The FX show Baskets stars comedian Zach Galifianakis as a French clown school dropout who has moved back home to Bakersfield, Calif. There, he finds work as a rodeo clown and competes with his twin brother for his mother's affection.
Galifianakis created Baskets with fellow comic Louis C.K. He tells NPR's David Greene that the show can be strange and dramatic, but then it'll undermine that drama with a joke. "It's just a weird mix," he says. "It's not for everybody. ... That is the first thing I say to people. Well, firstly I usually say, you know, 'I'm in it. Don't watch it.' And then I say, 'It is an acquired taste.' And that was the point."
On casting Louie Anderson in the role of his character's mother
The voice is what I was trying to cast, not the physicality of it — the voice of the mother. ... I kept explaining to Louis C.K., "It's a voice. It's a voice." And then he said, "You mean like Louie Anderson's voice?" ... And I said, "Yes." And two seconds later he said, "Should we call him?" And I said, "Yes." And that was just it. It was just this feeling that came over both of us, and there was no guarantee that that would work out. ...
Louis C.K. called him right then and there ... put him on speakerphone and said, "Do you want to be in the show? ... But here's the thing, you have to play Zach Galifianakis' mom."
"I'll do it."
And that was it. ... Comics in general are risk takers. ... We come with a thick, thick skin. And I was even told that, you know, "Why would you cast somebody that doesn't have that much acting experience?" It was just a gut feeling that we had [and] we got lucky with. And he's won a trophy [an Emmy Award] for it.
On challenging himself with more dramatic roles
The Hangover movies were — it was a really wonderful time. ... But that's a character. That Alan guy was a big, big, loud, dumb character. Dumb I can do. Not to sound too pretentious or actor-y ... but you want to kind of challenge yourself. As a comic — as a fat, bearded comic — you can paint yourself into a corner. And this town wants to do that because it's a copycat business. ... The entertainment business is very copycat. And you can do that for a few years, rely on that, but then, you know, if you want a longer career you try to change things up as much as you're allowed to. ...
Sometimes people want their comedians just to be comedians. And I do get that. I mean, when Jim Carrey did Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind], that depth — I think comedians have a lot inside of them, a lot of angst and a lot of sadness, and that can be really good for drama. But a lot of stand-ups or comedians can't shake their stage performance, meaning their stage persona is carried over sometimes into their acting, and I never wanted to do that. I didn't want my version of my stand-up to be my version of acting; I wanted it to be separate.
On giving a toast at his sister's wedding, and getting laughed at when he started to cry
I think it was a full on, like, soap opera cry. It was a big wedding. ... You know, at that time I was kind of probably struggling in New York trying to be a stand-up, and people knew that. And I think maybe they were kind of encouraging me to: "Oh, he's going to be funny." Well, I wasn't being funny. I was just trying to talk about how ... I love my sister. So I started getting teared up and everybody thought I was joking. And so they're laughing at you crying.
It's so weird. ... I think if you're a comic people expect you to be a fun-loving guy all the time. ... It's awkward when funny people get emotional.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Comedian Zach Galifianakis is still best known for his role, Alan, in "The Hangover" movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HANGOVER")
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: (As Alan) There is a tiger in the bathroom.
ED HELMS: (As Stu) What's going on?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Alan) There's a jungle cat in the bathroom.
BRADLEY COOPER: (As Phil) OK.
GREENE: But the actor actually has never loved the spotlight. He doesn't care about the glamour of being a celebrity, drives an old station - including to our studio - no house in the Hollywood Hills.
GALIFIANAKIS: No, I don't have a house. I live underneath the Santa Monica Pier.
GALIFIANAKIS: The Hollywood lifestyle and me don't get along.
GREENE: What part of it doesn't feel right to you?
GALIFIANAKIS: All of it.
GREENE: OK (laughter).
And this might be why Zach Galifianakis is so perfect for the role of Chip Baskets. Yep, that's his character's name on the FX show "Baskets." It's this dark comedy about misfits. He plays a clown, who once trained in Paris, who interviews for a job at a rodeo in Bakersfield, Calif.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
ERNEST ADAMS: (As Eddie) Well, OK. Well, what's your clown name?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) My clown name is Renoir.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) What?
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Renoir.
ADAMS: (As Eddie) Can't have no clown here named Renoir. You're Baskets - Baskets the Clown. You know how many of you clowns end up in a basket? That's the most perfect clown name I ever heard.
GREENE: Chip Baskets is unaware, self-absorbed and often really mean to his mom. Oh - and that's an important quirk of this show, too. Mom is played by stand-up comedian Louie Anderson. Yup, a man. It's not a gag. He just plays Baskets' mom really, really well.
Now, Galifianakis co-created this show with comedian Louis C.K. after a sudden moment of inspiration.
GALIFIANAKIS: I was giving myself a foot massage and rodeo clown popped in my head.
GREENE: You were seriously giving yourself a foot massage?
GALIFIANAKIS: I remember my foot being rubbed.
GALIFIANAKIS: I don't know who was doing it.
GREENE: I mean, I wouldn't let just anyone rub my feet. I mean...
GALIFIANAKIS: Oh, I'll go up to strangers at a food and ask them.
GALIFIANAKIS: Excuse me, I got to get off my feet.
And rodeo clown popped in my head, and that was enough to kind of build the show out from that character. And the reason Louie Anderson is on the show is - well, because he's Louie Anderson - but the voice is what I was trying to cast. I kept explaining to Louis C.K. that it's a voice, it's a voice. And then he just said, you mean like Louie Anderson's voice?
