From 2002 until 2006, Ryan McKee put out a comedy zine called Modest Proposal. In it, he interviewed future stars in the comedy world including Dave Chappelle, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Amy Sedaris, Patton Oswalt, Chelsea Peretti, and Dave Attell, among many others. McKee has recently published a book featuring these interviews titled Modest Proposal Anthology, which you can get here.
To celebrate the release of the book, here is McKee’s 2003 interview with Zach Galifianakis.
Six years before The Hangover turned Zach Galifianakis into a comedy A-lister, the student activities board booked him to perform at ASU and then forgot to promote the show. My Modest Proposal partner-in-crime, Ron Babcock, and I showed up to find around 100 of Gammage’s 3000 seats filled. Zach, seemingly unfazed by the dreadful turnout, walked onstage and began playing a grand piano. I overheard a girl nearby say to her friend, “I thought this guy is a comedian.” Then Zach spoke into the microphone for the first time.
“I was at TCBY the other day, and you might not know this, but TCBY stands for ‘This Can’t Be Yogurt.’ So, I’ve always wanted to open a TCBY… and serve soup. So, when people come up to me at the counter and go, ‘This can’t be yogurt.’ I’ll say, ‘I know, it’s soup.”
When Zach’s publicist had confirmed our interview for Modest Proposal, I’d been advised to expect no more than 30 minutes with him after the show. But when Ron and I met him backstage, Zach asked if we could take him to a nearby bar for the interview. As we walked over to our neighborhood spot, Casey Moore’s, he called Dave Attell and left the message, “No, that’s not my joke, I don’t know whose it is. Go ahead and use it. Call me back, asshole, I’ve got something to ask you.” He slipped his phone back into his pocket and I handed him a recent issue of our magazine. Right away, Zach spotted Todd Barry’s name on the cover and started telling us a story. “Todd and I just did a club together. After the show, I got high and just watched Todd try to sell his CDs to people. I couldn’t stop cracking up because Todd was so awkward about it.”
Before the interview even started, it was my favorite interview. We’d been with him for less than five minutes and were already getting a look behind the curtain of our comedy heroes.
At the bar, Zach ordered a pint of Sierra Nevada and a vodka cranberry — at the same time — then insisted on paying for our drinks, claiming that the expense was no problem because he’s “from a rich family.” When Ron and I hesitated, he raised his voice and proclaimed, “Come on! Do it for America.” We ordered drinks … for America.
Zach spoke to us for over an hour, insisting we order more drinks on his tab every time the waitress walked by. After paying the tab, he asked what we were doing next. Not expecting he’d want to go, we said that we’d probably head over to a keg party that ASU’s student sketch comedy group, Farce Side, was throwing. Zach let out a very enthusiastic, “Let’s go!” So we did.
Ron and I received a hero’s welcome for bringing Zach with us. My strongest memory of the night is Zach telling everyone that he had never smoked pot before. Then, he patiently listened as a gaggle of college students walked him step-by-step through how to use a bong. Finally, after what felt like 15 minutes, he cautiously put the bong to his lips and ripped the longest hit I’ve ever seen. My memory is hazy after that, but when it was time for us to jump in a cab to go home, Zach opted to stay and keep partying.
I always mailed copies of the magazine to everyone we featured in interviews. Occasionally, I’d get a thank-you email in response, but usually heard nothing. Zach was the only person to ever mail back a hand-written note. At the time, he was in Vancouver, shooting the short-lived supernatural crime series starring Eliza Dushku and Jason Priestley, Tru Calling, where he played a wise-cracking mortician.
I still have the note to this day.
Are you an alternative comedian?
I don’t understand that term. I mean, I do those rooms that are called alternative comedy. In the 80’s, there was a formula that started happening with the airline jokes, just a person with a microphone, doing very conventional material. But everything before that was alternative comedy. Like when Albert Brooks used to go on Johnny Carson and literally read the phone book. Or Steve Martin would do those great bits. I guess I am. I really don’t know. I’m alternative (he says with raised eyebrows). I lead an alternative lifestyle. (he laughs)
Brian McKim of Shecky Magazine said that alternative comedians are the whiniest of comedians, true?
Well, I think a lot of alternative comics tend to complain about the industry a lot, but I don’t think they’re whiny. A lot of comics are whiny, I don’t understand the point that he’s trying to make. But, I guess, a lot of people in the alternative comedy world are snobs, with good reason. But comedy is like music, it appeals to some people. Some people like Creed, those people are usually pretty stupid. But they probably also like Carrot Top. I would say that they’re part of the same ilk.
You ripped on Creed a lot during your talk show (“Late World with Zach”). Did you get any Creed hate mail?
I never got any Creed hate mail. We could do anything we wanted, nobody saw my show. And when I realized that, that’s when I thought the show was getting good — when we started to just mock the whole Hollywood thing and the whole talk show thing. But nobody ever complained. Nobody watched it. My parents watched it. My mom complained a couple times.
