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How Zach Galifianakis whipped Justin Bieber but then slimed himself
Zach Galifianakis doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
When Justin Bieber came on Galifianakis’ spoof interview web show Between the Ferns, Galifianakis typically held nothing back: “It’s really exciting to talk to you; especially in the middle of your public meltdown”…”You’ve had three hairstyles. What’s next for your career?”…”When you’re in the recording studio, do you ever think, ‘Hey, what if I don’t make something sh-y?’”
And then for good measure he took out his belt and whipped Bieber.
Of course then, Galifianakis also dumped green-slime on his head.
He looks a lot like Chucky with a beard (“When you look like I do, it’s hard to get a table for one at Chuck E Cheese”) and usually acts like him when he’s onstage. His roles have been manic in everything from the Hangover movie franchise to parts in a string of TV shows both memorable and forgotten to various comedy specials and stand-up tours.
Just as memorably, Galifianakis does acts of kindness that seem like stunts (and they might be) but also show his contempt for the celebrity circuit. For the Hangover III red carpet premiere he brought as his date a homeless woman he met twenty years ago working for tips in a Laundromat. Elizabeth “Mimi” Haist is 87 now and he not only pays her rent and utilities (Galifianakis friend Renee Zellweger paid for her furniture and pays for her groceries), but he’s taken her to three premieres. “If he’s in town, he takes me,” she told The Daily News. “I dress up nice and a friend helps with my makeup. The limo takes me home afterwards.”
And his longtime girlfriend, now his wife, Quinn Lundberg, is the vice president and founder of the charity, Growing Voices. He skipped the Toronto Film Festival premiere of his film You Are Here because she went into labor. Of course he always says about her (she’s tall) that she looks like a cross between “Charlize Theron and Patrick Ewing.”
“It’s not good for comedy to be like, Thanks for liking me,” Galifianakis told TIME. “Being popular is poison. My mom and dad are like, ‘You’re not enjoying any of this.’ I say, ‘It’s your fault for not raising me to be superficial.'”
Todd Phillips, his director on the Hangover movies says, “He has a hate-hate relationship with his audience. Comedy is about the unexpected. That’s about as surprising a thing as you can do — hate being loved.”
But people like him anyway—not just his fans (though he berated the parents of some kid who asked him for an autograph because they let him watch the Hangover movies) and he is the least pretentious and un-Hollywood Hollywood star.
Until recently he drove a 1997 Subaru that he once lived in for two weeks when he first arrived in LA. He already had a deal to do a sitcom but he didn’t want to rush his agent for the check. And he also lived in an Audi—that was left as a junker in a garage.
Despite the Hollywood fame and pay checks, he now lives mostly on his farm in North Carolina, not far where he grew up in Wilkesboro, where his mother Mary Frances ran a community center for the arts and his father Harry sold heating oil. He also has a younger sister Merritt and an older brother, Greg. His cousin is Washington Post cartoonist Nick Galifianakis and his uncle Nick was a congressman who ran against Jesse Helms. Galifianakis attended Wilkes Central High School and attended but did not graduate North Carolina State University (he stopped one credit short) where he was a communications major.
The farm doesn’t have cell-phone service or long distance service, but a pipe leading to the recycling bin in the basement where he can toss his empty beer bottles. In LA he lives in a tiny apartment that he rents out when he’s not around. His Hangover co-star Ed Helms used it for five months while he was shooting The Office and he says, “It’s sort of like the hotel for transients, homeless people and comedians. It’s tiny. It’s in Venice, which gets very cold, and it’s only heated by a wood-burning stove. It also doesn’t have a shower. It only has a bathtub. You kind of feel like you’re living inside of Zach’s beard.”
By the way, he flunked out of college by one class because he spent the day before heckling the teacher of that class at a church softball game. Confrontation and pushing the envelope is his mantra. He was mugged at gunpoint in New York City in 1995 and he refused to give up his money. “I don’t have any money,” he told the mugger (he had over $100 in his wallet) “and the cops behind me are watching you.” Tommy Blancha, a friend and writer, says Galifianakis’ lack of fear comes from a sense of fairness and a firm conviction that nobody is better than anybody else.
“I wouldn’t overthink it, though,” he says. “There’s a
good portion of plain old redneck in there, too.”
A redneck with Southern manners and family values. In private, Galifianakis doesn’t like to curse and he loves the gentlest of TV comedies–The Andy Griffith Show. He answers fan letters by hands and as long as you let him finish what he’s eating—he will sign your autograph (with a lecture inserted for his parents, as the young fan of the Hangover found out). He’s pretty straitlaced—as his family was. His mother objected to the humor of Hangover, he says, and he told her he agreed. “But at some point,” he says, “as it did well at the box office, all that embarrassment flew out the window. As long as I can fly them all over the world, they don’t care. I could be in porno.”
In fact, he brings his big Greek family–parents, brother, sister, and even his cousins—most everywhere. He brought his parents and brother Greg to Thailand for the Hangover Part II shoot and the whole family to Atlanta for the shooting of Due Date. His father wanted him to play football and become a naval officer, but he did write to Johnny Carson to put his son on TV for being great in a Shields-and-Yarnell-inspired mime sketch for his elementary school talent show.
