"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."
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.
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