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. READ MORE