GREENE: You were doing sort of an impersonation of who you imagined...
GALIFIANAKIS: (Using affected voice) I was saying - I was kind of doing this. And I was saying, well, I just want it to be a little grinding.
GALIFIANAKIS: And he said, you mean like Louie Anderson's voice? Then I said yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BASKETS")
LOUIE ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Baskets) Anyway...
GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Can I...
ANDERSON: (As Mrs. Baskets) I just want Chip to be happy. That's all I've ever wanted. So he wanted to go to clown college - I said OK. Do you know how much that school was in Paris? I paid in euros, so I don't know exactly how much it was. But there were a lot of euros on that check.
GREENE: Does that speak to him? Does it say something about Louie Anderson (laughter)?
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I think comics, in general, are risk-takers. We come with a thick skin. So - and I was even told that - why would you cast somebody that doesn't have that much acting experience? It was just a gut feeling that we had - to get lucky with.
GALIFIANAKIS: And he's won a trophy for it.
GREENE: Yeah - Emmy Award for Louie Anderson. You're on to your second season. What's making this show work?
GALIFIANAKIS: Is it working?
GREENE: Seems to be doing something.
GALIFIANAKIS: You know, if it hasn't been done too many times, I'm attracted to that. I don't know if I've seen a show that's so strangely weird and dramatic at times. I want complication. You know, I see these TV shows where everybody kind of speaks very fluidly. And everybody kind of looks the same and, you know, mostly good-looking people - and we didn't want to do that with this show. We wanted to kind of represent people that aren't necessarily represented on TV. It's just a weird mix, and I think that's why it works. It's just a weird mix.
It's not for everybody.
GREENE: One of the reviews actually said that - that the best thing you can say is that it's not for everyone.
GALIFIANAKIS: Oh, and this is the first thing I say to people.
GALIFIANAKIS: It's like - well firstly, I usually say - oh, you know, I'm in it. Don't watch it.
GALIFIANAKIS: But then I say, you know, it is an acquired taste. And that was the point. I mean, the protagonist doesn't speak that much. And that was what I wanted to do also, is to have a lead that...
GREENE: Where you didn't have to talk.
GREENE: Stress off.
GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah, yeah.
GREENE: I think of roles like "The Hangover," when I was just waiting to see what Alan would do next, your character Alan. Todd Phillips, the director of those movies, once said that you're like the conductor of mayhem. This feels different to me, this show and Baskets.
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I mean, you know, "The Hangover" movies were - it was a really wonderful time. Todd Phillips was the one that gave me a break. He saw me performing in coffee shops. But that's one part - you know, that's a character. That Alan guy was a big, loud, dumb character. And well, dumb I can do.
GALIFIANAKIS: But, you know - I mean, not to sound too pretentious or actor-y (ph) - too late, Zach. But...
GALIFIANAKIS: ...As a fat, bearded comic, you can paint yourself into a corner. And this town wants to do that because it's a copycat business. And you can do that for a few years, rely on that, but then, you know, if you want a longer career, you try to change things up as much as you're allowed to.
GREENE: So are we seeing more of you - more sensitive, more vulnerable - in a character like Baskets than we have in the past?
GALIFIANAKIS: Look, I cry all the time. I'm a very sensitive human being. But you run out of tricks sometimes, so you have to find new tricks. And if this is part of me finding new tricks to tell stories, maybe that's what it is.
GREENE: There's a very personal story that seems to speak to this that I read about. You were at your sister's wedding and giving the toast...
GREENE: ...And you teared up.
GALIFIANAKIS: Oh, I didn't tear up. I like - I think it was a full-on, like, soap opera cry. And everybody thought I was joking. So they're laughing at you crying. It's a weird (laughter)...
GREENE: That sounds so - that sounds hard. That sounds...
GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I mean - I think if you're a comic, people expect you to be a fun-loving guy all the time. And that can be the case for sure. But yeah, it's weird because I'm more of a quiet, serious person in life.
GREENE: But does that get tiring, to have to cover up and do things like that when people are just waiting for you to be funny?
GALIFIANAKIS: No. I mean, it - you kind of can set the tone for yourself. I mean, I'm 47, too. I mean, I don't think people are expecting me to be that clownish. But if I'm in the supermarket and someone - I think people are disappointed when you're not clowning around in public. You know, they're disappointed when they meet you.
GREENE: They have their three minutes with Zach Galifianakis in the cereal aisle.
GALIFIANAKIS: And them I'm just - yeah.
GREENE: And they want you to be...
GALIFIANAKIS: Exactly. And I'm just asking them where the pickles are.
I just moved to LA, Zach. And I think I live not far from you if you ever want to do beers or...
GALIFIANAKIS: Stay away.
GALIFIANAKIS: I don't hang out with NPR guys. Are you kidding?
GREENE: I wouldn't either.
GALIFIANAKIS: Actually, Terry Gross and I get - we get liquored up a lot.
GREENE: Really (laughter)? OK.
GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah, yeah.
GREENE: If I could ever join that, you give me a call.
GALIFIANAKIS: Terry has my number.
GREENE: OK (laughter). Good.
GREENE: I'll get it from her. Thanks, Zach.
GALIFIANAKIS: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD HERRMANN AND DAVE BLUME'S "THEME FROM 'TAXI DRIVER'")
GREENE: That was Zach Galifianakis who stars in the FX show "Baskets." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.