, it's like – well, yeah, do a movie with Ryan Reynolds. Because then you can open a . . . "

A what? A school? A clinic?

He doesn't say. "You can do anything you want."

If Galifianakis is hesitant to open up too much about this, it's probably because he worries about sounding too Angelina – like he'd cheapen what he really cares about by making it into a thing. "Honestly," he says, "if I could talk about what means the most to me in life and stuff, I would. Eventually that's what I want to talk about. But I don't know if I can yet. It's hard."

Hard why?

He rubs his head again. "Because it's not jokes."

It's getting late now. Galifianakis is telling stories. He talks with reverence about the old Greek traditions, how his dad used to kiss him on the lips when he dropped him off at high school. He says he has fond memories of visiting Greece when he was 14, watching his great-aunt squat on the dinner table to demonstrate the proper way to take a dump. He wants to live in Greece before he gets married, to try to reconnect with something true about himself.

For all his outré weirdness, Galifianakis is kind of old-fashioned. He doesn't like to curse. He thinks reality TV is a scourge – that we're not far off from Celebrity Toilet Cams or World's Funniest Gay Bashings. When little kids tell him they loved The Hangover, he'll tell them they have terrible parents. "And I mean it."

"I saw that Ke$ha woman the other day," he says. She'd e-mailed him about getting a drink, and a few days later, he ran into her in a bar. "She was sitting by herself, and I walked up to her and said, 'Lis- ten, I got your e-mail. Your music is really bad! I don't know who listens to it, but I imagine it's, like, six-year-olds – and it's a bad message.' "

Phillips says Galifianakis can do pretty much whatever he wants at this point: "He's a phenomenal actor." But his true love, Phillips says, will always be comedy. "It's such a joyous thing for him. When you laugh at one of his jokes, his eyes just light up. It's not like he's desperate for it. But there is no greater joy to him than the sound of people laughing."

Cooper agrees. "Zach has a need, deep down, to find humor all the time. It kind of gives him meaning." He says that when his father died last year, Galifianakis was the first call he made from the hospital. "I can't remember what he said, but within minutes, we were just laughing so hard."
But this approach does have some drawbacks. "I can get away with anything," Galifianakis says. "But when I try to be sincere, people just roll their eyes." He tells a story from about 10 years ago, when he gave a toast at his little sister's wedding. "I started crying in the middle of it, because I love my sister. There were 300 people there, and they all started laughing. Same thing happened at my brother's wedding – I got choked up and everyone laughed. Except that time I made a bit out of it, because I didn't want to suffer that again."

It's a generous thing, what Galifianakis does. Whether he's asking Natalie Portman if she shaved her V for vagina or yelling on a crowded subway platform, "The choo-choo is coming! The choo-choo is coming!" what he's really doing is sharing his gift – opening the door to the wonderland that is Zachworld. Come on in, he's saying. Laugh with me.

Of course, even when the door is open, sometimes he's the only one inside. Which is also part of what makes him great. "Let me tell you about the hardest I've ever laughed by myself, ever," Galifianakis says. He was home from college; he and his parents were at church on Christmas Eve. At one point during the services, everyone gets a candle, and they all take turns lighting their neighbor's. It's supposed to represent fellowship and togetherness.

"So I get my candle lit," Galifianakis says, "and I'm trying to light my father's. But my dad has a really bad wick. He's trying and trying, but he just can't get it. Everybody's singing 'Silent Night,' and my dad is getting more and more frustrated."

He starts to giggle. "Finally, after two minutes, he gets it lit. And the timing of it was unbelievable. As soon as he raised his candle up – this look of elation and relief on his face – everybody else blew out their candles."

He's full-on howling now, laughing at the memory. "It was the most poetic thing I'd ever seen!" he says. "It was so perfect. I screamed." The whole congregation turned to stare at him – his mom and dad were mortified. But Galifianakis couldn't help himself. "When you get that release of laughter," he says, catching his breath and wiping a tear from his cheek, "it's just the greatest thing in the world."

This story is from the June 23, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1133: June 23, 2011
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