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How Zach Galifianakis Became Comedy Royalty

From ‘Boston Common’ and ‘Apt. 2F’ to ‘Bored to Death’ and ‘The Hangover’

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A few short years ago, Zach Galifianakis’ fanbase was mostly made up of critics and the comedy cognoscenti. Now even your grandmother has grown familiar with his bushy bearded face, a fixture on billboards everywhere. As overnight as his fame may seem, though, Galifianakis has been quietly paving a path toward stardom since his sitcom days in the mid-Nineties. Here are the most significant stops he’s had along the way, some more hysterical than others – but nearly all of them showing that the prickly comic with the deadliest deadpan deserves every bit of his success.

By Joe Berkowitz with Matthew Perpetua

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‘Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis’ (2008-2011)

The Funny or Die web series Between Two Ferns is Galifianakis’ hilarious response to a culture increasingly obsessed with celebrity. Each episode finds the host sitting across from a famous actor on an Inside the Actors' Studio-like spartan set, alternately fawning over and antagonizing them. The results are equal parts discomforting and drop-dead funny. Of course, it had to have been abundantly clear after the first couple editions of Between Two Ferns that with his next movie, Galifianakis was about become a huge celebrity in his own right.

‘The Hangover’ (2009)

Usually it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in a person’s career when he or she has truly arrived. With Galifianakis, it’s clear as day. The Hangover collected all the galvanic mojo the comedian had stirred up in the preceding years and exploded it on an unsuspecting public. When the smoke cleared, the “wolf pack speech” had instantly entered the pantheon of fratty quotables, Galifianakis’s naked ass was seared into the retinas of a grateful nation and a new comedy superstar was born.

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‘Up in the Air’ (2009)

Although Galifianakis only briefly appears in Up in the Air briefly, his one-scene cameo is notable for three reasons: 1) he is terrific in it, 2) his performance is barely funny and 3) that’s by design. Tellingly, most of this single scene plays a prominent role in Up in the Air’s trailer, due in no small part to his sudden, precipitous rise in popularity.

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‘G-Force’ (2009), ‘Puss in Boots’ (2011)

No parent in their right mind would subject a young child to watching The Hangover, although apparently the movie’s breakout star is cuddly enough for the stroller set. In 2009, Galifianakis headlined Disney’s guinea pig adventure, G-Force, and his voice will next be featured in the upcoming Shrek spinoff, Puss in Boots. It’s clear that the guy is doing what he can to make kids' movies safe for adults again.

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‘Bored to Death’ (2009-present)

Capping off a banner year in 2009, Zach Galifianakis co-starred in HBO’s neo-noir comedy series, Bored to Death, alongside Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson. It’s a role he was born to play — the perennially stoned sidekick to Schwartzman’s wannabe private eye, spurring his buddy on to bad decisions and occasionally leading by faulty example. While Danson gets the lion’s share of choice lines here, Galifianakis gets to stretch ever so slightly and play a more nuanced character than usual. The show is currently filming its third season – and for once, there are no signs of cancellation looming.

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‘Dinner for Schmucks’ (2010)

“How to Steal a Funny Movie Away From Other Funny People,” by Zach Galifianakis. Step 1: Get cast in a good-not-great comedy like Dinner for Schmucks. Step 2: Stay out of the first half, letting the audience’s appetite build. Step 3: When you enter, effortlessly draw attention to yourself through sheer animal magnetism. Step 4: Repeat Step 3, only with a manic intensity one notch below demonic possession. Step 5: Go away again until the climax. Step 6: Allow yourself to be upstaged by the lead. Step 7: Go out with a bang.

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‘Due Date’ (2010)

After stripping a diamond mine together once before, it was a no-brainer for Galifianakis to work with Hangover director Todd Phillips again — especially with Robert Downey Jr. on board. Unfortunately, the road comedy Due Date seems to suffer from the same problem as the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson team-up Anger Management – meaning nobody planned much beyond simply pairing the two leads together. While not quite a misstep (it made $100M), Due Date is Galifianakis’ only post-Hangover role so far that feels a little slight. It’s still a must-see, though, if for no other reason than the surreal spectacle of his character acting on an episode of Two and a Half Men.

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‘Saturday Night Live’ (2010-2011)

Very few episodes of any TV show last year felt more like an event than when Zach Galifianakis hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time. Here was comedy’s newest savior meeting its most venerable institution, and it was a long time coming. "I actually wrote for Saturday Night Live for two weeks 10 years ago,” Galifianakis has since said. “There was not one laugh the whole time I was there. It was like, 'What have I done?' Then they let me go." Apparently, sometimes you have to go away in order to come back. Even though playing the piano while telling jokes is one of the oldest arrows in Galifianakis’s quiver, it was still one of the freshest moments on SNL all year.

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Fiona Apple, ‘Not About Love’ (2006)

Fiona Apple isn't best known for her sense of humor, which may be part of why she teamed up with Galifianakis for this silly video for "Not About Love," a track from her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine. As Galifianakis lip-synchs the tune, Apple plays the straight man, looking on with sullen disdain as he emotes and strikes melodramatic poses.

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© 2011 by Green Hat Films

‘The Hangover Part II’ (2011)

They say there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but betting against the runaway success of The Hangover Part II would have been the ultimate sucker’s bet. Something of a victory lap for the first movie, and also a remix of it, The Hangover Part II feels familiar indeed. The good news is that Zach Galifianakis can still get laughs by wringing every last bit of weirdness from a Long John Silver’s punchline. The even better news is that this movie’s wild success ensures he’ll be able to write his own ticket for the foreseeable future.

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Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images (Zach), Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The Muppets Studio (Kermit)

‘The Muppets’ (2011)

Galifianakis is set to make a brief appearance as "Hobo Joe" in Jason Segel's reboot of The Muppets. This makes a lot of sense, at least in that Galifianakis sometimes comes across like a living, breathing Muppet and so it seems totally natural for him to share a movie screen with Kermit the Frog.

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