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Zach Galifianakis: A Comedic Actor Takes A Dark Turn

Actor and comedian Zach Galifianakis is best known for his shaggy red beard and his hilarious role in the bachelor-party comedy The Hangover. He tells Terry Gross how he prepared himself for his latest part -- a dramatic role as a mental patient in the film It's Kind of a Funny Story.

27:15

Other segments from the episode on September 29, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 2010: Interview with Robert Reich; Interview with Zach Galifiankis.

Transcript

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Reich Blames Economy's Woes On Income Disparity

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

My guest, Robert Reich, isn't surprised at our anemic economic recovery.
His new book argues that the economy isn't going to get moving again
until we address a fundamental problem: the growing concentration of
wealth and income among the richest Americans. Reich says the last time
income was so concentrated at the top was before the Great Depression.

Robert Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of
California Berkeley. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton
administration. He's a co-founding editor of the American Prospect, a
regular contributor to public radio's Marketplace and the author of 12
previous books. His latest is called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and
America's Future."

Well, Robert Reich, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ROBERT REICH (Former Secretary of Labor; Author, "Aftershock: The
Next Economy and America's Future"): Well, thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: You opened your book with the story of a man I'd never heard of,
who served in the Roosevelt administration, Mariner Eccles. Am I
pronouncing that right?

Mr. REICH: It's Mariner Eccles, and...

DAVIES: Yeah, tell us who he was an how he got involved in the New Deal.

Mr. REICH: I found that he actually foreshadowed much of the New Deal.
He testified before Congress in 1933, even before FDR took over, and
came up with a lot of the ideas that actually shaped the New Deal.

More interestingly, Mariner Eccles became, from 1934 to 1948, the
Federal Reserve chair. He ushered many of the reforms, monetary and
financial reforms and economic policymaking reforms, through the New
Deal, and his name now adorns the Federal Reserve building in
Washington, D.C. It is the Mariner Eccles Building.

DAVIES: But his origin was not as a government bureaucrat. He was a
capitalist.

Mr. REICH: Oh, he was not only a capitalist, he was one of the
preeminent industrialists and financiers west of the Rocky Mountains up
until 1933.

He built a financial empire, and he was sort of such a preeminent
industrial and financial character that when the Depression hit, when
the crash occurred in 1929, and then the following years, nothing seemed
to work, Mariner Eccles had a crisis in confidence. He suddenly doubted
that his assumptions about capitalism were correct. You might say that
he had an Alan Greenspan moment.

And he began to think in very different terms about what the economy
needed. I found him fascinating, Dave, because Mariner Eccles, when he
pondered what the cause of the Great Depression was, he said that it was
ultimately that the middle class no longer had the purchasing power they
needed to keep the economy going because in the 1920s, so much of the
income and wealth of America had gone to the very top, leaving the
middle class behind. That is, the only way middle class, the middle
class in America, could keep on spending in the 1920s was by going
deeper and deeper and deeper into debt.

And meanwhile, the top one percent that had accumulated so much of the
national income and wealth, they turned around and speculated in stock
and also in commodities and in real estate. And those two bubbles, that
debt bubble from the middle class and that huge speculative bubble from
all of that money concentrated at the top, essentially both bubbles
burst, yielding the Great Depression.

And what interested me is the parallel, or the potential parallel,
between all of that and what we experienced recently. And then I looked
at the research and was amazed to discover there were two years in the
20th century in which income concentrated to such an extent it actually
centralized a great deal of the nation's income right at the top.

One year was 2007, when the richest Americans took home, or got, I
should say, about 23 and a half of total income. The other year was
1928.

DAVIES: This is interesting. You had this man who made a fortune in
industry, and when the Depression first hits, he believes, as many did,
that it was a necessary correction, that once all the speculation and
debt were washed out of the economy, it would revive.

But when it didn't, he concluded, as you say you have, that it was this
concentration of income among the extremely wealthy that had really
robbed the middle class of the spending power that it needed to purchase
the goods and services.

You broaden that argument and tell us that there are three pretty clear
periods of the American industrial economy, which had different trends
in terms of concentrations of wealth and income, very concentrated right
before the crash, and then tell us what happened after that and bring us
up to date.

Mr. REICH: Well, it was almost like a very big pendulum that swings back
and forth. You had, from about the 1880s up until 1928, you had the
pendulum moving in one direction: huge concentration of income and
wealth in the United States brought out largely because that huge mass-
production system that Henry Ford pioneered. But Ford was but one member
of that gigantic mass-production system, and that system generated an
extraordinary amount of profit and productivity. The economy expanded,
but it centralized a lot of wealth and income in the hands of a
relatively few industrialists.

