Zach Galifianakis was always one of the funniest guys on the planet — “The Hangover” just brought this fact to people’s attention. Plus, between subtler work in indies like “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” to more outlandish projects like his brilliant Internet talk show series “Between Two Ferns,” Galifianakis is able to easily oscillate between broader comedy and more modulated projects.
With this week’s “The Campaign,” Galifianakis squares off against Will Ferrell for a congressional seat in the rural south. His Marty Huggins is a dim-witted but big-hearted rube, who talks with a lisp and has a sweater collection Bill Cosby would be ashamed of.
Moviefone sat down with Galifianakis to discuss the origins of Marty Huggins, writing (briefly) for “Saturday Night Live” during Ferrell’s reign of terror, and how “Between Two Ferns” actually happens. Oh yeah, and he says some stuff about “The Hangover, Part III.”
What drew you to this? Were you looking for something to do with Will?
Well, Will and I had lunch and Will said, “That character” — meaning the character that would go on to become Marty Huggins — “we should do something with that character, we should figure something out.” The combination of Will saying that he wanted to do something with that character and him being a part of it, it was a pretty easy decision. I had known him and he’s a really sweet guy and one of the funniest guys around.
So you had developed this character before?
Oh yeah, I had been doing this character since high school, and then forgot about it, and then I had started doing it in my stand-up, and now he’s in the movie.
The character seems like he was drawn from real life. Did you know someone like this in North Carolina?
You know, it’s not after a particular person. It started out as this character called “The Effeminate Racist” who… Well, I guess that explains it all. I always thought it was this funny contradiction for somebody who’s been discriminated against for being effeminate to also be discriminate of other people. So that complicated character was the genesis of what eventually became Marty Huggins — without the racism.
Had you come up with a whole backstory for the character?
A little bit, over the years I had. If you ever Google “Seth Galifianakis,” who is my twin brother who I used to play, it’s based on him.
You wrote for “Saturday Night Live” for a brief period. Was Will there at the time?
Yeah. Will was there.
Is that where you guys first connected?
We didn’t really… It was just “Hi, how are you, nice to meet you.” Will was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom. Not a lot of people wanted to hang out with me back then.
Did you ever pitch anything for him?
Yes! And he read it out loud in front of 50 people at one of the famous table reads. I had written a sketch — because Britney Spears was the host — for him; we were going to shrink him through the magic of television and put inside her bellybutton as her bellybutton’s bodyguard.
I wish you had been there because there was not one laugh for four minutes. Will is just, like, reading.
Did you bring that up to him?
Yeah, he and I have talked about it. He doesn’t remember because he was reading so many things; you read 50 [a] day. But that was the only encounter I had with Will, back in 2000.
What’s been the biggest difference, career-wise, since becoming a huge star?
People keep saying that… I have a really strange relationship with it. I was walking down the street the other day and I see a poster for this movie “The Campaign” and I just look at it and in the back of my mind I go, “Oh yeah, I’m in a movie.” You’re forced to talk about yourself. That’s the big difference — trying to keep observing things that are funny and not be defensive. I don’t like to be recognized and I try to keep quiet and I don’t go to parties. I don’t do that kind of thing. The hardest part is to observe things that are funny, like I used to observe, without worrying about high schoolers wanting to talk to me. Who wants to talk to a high schooler? Before I was in the movie business I used to cross the street if I saw teenagers coming down the street. Now I’ve got to chat with them?
Are you looking to offset the bigger movies with smaller movies and the dramatic with the comedic?
I do, guiltily, have a chip on my shoulder with the dramatic stuff, meaning that I like to do it. Smaller movies are hard to make because they don’t come by that often and they’re hard to finance.
But are you now in the position to be able to make a movie more bankable by your presence?
That’s debatable… maybe… I just did a movie that’s small. You do one here and there when you can. You can’t be in big comedies all your life. You eventually get older and you have to find things that work. I never go to big Hollywood movies. I’m kind of a snob. I can’t wait to see “Searching for Sugarman.” That’s the kind of thing I want to see.
What’s going on with “Between Two Ferns?” Do you think you could ever do that as a regular half-hour thing like the Comedy Central special?
People have asked me to do that, and I like that it lives where it lives, online. Once it’s in the control of a network or something I will get too frustrated.
How does “Between Two Ferns” even happen?
Here’s how it work[ed], especially in the beginning: I would say to the actors, “Please don’t show up with any of your people. Please come to this garage.” Most people — most — were like that. Charlize Theron was the best. She showed up, no makeup, smoking a cigarette, sat in this hot garage. She was the best guest.
So you’re doing another “Hangover.” How are you feeling about that?
Let’s face it –- this is a business and Hollywood is trying to capture that magic again. It’s difficult to do a good movie and it’s difficult to do a sequel because people want people to fail in this culture. If it’s been placed up, they want it to be knocked down. I’m excited to be working with those guys again. I just want to make sure the jokes are fresh.