Having memorably starred in The Hangover trilogy and other big screen hits like Due Date, Up in the Air and Birdman, Zach Galifianakis brings his comedy to TV tonight as the co-creator, executive producer and star of FX’s Baskets (10/9c).
In the darkly funny series, which he collaborated on with Louis C.K., Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, who trained professionally at a clown school in Paris but finds himself broke, back in his California hometown of Bakersfield and head-butting bulls for peanuts as a rodeo clown.
In this exclusive Q&A, he gets serious about clowning around and reveals how he’s stayed so svelte of late.
“I don’t have any fear of clowns, but I understand why you would fear a clown. My mom made me a clown outfit once, and I remember just walking around my neighborhood, dressed as a clown, trying to see if I could get anybody’s attention. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Baskets isn’t your average comedy. How would you define it?
It is a comedy, but it has serious undertones to it, and the tone of a show like this is kind of new, and it’ll be interesting to see if people find it compelling or if they have any patience for it at all. I don’t quite know yet.
What draws you to these kinds of bizarre outsider characters?
You want to just do something that’s different. In television comedy everybody, or a lot of them, are just fast-talking jokers and have these very well written jokes and quips. I don’t see that in real life. Also there’s dirty language and everybody’s cursing now. So you try to go the opposite a little bit. That’s really what it is. It’s just trying to do something different. The one thing I kept saying about this show is I didn’t want it to be edgy. I wanted it to be old-fashioned. I wanted to have pratfalls. W.C. Fields, when he’s playing pool and he sticks his stick into a pool table, that stuff makes me laugh still. Physical comedy is not as prominent as it used to be, and if it’s there it’s way over the top. I’m a fan of old comedies. Woody Allen, to me, is the best physical comedian that has ever been, because he does it with a straight face.
Will we learn more about why Chip became a clown?
Yeah. We go into flashbacks as the season progresses. You see more of his French life, and that comes to life a little bit. Do we specifically answer the why of it? I know people that just want to be artists, and whether they are artists or not, they just like the lifestyle. Chip wants to be an artist, but he might not have any art in his heart. I don’t know yet.
What’s your personal feeling about clowns?
Everybody either likes them or is creeped out by them, but the clown has to take off his makeup or her makeup at the end of the day. I’m more interested in that person. There’s a clown in the Robert Altman film Short Cuts, and they showed her life when she wasn’t a clown, and that was always really interesting to me, when the mask is off and the makeup is off, and that stuck in my mind all these years. Not that this show is too real, but it’s a surreal show that tries to play on real emotions. I don’t have any fear of clowns, but I understand why you would fear a clown. My mom made me a clown outfit once, and I remember just walking around my neighborhood, dressed as a clown, trying to see if I could get anybody’s attention. I didn’t know what I was doing.
You’re starring and producing Baskets—is that a challenge?
You just kind of go with your gut. I’m not one to overthink things. I think comedy works best in free form, and this comedy, the way I like to do it, is more of a democracy. I don’t need to have control over it so much, and I guess there’s pressure, but you just try to do the thing that entertains you and your friends. It is more work. You have to babysit the show, the writing process and all that. It’s a shift to try to create a show, but you just kind of do it and hope that people like it.
What’s your history with Louis C.K.?
Louis was writing on Letterman or Conan when I first started doing standup, 20 years ago. He was a working comic, and I was doing open mics in New York. Over the years we would do the same shows and get to know each other, and a few years ago, he and I were going to do a show where we drove across country with his dog, and that never happened. In comedy clubs, you sit and talk for a long time till you go onstage. You get to know people that way. I trust Louis.
So far, what are your most memorable career highlights?
If you’re fortunate enough to work in this industry, you take it all with such gratitude. I do now, now that I’m older. I remember working on a movie once where I was being directed by an animal trainer. I’ve had a lot of bad ones but you learn from the bad ones.
You have some movies coming up—Tulip Fever, Keeping Up With the Joneses and Masterminds. Details?
Tulip Fever is based on a book about the first public open flower market. It’s a period piece, and it’s shot in London. I play an idiot. Masterminds is a movie I did a while back that comes out in August. It’s a comedy with Kristen Wiig. Joneses is a comedy thriller with Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher and Gal Gadot.
Would you like to do more drama?
Yeah, that would be nice. I think drama’s easier than comedy for sure, In comedy you can run out of tricks a little bit. I think ‘why not try it?’ but I don’t sit around and think about it too much.
You’ve kept off the weight you lost—how do you do it? How do you feel?
I don’t get recognized when I’m walking down the street, which is really nice. I feel good. I feel lighter. I just stopped drinking, and then I don’t eat any food that’s advertised on television. I walk and jog, here and there. You just stop drinking and don’t eat Applebee’s.
Photo by Ben Cohen/FX