And so by the time 1928 came along, most middle-class Americans just
didn't have enough money to keep the economy going without themselves
going deep into debt, which was not sustainable.

And then you had a reversal of the pendulum. Franklin D. Roosevelt
didn't know exactly what he was doing. He experimented in many
directions. But in 1935, he legalized the creation of unions.

Organized labor was really not legal before 1935. He made collective
bargaining a protected activity. He also founded Social Security, a
minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek with time and a half for overtime. In
other words, all sorts of reorganizations of the economy that had the
effect of spreading whatever prosperity that was.

That, combined with World War II, which demanded that nearly everybody
in America go to work, even though it generated a huge debt at the end
of World War II, that huge mobilization of people, combined with a
reorganization of the economy under the New Deal, created a post-war
economy and 30 years of what I call the great prosperity, which...

DAVIES: And during that period, what happened to distribution of income?
You said it was highly concentrated, the top one percent getting
something like 20 percent of the income right before the crash. How did
it differ in this period of post-war America?

Mr. REICH: The top one percent had over 23 percent of the income just
before the great crash, and then the pendulum reversed, partly because
of Franklin D. Roosevelt's reorganization of the economy, including
labor unions and many other innovations.

The entire economy was so fundamentally restructured that by the late
'70s, instead of the top one percent taking home over 23 percent of
national income, the top one percent, by the late 1970s, was getting
about nine percent of total national income.

You see, it was a fundamentally more equal society in terms of the
shares of income. The middle class had enough of the gains from growth,
from economic growth, to turn around and buy what the great American
labor force was capable of producing.

DAVIES: So then in 1980, things change, right? I mean...

Mr. REICH: Yes, things begin to change. Actually, they begin to change
before 1980. New technologies – cargo ships, container ships, satellite
communications technologies and then eventually the computer and the
Internet – all enabled the production process to be parceled out around
the world to wherever people could do things most cheaply but also
automated many routine jobs.

You know, we used to have bank tellers and telephone operators and
service station attendants, and even that old assembly line was very
labor intensive. You go into factories today, and you see numerically
controlled machine tools and robots. And you see a relatively few
technicians handling all of that.

So automation, part of that huge technological wave that begins in the
late '70s and '80s, also along with globalization, does change the way
income is allocated.

It certainly has an effect on jobs, but the most profound effect is on
the allocation of income. If you are very well-educated and very well-
connected, if you're at the right place at the right time, if you are in
finance, particularly, or if you are a CEO, if you are a top executive
of a big company, you are doing marvelously well. By the first decade of
this century, you are really raking in a substantial percentage of
national income and also national wealth. But everybody else is not
doing nearly that well.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Reich. His new book is called
"Aftershock." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former labor secretary
and political economist Robert Reich. His new book is called
"Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future."

You know, your argument in this book is not just that the stagnation of
middle-class incomes and concentration of income among the wealthy is
unfair. It's not just that it's unfair but that it is debilitating for
the economy, that we're not going to get a real recovery until we
reverse this trend. Why?

Mr. REICH: That's right because, you see, the vast middle class and
working class really are the ones who are going to spend most of their
income, if not all of their income. And if most of the American economic
gain goes to the top, if the top are taking home almost a quarter of all
income that is generated in society, the vast middle class just doesn't
have the purchasing power.

They can't go deeper and deeper into debt. They can't work longer hours.
They've just, they've exhausted all of their coping mechanisms. And
meanwhile, people at the top are taking home so much that they are
almost inevitably going to speculate in stocks or in commodities or in
whatever the current speculative vehicles are going to be, which causes
the economy to become unstable anyway.

And that combination of a kind of unsustainable debt loads for the
middle class, in fact, now the middle class can't even go back into
debt, there's not nearly enough demand for all the goods and services
the American economy could produce and can produce at full employment –
coupled with a lot of speculation.

And also, much of the income of the very wealthy goes around the world
to wherever it can get the highest return. All of that means that this
recovery is going to be experiencing a kind of anemic, unusually anemic
recovery. It's not even a recovery for most people.

In fact, you tell people that the National Bureau of Economic Research
has decided that we've had a recovery since June of '09, and what you
get is derisive laughter.

DAVIES: I wanted to focus a bit on the '90s, if I can. If we have, to
oversimplify, a situation in which economic trends and government
policies hold back incomes for the middle class, the wealthy get lots
and lots of money that they can't spend on goods and services, so you
don't really have the demand that's there to buy the goods and services
that the economy generates, it should have stalled out long before now.

