Monday, November 26, 2007

The OC Archive: Zach Galifianakis at Just For Laughs 2002

In 2002, covered my first Just for Laughs Festival, tracking down local stories I could use in my Boston Globe column and getting to meet a lot of comedians who probably weren’t coming to Boston anytime soon. Zach Galifiankakis was on his third JFL, doing a few split shows with Janeane Garofalo and mulling over his options after his bizarre but extremely entertaining VH1 talk show, “Late World with Zach,” had been canceled over the summer.

Galifianakis is all over the map onstage – telling one-liners at his piano, doing quick bursts of odd characters, or interacting with the audience. Not everyone at JFL understood his humor – he had been heckled at one of the Garofalo shows earlier in the week. The show I got to see later that week was first rate. Garofalo and Galifianakis put on a great show despite sweltering temperatures at the Kola Note.

I had only just started watching “Late World” that summer when it was canceled, and I was thrilled to catch up with Galifianakis not long afterwards, sitting at the Delta Hotel restaurant. This interview was never published. I’ve included most of it here, though I did edit a longer tangent at the end where we discussed the history of whistling and serial killers. I’ve since spoken with Galifianakis for the Globe and he’s been to Boston on his own and as part of the Comedians of Comedy Tour with Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Brian Posehn. And yes, my first question was really cheesy.

What question would you ask yourself if you were a guest on Late World?

Hmm. How do you do it? Or, what’s with the beard?

Have you done the Just For Laughs Festival before?

Yeah. This is my third? My third festival. The first year I did a gala show. The second year I just did Andy’s shows. And this time I opened for Janeane. Yeah, this is my third year. I come back every two years.

I’m almost sorry that I missed the first Evening with Janeane Garofalo show.

Well, I liked it. I like getting heckled. I like it. I sometimes invite it. But I lost control of the audience and it became kind of a circus. That’s usually fine and good but you know, it’s not good for Janeane to have to swim in that wake. You know? I mean, she probably was loving it, backstage. Because I love to watch my friends not do well on stage. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

I know you said you were hoping Janeane would bomb as well.

Yeah, unfortunately, she did very well. That made me more disappointed. I was hoping that she didn’t do well, that way we could totally blame the audience. If she hadn’t done well, it would have been the audience’s fault. She did do well, so the whole night was my fault. That’s how it works.

What is it about watching your friends fail that you enjoy?

Well, because I’ve been there so many times before… I only like it if they can handle it. I like it if they can handle it. I think comics are funnier when they’re… Johnny Carson, when his jokes weren’t working – I don’t know if you remember – but he was so much funnier in his recovery to try to get out of it. I think it’s just a comic thing, that you enjoy watching disaster and awkwardness.

The Andy Kaufman factor.

Yeah, but he did it so purposely. That was his whole purpose. I’m talking about when someone doesn’t mean to do it and it happens. I have actually gone to open mics still just to watch people not do well.

You have to want to bomb in the beginning. It has to happen. That’s just part of the process. I once did a community college not too long ago. Well, a couple of years ago. And it was five o’clock in the afternoon, and some guy booked the show and it was literally kids sleeping or studying. And they put a microphone in the student common area. And my opening line was, because it was a community college, I went, “I used to go to a community college, look at me now.” I said, “I know all you guys feel bad because you go to a community college. I went to a community college. Look at me now. I’m performing in front of a community college.” Complete silence. People were Xeroxing behind me. But yeah, the bombing thing is all part of the process. But when you bomb up here, it’s kind of… Unfortunately, there’s this weird shit if you do bad up here that’s going to be judgmental because the industry’s here. Just do what you can do.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to try to fail on purpose or bomb on purpose?

That’s a good question. You know what, I don’t purposely do it. I didn’t mean to say I purposely do it. I like when it starts to happen, because it’s entertaining for me. But I don’t like, personally dig myself into a hole. I’m not that kind of comic. Dave Attell can do it. He can dig himself out of any hole. I’ve seen him do it. It’s unbelievable. It’s an involuntary… I don’t mean for it to happen. I don’t really provoke it to happen.

But you do invite heckling?

