Zach Galifianakis Shows the Rawness of Standup at the Purple Onion
About a third of the way through The Comedians of Comedy, the 2005 documentary chronicling the indie band-style stand-up tour Patton Oswalt threw together to bring alternative comedy to the masses, Zach Galifianakis makes a peculiar, unexpected entrance. The other three comics on the tour — Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Brian Posehn — have arrived in Portland in advance of Galifianakis and are planning to connect with him later on that night. In the interim, the filmmakers accompany Oswalt and Posehn to a comic book shop and, after being informed that their camera isn’t allowed inside, go wait in an alley around the corner. With the camera still recording, they set it on the ground…and suddenly into the frame glides Galifianakis, as if he had just materialized out of the thin, Pacific Northwest air. “How’d you just appear there?” the filmmakers ask him. Galifianakis hesitates for a moment, seeming to calculate the exact degree of sincerity with which he should respond, then grins cryptically. “I read it on Patton’s blog,” he replies, before disappearing off down the street, prancing at full speed like some sort of deranged short-distance runner.
In retrospect this entrance is perfectly fitting for the comedian who was flitting in and out of the public consciousness for a decade before breaking it huge in 2009 with The Hangover, and who now manages to so bombastically capture the spotlight while remaining in many ways inscrutable behind a full, scruffy beard and enigmatic smile. Prior to The Comedians of Comedy, Galifianakis had been cultivating a cult following in New York and Los Angeles with his live performances while also participating in a slew of short-lived projects that either failed to nourish his weird brilliance or were too frail to effectively contain it. Most notable of these was his own VH1 chat show, Late World with Zach, in which Galifianakis made a consistent point to focus on the program’s poor ratings and the fact that nobody watching it seemed to know who he was. The show ran for nine episodes in 2002 before its cancelation. “I just had that feeling, like I was a wash-up pretty early,” Galifianakis confided in a 2009 interview with the New York Times. Banished from VH1 and with no clear path forward, he returned to his roots.
It was in the mid-90s that Galifianakis began his comedy career, haunting stand-up open mics in the backs of Times Square hamburger joints and sports bars where “you were literally yelling over the sound of the game, trying to get people’s attention.” The exposure from The Comedians of Comedy marked a revival of sorts for him, and the following year he re-teamed with its director, Michael Blieden (Super High Me, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) to release his own stand-up special. Divided into three distinct, intertwined segments — performance, road documentary, and interview (with Zach playing the part here of his twin brother, Seth) — Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion provides us with captivating access to the raucous, unpredictable atmosphere of stand-up that audiences at home rarely get a chance to see.
Sweaty, punchy, and making frequent requests for more alcohol to be brought to the stage, Galifianakis holds court with the unnerving authority of a man totally willing, if not eager, to derail the train as it speeds along at maximum velocity. Between one-liners and non-sequiturs that would dizzy even Steven Wright, the comedian taunts the cameramen, sprawls out on the floor in exasperation, and angrily berates himself when he fucks up a line.
“I just wanted to show the rawness of stand-up,” Galifianakis told the AV Club upon the special’s release. “A lot of times, people put out these DVDs that are just really polished, but I wanted to show some awkwardness.” That awkwardness is never as thrilling as when it threatens to spill over into full-on chaos. Galifianakis takes obvious delight in walking his act out over the cliff’s edge and then scrambling to see if he can salvage a safe landing. And if he splatters on the ground a time or two, well, that can be interesting as well.
This is probably the only bit of crowd work ever to reference the movie Out Cold, an allusion Galifianakis makes to confound the object of his ridicule while still making it clear that he’s turning the joke back on himself as well.
The special’s other segments serve to fill in some of the missing picture with respect to the comic’s elusive personality. The road trip with comedian Joe Wagner to the Purple Onion in San Francisco displays a more low-key side of Galifianakis, albeit one that is still ever on the lookout for opportunities to mine for comedy.
But the real gem here is the interview with Seth Galifianakis conducted by Brian Unger. Soft spoken, effeminate, and God-fearing, Seth is a North Carolina youth minister who doesn’t hesitate to express his disapproval about his brother’s hedonistic, Hollywood lifestyle. While the character possesses a life and history wholly its own (Seth has even appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in place of an overbooked Zach), it’s intriguing to wonder whether it doesn’t also provide us a small window into Galifianakis’s true personality off-stage, where he is known for his aversion to celebrity bullshit and spending time on his North Carolina farm.
At the very least Seth supplies us with yet further evidence of the incredible healing power of the Fugees. And Funyuns.
Toward the end of the film, as the comedians near San Francisco and the conclusion of their trip, their van breaks down. There is a forlorn shot of Galifianakis standing on the side of the road disappointedly watching his vehicle as it’s towed away, followed immediately by a sequence in which we find the two friends jubilantly finishing their journey crammed into a tiny GoCar. It wasn’t exactly according to plan, but it was certainly interesting and they arrived at their destination nonetheless. In fact, Galifianakis probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.