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Zach Galifianakis is a strange, funny man with a knack for landing jobs that don't let those traits shine. He's had small roles in bad movies (Out Cold, Corky Romano, Heartbreakers), he hosted his own funny-but-doomed sketch/chat show for VH1 (Late World With Zach), and he even spent a season and a half on a ridiculous network-TV show about a time-traveling hottie who works in a morgue (Tru Calling). His stars have aligned better in recent years, with the funny-but-cancelled Comedy Central show Dog Bites Man, a starring role in a video for his friend Fiona Apple, and some greater recognition as a stand-up. At least the Comedians Of Comedy Tour—which also featured Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and Maria Bamford—gave Galifianakis' personality room to breathe. Galifianakis' new DVD, Live At The Purple Onion, may be the first true distillation of his comedic sensibility: It features a terrific stand-up set that veers between actual jokes, asides, audience-baiting, and, most importantly, the introduction of Galifianakis' imaginary estranged twin brother Seth, a Southern rube who believes that Zach's career path and life are essentially worthless. Galifianakis recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his past work, his farm, and his role in an upcoming film directed by Sean Penn. Then Zach handed the phone to his "twin."
The A.V. Club: Did Late World seem like a huge deal when you landed it?
Zach Galifianakis: Not really. I wasn't sitting around going, "Oh man, this is it. This is the big break." It was exciting, but it was like, "Here's another job, let me see how I can screw this up." I never really realized that I was a producer of it until later, but by then, it was too late. Also, I was eating a lot of pot cookies at the time; I could've been a little bit more professional.
AVC: It seemed to get much weirder toward the end, on the episodes where you make fun of getting cancelled.
ZG: I knew from day one, when the VH1 guys came in and said, "Don't make fun of Cher, don't make fun of Sheryl Crow." Whatever their rotation was at the time. I was like, "Well, this isn't a good marriage." We started celebrating that we didn't belong on that channel.
AVC: Is there a chance the show will ever be officially released?
ZG: I have all of the episodes in my attic. I have a feeling there's a possum in my attic, and I'm really scared of possums. So there's this one possum in my attic that's keeping me from going up there and releasing the show on DVD. If that possum will go away, then maybe I will release it.
AVC: Is this possum a metaphor?
ZG: No, no, no, no. Well, it could be. Yes. It could be something in my mind. I'm not sure if I want it to be released. There were some embarrassing things on the show that, even while I was doing them, I was like, "Oh my God, what am I doing?" So the possum is somewhat of a metaphor.
AVC: And Dog Bites Man is cancelled?
ZG: Yes. It's gone. I'm like whoever the opposite of Midas is.
AVC: Is it true that the show sometimes made you uncomfortable?
ZG: There was one time where I actually started crying. We were in a church, and this guy was so sweet. He said something really sad, and I just couldn't take it. If you're onstage and you're screwing with someone, they know that there's a comedy show going on. These people had no idea. And a lot of times, we weren't taking the piss out of people with power, we were just taking the piss out of regular folks. And we have all these fancy lawyers behind us. Sometimes it felt a little dirty. But some of the hardest I've ever laughed was on that show, because you weren't supposed to laugh, which made it kind of like laughing at a funeral.
AVC: Do you think audiences didn't realize that those were real people being interviewed?
ZG: I think that was part of the problem. People thought they were actors, and you have to know that they're real people to appreciate it. But it's kind of flattering that they didn't know. There was one episode that never aired where we went to a real KKK rally. I got to ask the grand wizard of the KKK if he'd ever seen Big Momma's House 3. Which was probably the highlight of my career.
AVC: So the new DVD—is this one of the first things you can be wholeheartedly proud of?
ZG: I just wanted to show the rawness of stand-up. A lot of times, people put out these DVDs that are just really polished, but I wanted to show some awkwardness. But I think it's good. I think people should try to sit through it. [Laughs.]
AVC: How often do you find yourself going off the rails onstage?
ZG: It has to come organically. I don't do it just to do it. It happens a lot. If a crowd is quiet and I'm not screwing up, then I won't do it that much. But if I feel bothered by something in the audience, I have to comment on it, and that happens probably more than it should.
AVC: You don't like people you know in the audience when you perform, right?
ZG: I don't like it at all. I don't know why. Sometimes it can go so badly, and I will sabotage myself onstage. And I just don't want that awkwardness after the show where a family member says, "No, it was good!" I feel bad for them, not for me.
AVC: You're about to do a tour of big theaters. To what do you credit that popularity surge? The Comedians Of Comedy?
ZG: Yeah, I owe it to Comedians Of Comedy and Patton Oswalt. If it weren't for that, I'd probably still be playing the back of a pharmacy somewhere. I never really did the club stuff; I'm really kind of a wimp that way. I just stay mostly in Los Angeles and perform in front of people wearing ironic T-shirts. That or a few goth chicks.
AVC: Is doing stand-up on this bigger level the ideal career situation for you? Or would you rather be doing more TV or movies?
ZG: When I do stand-up for a long time, I'll get burned out, then I'll get an acting gig. For me, the grass is always greener. I'd like to do a mixture of all of it. My goal is just to do small movies that I've written. That's what I'm trying to do now, just write smaller movies.
AVC: And you're dreaming of starting a writer's retreat?
ZG: I have a 60-acre farm in North Carolina, and I have a tractor and a farmhouse. As soon as I groom the land, I want to put cabins around and have a place where people can write and hang out. It'll be either that or an all-black nudist colony.
AVC: Would you be allowed?
ZG: I would be allowed. A lot of people have done blackface, I would be in black-penis. That's so stupid. [Groans.] I have a lot of goals for the farm. I planted a few trees—I want it to be a sustainable farm. I put a pond in and I'm trying to figure out where to put my pot plants.