When hecklers heckle me I invite them onstage and I interview them. And I usually demean them in a very quiet way. As a matter of fact, I did a show in San Francisco, and this guy, I called him onstage. He didn’t heckle but he was over-laughing sarcastically. – I like that we came to this restaurant because they’re really good with the service here. -- So he was over-laughing and I picked up on it and I said to him, I call him onstage and he comes onstage, and he was kind of overweight, and it’s not good to do fat jokes. But he was a real jerk and he was a gang guy. He had like tattoos. I demean him really bad and the crowd loved it. He was really upset. And after the show, the owner of the club, I can’t remember what club it was, said, you have to go out the back door. They’re waiting for you in the front. I’ve had that happening, where there’s been some animosity towards me.

So you don’t come from the “I kid because I love” school.

I actually… Sometimes I get angry. It’s kind of like, why are you doing that? Why did you pay twelve dollars or whatever to listen to somebody and then you don’t listen to them? Just get up and leave if you don’t like it. I wish I could do that. The other night I did about ninety seconds – not even, like seventy seconds at Comedy Works.

I saw that.

I don’t mean to be a snob but…

You just knew it wasn’t going to work?

Of course it wasn’t going to work. I didn’t want to torture those people.

There was a guy named Ross Bennett who closed that show, who had a couple of hecklers, and they wound up hugging the guy afterwards and thinking he was the funniest thing. I just wonder what it is about an audience that they could get ripped that hard and then come up and hug the guy afterwards. Sometimes the audience likes the abuse.

Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the audience likes that. Why do people go see Don Rickles? They go for that reason, I think. They know they can be a target if they’re sitting up front. I’m not that kind of comic. I’m really not. But when the crowd forces me to… I just play the piano. I’m very soft. And I love to change and get completely mad at them. I think it’s a neat thing to flip, a weird Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde thing. But it doesn’t happen to me that often.

In New York a month ago, I got heckled in a theater. I think it was fifteen hundred seats. And this woman yells, “You’re a fucking asshole!” I do this joke where, the joke is, “I have to admit that I’ve used the word ‘sand nigger’ before. But I would never call anybody from the Middle East that. The term I used it in was, ‘Get off the sand, nigger. Volleyball’s a white man’s sport.”’ It was the last joke I did after eloquent piano playing. I get up and I explain, I apologize. I said, “There was a woman last night who was offended by that joke, and I invited her back tonight to publicly apologize.” And as I do that, a woman yells out, “You’re a fucking asshole.” So a black woman comes onstage with me. At this point the audience is like, what’s going on? They don’t really know what’s happening. Then “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white” by Michael Jackson just starts blaring, and I just start dancing, doing the robot. And the audience is like, what an asshole. But I have this flip chart on which I’ve written this apology. “It’s just a joke.” I’m flipping this chart. And at that time, the crowd’s like, oh okay. And then another dancer comes out, and she starts, and the woman I was apologizing to, the three of us have choreographed this big dance number. I designed it that way to make the politically correct audience member eat crow.

Do you think you have a character onstage that’s separate from who you are?

It’s kind of an extension. Well, it’s kind of me, but when I’m onstage, I’m more quiet than I am in real life. I just think, I like subtle humor, and I try to be as subtle as I can onstage. I think it’s just a different version of me.

I was trying to figure out the person you were on “Late World.”

[Laughs] I’m sorry, every time I hear “Late World” I start laughing.

Just because –

Not because the show was that funny, just that the experience is just bizarre. I wish I had been a little bit more myself. And I was getting that way, but unfortunately, you have to have people come on the show, and you have to be likable. I am likable, I guess.

I saw one review that had said you were a host who thought he was too good for the guests.

Really? I thought I read all the bad reviews. I’d like to read that. I called one reviewer at the Baltimore city paper one night. He had written this review – and I don’t mind bad reviews – I wanted him to come on the show and read his article and we could talk about it. And I called him crying. I was acting like I was crying. And I told him that I was so upset, I couldn’t believe he wrote these things, and to please watch that night because I was going to shoot myself in the mouth on air. And he totally started backtracking.