And you say it was maintained because the middle class had these coping
mechanisms, among them borrowing. How did the economy keep going?

Mr. REICH: Well, the first coping mechanism, which started in the late
'70s and then grew dramatically in the '80s and '90s, was women going
into paid work.

Just by contrast, before all this began, in the '60s and '70s, only
about 20 percent of women with very young children were in the paid
workforce. By the 1990s, over 60 percent of women with very young
children were in the paid workforce.

I wish I could tell you that the reason women went into work in such
extraordinary numbers was because of the wonderful professional
opportunities open to women beginning in the late '70s, but actually,
most women went into paid work because they had to in order to prop up
declining or stagnating male wages and family incomes.

The second coping mechanism with that kind of – that was exhausted, I
mean, there's only a limit to how much paid work two parents can take on
– was for everybody to work longer hours.

And I noticed that by the mid-'90s, when I was labor secretary, the
surveys showed, and my kind of informal discussions with people around
the country also revealed, that people were working longer than ever
before. I mean, the average American was putting in about 350 hours a
year more than the typical European, more even than the enormously
industrious Japanese.

But this, too, had to come to an end. I mean, you can't – people can't
work longer hours, even if they can find jobs. And the 1990s was a
period where, at least by the late '90s, most people could find jobs if
they needed them, but they couldn't work longer hours.

And finally we had the third and final coping mechanism, which was to go
deeper and deeper into debt. And the great American middle class,
working class, and many poor people, as long as the value of their
homes, if they had homes, started going up dramatically, they could
borrow against their homes.

We all experienced an enormous increase in our own purchasing power
because we used our homes as kind of ATM machines. We used them to
refinance, to get home equity loans, and between 2002 and 2007,
Americans drew out from their homes about $2.3 trillion of money.

I mean, this kept the middle class purchasing and kept households
purchasing, one might say, beyond their means. But until the housing
bubble burst, that was the third and final coping mechanism.

DAVIES: You know, if one reads the polls and believes the pundits, it
appears that we're headed for a midterm election in which voters are
going to blame President Obama for not having gotten America back to
work. As you look at that trend, what evidence do you see that policies
for reform are getting any traction?

Mr. REICH: I don't think we're going to see a great deal of reform right
away. I think that we are going to see two or three or four years of
almost economic stagnation, high unemployment, a great deal of economic
frustration or worse. But out of all of this, we will begin to
understand the causes of our what I call aftershock. We'll understand
the causes of our economic stagnation.

People are not going to sit back and say, oh, well, this is the way the
economy is necessarily from now on. I think that people will realize
that so much of what we are going to be enduring is related to the
extraordinary imbalance in our distribution of income, also our failure
to invest in our people in terms of education and infrastructure and all
of the things that we need to really become a truly broadly prosperous
nation.

There will be, inevitably, an opportunity for political leaders. I don't
know whether it'll happen by the year 2012, the next presidential
election, I hope so, but it is surely going to happen.

People will be asking fundamental questions: Why is this economy not
turning around for most of us? Why is the middle class, the working
class, the poor, why are we struggling so much? Why are we seeing the
gap widen and continue to widen between people at the top and everybody
else?

Answers will be demanded. And when answers are demanded by the American
people, social learning takes place. They will get it.

DAVIES: Is President Obama missing an opportunity to make that case?

Mr. REICH: I think he is. I'm a great fan of President Obama. I think he
has done a wonderful job. But to the extent that I think he could do a
better job, it's that he has failed to connect the dots and failed to
provide the public with a large and understandable narrative about
what's happened, what's happened to the American economy structurally,
not cyclically.

Everybody's looking at the business cycle as if it’s all about the
business cycle. I'm talking about the structure of the economy. With so
much of the income and wealth going to the top, a record amount, he's
got to show that all the things he wants to do, whether it's health care
or cap and trade or helping homeowners or whatever, are parts of this
large challenge.

DAVIES: To what extent was the reform of Wall Street either derailed or
enacted or put off until specific regulations are developed?

Mr. REICH: I think that we have not fundamentally reformed Wall Street.
I think that we have reduced the risk that Wall Street is going to go on
another rampage and simply create a lot of fancy instruments that
ultimately are going to be a big bank's undoing, but we have not done
what we needed to do.

Derivatives are still relatively unregulated. There are big, big holes
in that Wall Street financial reform act, holes big enough for Wall
Street traders to drive their Ferraris through.

We didn't bust up the big banks. I mean, we actually have fewer big
banks than we had before the meltdown of Wall Street, which means that
those even bigger banks are going to be even too big, even more likely
to be too big to fail than they were before.