AVC: The whole idea seems the opposite of cynical, though you're often pegged as cynical.
ZG: I'm not cynical when it comes to things that are important. I'm cynical about pop culture and all that horseshit. I'm more at peace on that farm. I love it. I have no idea what I'm doing at all, but it's just fun… There's just something inside me that wants to cultivate land.
AVC: Do you still write jokes every day?
ZG: I try to write three jokes every day. I don't sit down and write them, it's just things that pop into my head. Then I'll go watch it fail onstage that night.
AVC: What did you write today?
ZG: [Hesitates.] Every weekday around 11 a.m., it's guaranteed that I'll say to myself, "Now, that's a good question, Tyra."
AVC: My dad wouldn't get it.
ZG: My dad doesn't get any of my jokes. He laughs at them, but he doesn't understand them. He's just laughing because people around him are laughing.
AVC: Does your family think you're weird?
ZG: It's funny that you bring that up, because I was talking to my mom the other day, and she called me a weirdo. It was the first time I'd ever heard her say that, and I told her that I thought she was weird. So we got that out of the way. I think that I could be in porno, but as long as I was flying my parents around, they wouldn't really care. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you end up in Sean Penn's upcoming movie, Into The Wild?
ZG: Sean Penn called my cell phone out of the blue. He was like, "This is Sean Penn," and I'm like, "Uh-huh." And then I kept listening to him and thought, "That does sound like Sean Penn." He asked me what I was doing the following week, and I told him that I had plans to go to Arby's, and he laughed at that. And then the next week, I flew to South Dakota and he and I and Vince Vaughn were in a hunting lodge together for two weeks. When I first got there, I asked Sean Penn, "How did you know who I am?" and he said, "I've seen the movie Out Cold about 20 times." It's this horrible snowboarding movie that I'm in. His son had watched it over and over. You never know what a shitty Lee Majors movie could turn into.
AVC: What's your character? Are you funny in it?
ZG: It's a serious movie. There were no scripted lines for me; Sean just said he was going to let the camera go and let me and Vince do what we wanted. I guess it's kind of a comic-relief thing. I play a hunter who's an alcoholic. That's really all I had to go by. He tells me that I'm still in the movie.
AVC: Is it possible to speak with your twin brother, Seth?
ZG: He's real weird about it, but I could get him for you… Seth!
AVC: You were recently a guest on Jimmy Kimmel. How was that?
Seth Galifianakis: He's really nice and funny. They put me in a nice hotel and I got a limousine car to come pick me up. Have you ever been in a limousine? You know those Mini Coopers, those small cars? It'd be kind of cool if they made that into a limousine. I was telling Zach that, and he didn't say anything, but that'd be so cool if they did that!
AVC: It sounds like your relationship with Zach has gotten a little better since the DVD was filmed. Do you feel like you were portrayed accurately on the DVD?
SG: I haven't seen it. I don't wanna watch it. Zach and I… We had a great-aunt that died and we bonded a little bit over that. It sounds weird, but she was in a bizarre butterfly accident. I'm in New York right now with Zach, and things are going a little bit better than usual. If he'd just stop smoking so much cheeba, as he calls it.
AVC: He's never convinced you to give it a try?
SG: Oh, God no. Jeez. Christ. No way, no thank you. I'm fine with ginger ale.
AVC: Is this your first time in New York?
SG: There's like these guys that walk around in New York… They look like Zach 'cause they got these beards and stuff, and they're dressed all in black. And their hair comes over their ears and stuff! Zach said they're Jews, and I was like, "What?! They look crazy!"
AVC: Is the lure of stardom exciting for you in New York? Have you ever considered following in Zach's footsteps?
SG: I'll tell you something that's really funny. There's this really big Applebee's in Times Square, and I wanted to go because they have these virgin mojitos that you can drink. So anyway, Zach and I, we's sitting there—and I'm used to people always going up to Zach—and this dude comes up to me and says, "Hey Seth! I seen you on the TV!" And I was like, "Yeah! This is my brother," and he didn't even give Zach the once-over! [Giggles.] I signed an autograph and everything! Then my virgin mojito came, and that was that.
AVC: So do you have the showbiz bug?
SG: Back in North Carolina, everybody knows me now because I've been on TV. I can't go anywhere. I was at the DMV and this colored lady was like, "Are you Seth Galifianakis? I seen you on TV!" And I go, "Y'did?" It's kind of alluring, you get free stuff. I didn't pass my sight test, but she passed me. If I hadn't been on TV, it would've never happened.
AVC: Are you a fan of any of Zach's movies?
SG: He did this one movie that was so funny. It was with Chris Kattan; it was called Corky Romano. Zach didn't have to say much in it, and I didn't care much for his part, but that Chris Kattan was making all kinds of funny movements with his body and stuff! And I thought, "This is the kind of stuff I can get into!"
AVC: If Zach ever asked you for career or life advice, what direction would you point him?
SG: I'd probably tell Zach to settle down, get a nice car—he's got the money for it, settle down back in North Carolina… Our dad's been trying to get us to open up a hot-dog stand. I'd love to do that. Zach and I don't get along, but I can work the register and he can cook a good hot dog, I'll tell you that. Just to make his life a little simpler would be nice. He comes back to the farm and stuff, but all he does is smoke pot and ride around on his tractor. He thought it was funny to wear Speedos the other day on the tractor. He had a cape on, too. My mom about had a heart attack.
AVC: Are you the favorite twin?
SG: Just because I'm close to home. And both my parents got gout right now, so I'm dealing with that.