Comedy is kind of like music. Different tastes, you know? I wasn’t crazy about interviewing celebrities. I don’t think they’re that interesting. At one point I think they were interesting, but now it’s a machine. It’s a big publicity machine. And individuality is not really there anymore. If somebody saw me as that, I could understand that. If I had a disdain or a bad taste in my mouth because I had to plug a movie I never would go see. I mean, I never said I liked something. I never would say that. I was very honest about it. If people are gracious to come on the show, fine. But I think that’s the problem in late night television, it’s a big ass-kissing festival. Letterman used to not do that. I thought that was his appeal. But now, his show’s so big, and it’s in competition with Leno…

I viewed "Late World" as a satire on talk shows where people pretend to care.

Well, we were trying to do that. We were trying to satirize the talk show format, the celebrity talk show format. I don’t know if you ever saw the show where we did it with just one person in the audience. To me, that’s the best one we did. People thought it was creepy. I think when we did the one-person audience, it was so good. It was the kind of thing that I want to do. And in the middle of the show, I was interviewing Adam Goldberg, the one guy in the audience, we kept cutting to him, and I said, “Can we have a laugh track, please?” Because there was complete silence. And they would do a laugh track, with one person in the audience, of a group of people. To me, I was very, very proud of that one. And then we did a laugh track of a six-year old girl laughing. It was just weird. And during the show, the one member of the audience got up and left.

So what influenced you to become a comedian?

The Andy Griffith guy came to my school and he whistled. And I remember I was just fixated on that guy. Because here’s a guy who took the one thing that he was good at and made a living, traveling around whistling. That’s what people should do more often with their lives. Instead of following the norm of what we’re supposed to do. And I was like, I’ve got to somehow learn that kind of thing. Find it. And I became the world’s best skipper. And I just went around various grade schools skipping. [Laughs] That was probably the most insightful thing I’ve ever done. The Andy Griffiths theme song whistler.

I’m not sure if I should try to background check that now…

I don’t know how you would background check that, but it’s true.

“Did you inspire a kid?”

So you’d try to find him.

Sure. That must be a depressing story.

He was an older guy, I think I remember. And I think at that same thing, I got my pants pulled down at the assembly.

He was never being funny, he was just whistling. But he took naturally what he could do… He probably got two hundred bucks for a thirty minute whistling show. All right, here’s the deal. What if you found him and he was this real egomaniac Hollywood-type guy? That’s a good idea.

They tried to book him for Just For Laughs, and he was like, “How much money? No.”

How great would it be if this article comes out and you like called me, ‘The editors went nuts. They’re putting that guy on the front of the magazine’.

And he calls and is like, “Get out of the business, kid, it’s horrible. You can’t make it like I made it before. The world’s changed.”

I hear they’re opening up a new whistling club.

Wasn’t there a Rockford Files like show that had whistling?

There’s not a lot of professional whistlers. I guarantee that you could find that guy’s name. I wonder if he’s still around? I’m going to look that up on the Internet and see if that guy’s still around. My cousin would know who that guy is, too.

You know somewhere, there’s that weird, “Hit Whistlin’ of the Fifties” album in a garage sale bin somewhere.

Yeah. He and Jim Neighbors teamed up because they knew each other from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

And then Roger Miller, who whistled on Disney’s Robin Hood soundtrack. He didn’t do the clean whistle, though.

Well, there are different techniques, obviously. Bottle whistlers are hacks. These guys… [blows into a bottle of water].

The shell whistlers are the alternative comedy of whistling.

Yeah. The Alternative Whistling Show. That’s what I’m going to do next. I’m going to pitch shows where it’s just me whistling. My dad actually saw once, on the Today Show, that skipping was good for you. And he started skipping everywhere. He would start skipping to work. And in a small town, when your dad is skipping through town –My dad’s kind of overweight, too, so it’s a nice visual. A guy skipping around. It didn’t last long.

You could combine the two.

Well, they do go hand in hand. When you skip, you tend to whistle. If you’re skipping, you’re in a good mood. And if you’re whistling, you’re in a good mood. You never whistle when you’re in a bad mood. Could you imagine skipping with a really nasty look on your face? ‘”He’s a serial killer, and his trademark is that he skips.”


Arvin Hill said...

I've seen him perform on television a couple of times and he is crazy brilliant funny. As in "Who the fuck IS this guy?" funny.

I wasn't aware of "Late World With Zach" but would love to see every episode. Hell, I'm laughing now just thinking about "Alan Finger" on Man Bites Dog.

Awesome interview. Thanks for posting it.

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