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Galifianakis is not a comedian with family issues whose humor comes from a dark place. His jokes are absurdist fun culture mocking and taboo hunting, not deep introspection. His biggest comedic influence is his high school friend Jodi Brown. The very first time they hung out, Brown took Galifianakis to his car and went into a long speech, pretending he was having an incestuous relationship with his mother. One of the greatest jokes Galifianakis ever heard was when a cousin woke him up at 2 a.m. and told him that he needed to talk. He took him all the way downstairs to the kitchen table. And then he said, "Is it a sin to talk to black people?"
All of Galifianakis' favorite comedy bits involve acting very serious about something ridiculously offensive. On Father's Day, Galifianakis texted, "Just thinking of you!" to Hangover director Phillips, who had a bad falling out with his dad. (Phillips found it hysterical.) "Right before we're doing a take, he'll whisper to me, 'I think I can smell your Bengay,'" says Ted Danson, who co-stars 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?"
When Galifianakis is doing stand-up, he usually starts by putting down his backpack, digging into his wrinkled coat for a crumpled piece of paper, apologizing for not preparing and then delivering tightly crafted jokes. He might tell the jokes while playing classical music on a piano or lip-synching "Tomorrow" while dressed as Little Orphan Annie (as he did when he hosted Saturday Night Live in March), but they're still very much jokes. The best ones might make you feel guilty for laughing. "Have you seen that show on CBS called The Amazing Race? Is that show about white people?" Or "My Southern accent starts to come out a little when I drink. Like, I'll say y'all or n-----s."
He'll deliver those same jokes whether people laugh or not, whether the audience is young or old, black or white. "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."
In a YouTube video of a stand-up routine, Galifianakis brings a drunken audience member onstage to berate her as he often does with audience members then asks security to remove her. "I hate to do that," he says to the crowd. "But if I didn't do that, that woman was going to be date-raped later. I don't want that to happen. I want to be by myself when I do it." It's a gutsy joke. Because he really is furious at the woman and her rude self-indulgence. And because he's admitting to the awfulness of his feelings. And because he says the word rape.
Threatening to rape audience members is not the fast track to starring in big-budget films. It's taken Galifianakis nearly 20 years to make it. When he was a struggling stand-up comedian, he worked as a nanny to a boy who informed him that if he wasn't allowed to watch TV instead of doing his homework, he'd tell his parents that Galifianakis touched his penis. He was the only waiter at the New York restaurant Stingy Lulu's who didn't wear drag. The Kurdish rebel who owned the place made an exception just because he liked Galifianakis so much. "I was cute then," Galifianakis says. "I was really cute."
"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."
Not just Kanye asks him for favors. Galifianakis is the alternative comic who made it, so he's also the alternative comic who's asked to do the most alternative-comic stuff. This morning, Galifianakis' first stop is to be interviewed for an IFC show hosted by Scott Aukerman, who produces Galifianakis' Between Two Ferns, a video series on funnyordie.com in which celebrities subject themselves to a hostile, cable-access version of Galifianakis who mispronounces their names and asks Ben Stiller, "Do you wish that you had ever followed your parents into comedy?"