Greg says he knew his brother would be a performer. “But the cover of GQ — I would never have thought that would happen, especially with the way he dresses. It’s more likely he would have been on the cover of Homeless Today.”
So Galifianakis didn’t get his start in comedy by coming from a dark place in his home or his upbringing. He claims his initial inspiration was his high school buddy Jodi Brown. He told Galifianakis he was having an incestuous relationship with his mother. And there was the cousin who woke him at two a.m. and told him he needed to talk. “Is it a sin to talk to black people?” he asked Galifianakis.
Which just about sums up Galifianakis’ comedy style: being serious about something ridiculous and, hopefully, offensive. On Father’s Day, he texted, “Just thinking of you!” to Hangover director Phillips, who had a bad falling out with his dad. (Phillips thought it was funny.) “Right before we’re doing a take, he’ll whisper to me, ‘I think I can smell your Bengay,'” Ted Danson says, who starred with him on Bored to Death. “Or ‘Your Poligrip is showing.'” While shooting the first Hangover in Las Vegas, Galifianakis was sitting at a blackjack table with his mother when a kid came by and asked to take a picture with him. Galifianakis spun around, furious, and said, “Can’t you see I’m with a prostitute?”
A typical Galifianaki stand-up routine might start with him putting down his backpack, troweling through his jacket pocket to find scribbled jokes, then slinging them out: “Hello, my name is Zach Galifianakis, and I hope I’m saying that right.”…”I was named after my grand-dad. Yes, my full name is Zach Granddad Galifianakis.”…”I want to combine the NAACP with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It’s called Mothers Against the Advancement of Colored People.” He might be playing classical music on a piano while telling jokes or lip-synching “Tomorrow” while dressed as Little Orphan Annie (which he did on Saturday Night Live). And people something don’t know whether to laugh or cringe, but he doesn’t care.
“A good stand-up, you lead the audience,” he says. “You don’t kowtow to the audience. Sometimes the audience is wrong. I always think the audience is wrong.”
“Did you ever see what Zach looked like in high school?” asks Bradley Cooper, The Hangover‘s handsome leading man, who appeared on one of the last episodes of Galifianakis’ VH1 show. “He looked like James Dean. He’s a very cool guy. If we were in high school, it would be exactly the same dynamic it is now. Me calling: ‘Do you want to hang out?’ ‘Yes, Bradley, O.K. I’ll be at this bar.’ ” Galifianakis even looks cool in the video Kanye West asked him to make for his song “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” in which he rides around his farm on a tractor and lip-synchs lines like “Bought more jewelry/ More Louis V/ My mama couldn’t get through to me.”
“I was cute then,” Galifianakis admits. “I was really cute.”
But he came up through the comedy trenches and he’s no pushover with himself or his fans. Once this big guy came up to him and told him to say something funny into his video camera. And Galilifianakis said no. And the guy got in his face and told him he owed it to his fans—which is the wrong thing to ever say to Galifianakis—who now got in the fan’s face—towering over him and all—until the fan skulked away.
Jon Hamm, of Mad Men fame, has been a friend and seen him in performance for years and says this fearlessness, on and off stage, is what makes Galifianakis so compelling.
“He’s the best kind of comic, who makes you just uncomfortable enough to wonder why you’re laughing,” he says. “That’s the role of comics in our society — to call out the weirdness and make you think about it.”
Which is why he is asked to do the most alternative-comic stuff and his web show, Between Two Ferns, reels in the suckers despite his reputation. “Do you wish that you had ever followed your parents into comedy?” he asks Ben Stiller.
At a photo shoot he is asked to fake a smile. “I can’t do it,” he says. “It breaks my heart.”
He sees an obese man in a wheelchair. “There’s my trainer!” he says. “Oh, that’s terrible,” he says afterwards. “It’s really a joke about me. I’m out of shape. I try to justify it! My cousin is a quadriplegic. I try to justify it every which way.”
“I feel that Zach knows how to handle things correctly in life,” says Jason Schwartzman, who starred with Galifianakis in Bored to Death. “If a bunch of people were trying to kick our ass or we were lost in another country, he would get us out of that situation. He has an understanding of people, and he’s moral.”
Galifianakis made 1,500 bumper stickers that said “No Chain Stores in Venice” because he didn’t want them in Venice, California. He lit up a fake joint on Real Time with Bill Maher to show his support for legalized marijuana. It’s unconfirmed but he may have been the one on Hangover Part II who fought to keep Mel Gibson from doing a cameo, after the recordings were exposed of his racist rants.
“He is a deep one,” fellow comic Patton Oswalt says of Galifianakis. “In this business, once you get hot, it’s, Don’t stop! Don’t pause to think! Just do it! Boom, boom, boom! And he’s like, I’d like to pause and think about this.”
He very often doesn’t know what he’s doing next (he hasn’t used a publicist and answers his own e-mail) and he had a slew of offers (including the video with Kanye West), but the fame to him can be a drag.
“I would have changed my last name if being famous were my goal,” he says. He says his dream project would be a TV show that goes around the world asking what’s funny in various cultures. “I don’t think sarcasm works at all in Thailand,” he says. “Fart jokes are probably funny. Falling down is funny.”
And Zach Galifianakis is funny in many cultures—but don’t ask him to fake-smile or mug for pictures on cue.