Zach Galifianakis was about 10 years ahead of his time back in 2002, when VH1 canceled his show Late World With Zach. It was a condemnation not only of his comedic style, but also his cosmetic: he was then a chubby, bushy-bearded, strange bird of a man who performed his nightly monologues while accompanying himself with classical noodling on piano.
In the 11 years since, what has Galifianakis changed? Not a damn thing. He took his act around the country with Will Ferrell. He put together the viral interview series Between Two Ferns on Funny or Die. He starred in a music video for Kanye West, which consisted mainly of him driving a tractor around his own farm. He starred in the ultra-blockbuster Hangover film trilogy.
And last night, he returned to host Saturday Night Live for the second time, taking to the stage like a man scorned – though still chubby, still bushy-bearded, still a strange bird – ready to show VH1 exactly what they've been missing. And with the help of musical guests Of Monsters and Men, Galifianakis put on a nearly flawless performance.
Even though Zach opened his monologue by saying, "Don't get your hopes up," it was almost impossible to think Galifiankakis would let the audience down. Just like on Late World with Zach (and like he did the first time he hosted SNL), Galifianakis sat down at a piano on the stage and played classical background music while reciting set-ups to jokes and occasionally following through with a punch line. The execution was beautiful both in terms of the music and the humor, but before he could be figured out, Zach jumped up for a surprise impression: that of a man who reaches into his pockets and thinks anything he grabs is a cell phone. And it worked. (Not the cell phone; the joke.)
As Duncan, a dragon-suited human contestant on Game of Game of Thrones – a game show aimed at those who obsess over the HBO program's fantasy world – Zach was wonderful. His character's focus and hope and ultimately confusion as to why none of his questions were Game of Thrones-related, were genuine, and his back-and-forth with host O.J. Sampson (Bill Hader) was so funny that Hader couldn't withhold his giant smile.
Galifianakis was tremendous in the 15th Annual Jennifer Aniston Look-alike contest. He played Paul Nevins, who in all his bearded glory, and much to his chagrin, finished eighth in the competition. Out of eight. As host Jason Sudekis listed all of the runners-up in order, Zach took the stage to bellyache and loudly critique the contestants who placed higher than he did. Shocked at every last girl and guy, he was most hurt by the winning duo, Radley and Ted, played by Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms. What followed was a super bit of writing, not to mention obvious rapport real-life Hangover co-stars displayed, even while offering their best Rachels.
But Galifianakis shined brightest in what was the most brilliant sketch of the night. Playing a brand-new greeter at the Times Square M&M's World store, Zach's coworkers nicknamed him Racist Jim, and for good reason. This though, was not a time for more name-calling, but rather a moment to apologize one-by-one to his fellow M&M employees. Clearly his statements were going to be a train wreck, but how that train jumped off the rails is what made it spectacular. The language used, the callbacks, Zach's demeanor, as well as the frustration of Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Nasim Pedrad, Bobby Moynihan, among others, all made for a phenomenal sketch – one that might make this season's best-of list.
This week's Weekend Update was concise and on-point, and featured James Carville (Bill Hader) talking about gun control; an appearance by the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party (Cecily Strong); and a laugh-out-loud new character, Randall Meeks (Fred Armisen), the Update Tech Blogger, talking about Google Glass.
In one of the night's final sketches, Galifianakis and Sudekis were ridiculously funny as Charlotte Bobcats halftime jugglers, who were hired to entertain during basketball legend and Bobcats owner Michael Jordan's wedding reception. While toasts were given by Charles Barkley (Thompson) and Dikembe Mutumbo (Jay Pharoah), not to mention Jordan's new in-laws (Armisen and Aidy Bryant), Galifianakis and Sudekis snuck off to freshen up, returning each time with more and more white residue on their noses and plenty more energy than before they left.
And oh yeah, Jon Hamm made a tiny cameo to support his friend Zach in the absurdist 10-to-1 sketch, Darrell's House.
So even if Galifianakis' exceptional night didn't meet your expectations, that's okay – he warned you not to get your hopes up. But you’ll be laughing in 2023.