We have not in any way helped the mortgage market. One of the goals of
bailing out Wall Street was to make sure that people could reorganize
their mortgage loans and help pay them back and stay in their homes.
Very little of that has been done. The bailout did not achieve that.

I think that we're going to be left with a Wall Street that continues to
grow more and more powerful and richer relative to the rest of the
United States economy. So I don't think that we have done what needed to
be done.

DAVIES: You know, coming back to where we started, it almost sounds as
if we can expect income to become even more concentrated among the
wealthy.

Mr. REICH: I think that we will see, in the next few years, until
something is done about it, until Americans recognize that this is one
of the roots of our problem, income to be even more concentrated at the
top.

I would not be surprised, even though people at the top have taken
something of a hit in the stock market, people at the middle and below
them have taken a much bigger hit. The value of their homes has dropped
to a much greater extent than the stock market has dropped, and also, we
have many more people in poverty.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Reich, I want to thank you so much for speaking
with us.

Mr. REICH: Well, thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Robert Reich is a former secretary of labor and professor of
public policy at the University of California Berkeley. His new book is
called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." You can read
an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this
is FRESH AIR.
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Zach Galifianakis: A Comedic Actor Takes A Dark Turn

(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Our guest, Zach Galifianakis, may be best known for his role in last
year's hit comedy "The Hangover," about four friends who travel to Vegas
for a bachelor party, one big night on the town that goes horribly
wrong. Galifianakis played the odd man out, the guy who is there only
because he's brother of the bride-to-be. Galifianakis also co-stars in
the HBO series "Bored to Death," as a comic book illustrator. The new
season started last Sunday.

He got his start in the world of alternative comedy through his stand-up
and online videos, including his faux interviews series "Between Two
Ferns." Now he's starring in a new film "It’s Kind of a Funny Story." It
begins with a high school student so terrified by his own thoughts of
suicide that he goes to an emergency room. Sitting next to him is a man
played Galifianakis, wearing a doctor's white coat, who strikes up a
conversation.

(Soundbite of movie, "It’s Kind of a Funny Story")

Mr. KEIR GILCHRIST (Actor): (as Craig) How you doing?

Mr. ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Actor): You got a cigarette?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) No, sorry.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) What’s wrong with you?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) I just don’t smoke.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) No, I mean, why are you in the ER? It's
5:00 on a Sunday morning.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Well, I guess there's just been a lot going on
in my mind lately.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Go ahead.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Okay, well, this is sort of difficult to
explain. But, see there's this girl.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Yeah, gotcha.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) And this summer school application that I'm
really nervous about.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Summer school?

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Yeah. It's like this super prestigious kind
of...

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Bobby) Why would you want to be in school in the
summer? You should be in Coney Island bird dogging chicks.

Mr. GILCHRIST: (as Craig) Are you a doctor?

DAVIES: No, he's not really a doctor. Zach Galifianakis' character is
actually a patient from the psychiatric unit, admitted because of his
multiple suicide attempts. He becomes an eccentric mentor to the high
school after the student is admitted to the unit.

Terry recently spoke to Galifianakis about the film and his career.

TERRY GROSS: Zach Galifianakis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Did you write a
backstory for this character to understand why he tried to kill himself
six times?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. I do that a little bit. I kind of imagined, you
know, what his life was like. You kind of think about maybe what kind of
car, what kind of music he listens to. That's not - doesn’t end up in
the movie at all.

I had gone to a couple of mental facilities in New Mexico to do research
and I've never done any research on anything. But I went and I kind of
based the character on some things that I had seen there. And one of the
things that was interesting to me was that, you know, you go to these
places and there's a number of people that seem like they can make it on
the other side, but there's something behind their eyes, a little
darkness and some anger and sadness and I kind of based it on that.

GROSS: I think you got that sadness in your eyes.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I was really tired when we were shooting that movie.
That was just a mistake because I wasn’t sleeping for some reason and I
think that sadness is just a lack of sleep.

GROSS: Why weren't you sleeping?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I don’t know. I have sleep issues. And luckily, my
sleep issues were haunting me during that and I think it actually helped
the character a little bit.

GROSS: What do you do when you can't sleep?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Try to sleep.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: What do I do? I will read. I will go for a walk.
Sometimes I’ll eat something. And it just doesn’t happen, sometimes just
doesn’t - I've had sleep issues all my life.

GROSS: All right. So...

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: But...

GROSS: Go ahead.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I almost fell asleep during my answer, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: But, yeah, I've always - I have sleep issues and I was
just saying that in the movie I think the reason I look the way I do is
that I was extremely tired. And I remember being kind of grumpy during
the movie, making of the movie.

