It's difficult enough to summarize what Zach Galifianakis' stand-up routine is. Even harder is to explain why it works. John Wray does an outstanding job both introducing readers to Galifianakis' unique blend of comedic styles and expressing why his fans are so drawn to him.
What's most remarkable about the man is the distinct disparity between his on-stage persona and his true character. On stage, Galifianakis appears to be an out-of-control, unpredictable, unkempt wild man. His jokes, too, might at first seem to lack much sense or proper transitions between them. Others may go on either too long or never seem to develop. It's only once you accept that Galifianakis intends to challenge the rubric and common tradition by which comedians abide and oblige that you can appreciate this humor and style.
I was already a fan of Galifianakis when I recently went to see him perform at a show. The first thing you notice during Galifianakis' set is how poor his timing and pacing appear, even more prevalent when compared to the amateur comics who precede him on stage. They have undoubtedly rehearsed every word and body movement leading up to their performances. But Galifianakis, the star of the evening, deliberately and outwardly violates the accepted norms that his predecessors had exemplified.
Now, I have long believed that comedians, like writers, are permitted to break arbitrary or imposed rules of the trade once they reach a level of certain level of success. Galifianakis, though, throws the entire playbook out the window. At times, you can't help but feel that the comedian is either unprepared or uncomfortable with his material.
And maybe that's his intent all along. His punchlines worked, to the amusement of the audience and likely to the dismay of the less savvy comedians on hand. There's nothing overtly pleasing about Galifianakis' stage presence or delivery. It begs the question of whether he works at looking and acting like he's performing for the first time, or whether he, more simply, lets his jokes carry his entire act while disregarding the need to impress and grandstand.
Regardless, during Galifianakis' set, even when he's silently plotting his next joke, you find yourself bracing for the impact of the next quick-witted punchline. At one point in his set, Galifianakis introduced a joke by telling us that the joke had bombed the night before in front of a different crowd. Before the joke was even told, we were already programmed to weigh the implications of how the joke could play differently in front of different people. As it turned out, the joke was an overwhelming success at our show, but it still brought with it a certain curiosity about why it had failed the night before.
So I approached Galifianakis on the sidewalk afterward to ask him what he thought the difference was between the two shows. I wanted to learn to what degree a comedian considers his material, not just the word choice or order. With Galifianakis, the answer is apparently a great deal.
We engaged in a conversation that dealt with the role of language - including vulgarities - in his routine. As I listened intently and responded with follow-up questions and thoughts, I was thoroughly surprised by how introspective and frank the man was while discussing his craft. This was especially shocking when faced with some of the tirades he's gone on while performing. And, so, keeping with the same approach, I asked him about that as well.
Galifianakis then told me what he seems to have also told Wray during his interview for the New York Times. He described how he separates the two Zachs, remaining accessible and approachable off-stage. In fact, most of the quotations and examples that Wray cites in the article in the name of Galifianakis are observations I recognized from my brief conversation with Galifianakis.
He could have standard answers he gives to questions he's frequently asked. Or, on the other hand, maybe it's evidence of how he offers reporters and fans the same honest and direct responses. One can only hope that through talking about his work, Galifianakis has discovered some deeper meaning that explains why the same punchline becomes funnier the tenth time you repeat it.
What stands out most from that ten-minute conversation was how Galifianakis ended it. As his cab pulled up and he wanted to head off, he turned to me and bid me farewell as only he would. He extended a hand toward me and said, "By the way, I'm Zach." He left me laughing from the absurdity of it.