You did a bit where you stood in line for your own show and nobody recognized you. Did that hurt your ego?
No, I wanted to play on that. Because nobody was watching VH1 and the people who were watching it, were not the type of people I was trying to appeal to. So, with those two factors going against me, I wanted to make fun of the fact that nobody knows me.
You pissed off Lisa Loeb with an Asian joke on your show.
I was not purposely trying to be abrasive to anyone. I’m just not like that. I thought she would think it was funny. But she didn’t. And she told me, ‘that’s not funny.’ And I said to her, ‘I know.’ I agreed with her and she didn’t know what to do with that. But, anyway, Lisa Loeb.
What talk show hosts do you like?
I think Letterman is great. But, you see, I wanted the show to be like Charlie Rose. His show is just a black background, no audience, one on one. I begged them not to have an audience for my show. But they wanted to make it MTV- ish and all that crap. We started to do a few things different, like we only had one person in the audience. We acted as if nobody wanted to see the show. But we still had this huge laugh track, over one person in the audience. That to me was my favorite. That was the only time I ever watched the show. We had a huge laugh track, a car horn, and just a six-year old girl laughing. We creeped people out. And the greatest thing, the band that showed up to do the show, I can’t remember who it was, we told them there was no studio audience, just one person. And they were like, ‘we’re not playing.’ We talked them into playing anyway and it was just one guy staring at them. It was great.
I grabbed this quote off the Internet: “The saddest thing about Last Call and Late World isn’t Daly’s and Galifianakis’ studied indifference–it’s the way these shows underestimate their audience. They think that if they offer a bunch of cool stuff it’ll divert your attention away from the hosts, who look like they would rather be skateboarding.”
That was from some Baltimore alternative paper [Baltimore City Paper] and was published after my first week. I called the guy that wrote that, and begged him to come on the show and read his review. And he wouldn’t do it. Even though we were going to fly him from Baltimore, he still wouldn’t do it. So I faked crying on the phone and told him that I was going to shoot myself on the show that night and I wanted him to watch it. (Zach has now pulled out a disposable paper cup, the kind dispensed at water coolers, and filled it up with the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale he is drinking) I’d like to make use of this.
I heard that if there’s not a piano onstage, you use a cowbell.
Yeah, I did a show where instead of the piano, I banged the cowbell. But not for 45 minutes.
(The waitress comes and Zach insists that we order more drinks on his tab, because he comes from a rich family. The waitress asks for the name on the card and Zach acts like he forgets. He finally tells her and then picks up the recorder and says, ‘it’s an American Express gold card’ and smiles. ‘Put it all on the card, let’s do it for America.’)
If you had to have a soundtrack to your life, what song would be playing right now?
Right now, specifically, probably ‘Funky Cold Medina’ or ‘Proud to be American.’
I recently started growing facial hair and your beard is something I can aspire to.
You trim your beard, don’t you? Don’t. Just let it go. What’s great is when it gets big, nobody fucks with you. Homeless people don’t ask you for change. Because they think you’re crazy. It’s one of the greatest defenses you can have. I was working in London and facial hair there is just not that common. It just isn’t. And my beard was down to here (he motions to his chest, right above his nipple line). Three different times, people tried to fight me, just because of my beard. I’m not kidding. One night, I’m in a bar by myself and I’m writing. And these people are talking about me and I can hear them. And one of the girl says, ‘Leprechaun.’ Because I’m short with a beard and I was drinking by myself.
If alternative comics are always alternative to the mainstream, does that make it conformed anti-conformity?
That’s a really hard question. When you’re typing this up just make me go, ‘uh, good question.’ Semi-colon.
Is there any movie you did that you would take back?
Corky Romano. Not because of the movie, but it was so embarrassing shooting it. Adam Sandler’s producer was producing it. During my scene, he goes, ‘Cut.’ And says to me, ‘How many pushups can you do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, 50.’ I was lying. And I swear to god, he goes, ‘Give me 50 pushups. I need your energy up.’ I said that I try to do things subtle. He repeated himself and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ And he said, ‘Well, then, what can you do to get your energy up?’ So, I told him that I’d go away and get my energy up. So, I hid on another set of a David Arquette movie that they were shooting next to Corky Romano. He and the director found me hiding. At that point, I was like, ‘I don’t care if I ever work again. It’s not worth this, being told to do 50 pushups in front of the crew and everything, it’s embarrassing. I’ll go perform in coffee houses the rest of my life.’ So, he says, ‘Let’s run in place.’ And he and the director start running in place. I didn’t run in place. Then, he and the director start doing jumping jacks. I didn’t know what to do, so I started. Three guys doing jumping jacks,and I’m doing them disdainfully. Have you ever tried doing jumping jacks angry? It’s very hard.
How do you keep it real?
There’s some irony there, right? I keep it real by, uh, you know whatever, talk to the hand. Been there, done that.