GROSS: You know, you were talking about trying to get the right look on
your face as a patient in a psychiatric ward. And I think of your acting
as happening so much on your face in general. You have all these, like,
looks. You have like this look of disapproval, a look of contempt, one
of anger, pain, irony. You often have this look of - I'm just sitting
here judging you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I wonder if you’re aware of that, of like how much of your
acting is just these like expressions on your face that are sometimes
like devastating.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I think probably I'm a little bit aware of it but I
think it's a reaction to not being very eloquent with your lines. So I'm
not - I get very tongue-tied and it’s really a bad profession to be in
when you can't speak very well.

So, but the non-verbal things that I see actors do I really love. I
like, you know, I know it sounds kind of actor-y but the expression can
say so much and a lot of times you don’t have to say anything. And I
guess I do kind of concentrate on that a little bit. And I have - I
think it helps that I have a really heavy brow. Probably not great for
evolution, but probably pretty good for trying to make a point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Zach Galifianakis and he's co-starring in the new
movie, "It's Kind of a Funny Story," and he was one of the stars of "The
Hangover," and he's also on the HBO series "Bored to Death."

Let's talk about "The Hangover," huge movie, did enormously well at the
box office. So here's the setup in "The Hangover," you’re one of four
men in Vegas, having their night on the town just before one of them is
getting married. And you are there only because you’re the brother of
the bride-to-be. So you’re out of place, you don’t dress cool like the
other guys, they're just putting up with you. So in the hotel in Vegas,
just before your big night on the town, during which absolutely
everything that can go wrong will go wrong, you make this toast.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hangover")

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) I'd like to say something that I've
prepared tonight.

Mr. JUSTIN BARTHA (Actor): (as Doug) All right, Alan.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Hello. How about that ride in? I
guess that's why they call it Sin City.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) You guys might not know this, but I
consider myself a bit of a loner. I tend to think of myself as a one-man
wolf pack. But when my sister brought Doug home, I knew he was one of my
own. And my wolf pack, it grew by one. So where there were - there were
two of us in the wolf pack, I was alone first in the pack, and then Doug
joined in later. And six months ago, when Doug introduced me to you
guys, I thought, wait a second, could it be? And now I know for sure, I
just added two more guys to my wolf pack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) All right.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Four of us wolves, running around the
desert together, in Las Vegas, looking for strippers and cocaine. So
tonight, I make a toast.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) What have you got there?

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) What are you doing?

(Soundbite of moaning)

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) What is that?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Blood brothers.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Oh, Damn it. Why did you?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Here.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) Alan.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) No.

Unidentified Actor #1: (as character) No, Alan.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) No, I'm not doing that.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Alan Garner) Here. Go ahead, Stuart.

Unidentified Actor #2: (as character) Make him stop.

Mr. ED HELMS (Actor): (as Stuart) Alan, we're not going to cut
ourselves. Give me the knife. Slowly. Thank you. Okay.

GROSS: That's Zach Galifianakis doing the toast in a scene from "The
Hangover." And, of course, at the end of that scene you’re cutting your
hand so that you can all be blood brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that is why they are all recoiling in horror. Did you relate
to any of the characters in the film? Were you ever the kind of guy who
spent a lot of time with the other guys hanging out, getting drunk,
going to strip clubs?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: No, I'm not that kind of guy at all. Actually, I used
to be a busboy in a strip joint in New York and so I hate strip joints.
I'm not that kind of person. I don’t really know how I came up with that
character. It just kind of unfolded. I mean, I think if you kind of go
on a thing where the guy doesn’t have any friends, he can't drive a car,
there's questionable boundaries physically where he can show up, I think
that's enough. And then you kind of - you kind of, you build it around
there.

And also, the wardrobe has a lot to do with it. I kind of wanted this
guy to be someone in his late-30s who had gone to raves a lot and
probably done too many pills and then his brain got fried a little bit
and he's still wearing the same clothes that he did at his raves back in
the mid-'90s or early '90s, and that's kind of the backstory that I had
for him.

GROSS: Which is what? What is he wearing?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Really bad, tight, white jeans that are really out of
style. I don’t know who can pull that off. And a really bad acid seamed
T-shirt.

GROSS: So you said you worked as a busboy in strip joints and that's why
you hate strip clubs. Some people might think that it would be like
really exciting for a man to work in a strip club. Why did working there
make you hate them?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Well, the women were mean. The dancers were mean to
me. They were supposed to tip the busboys. I mean, it was kind of a
high-end place and it's called Stringfellows in New York. And they never
tipped and I guess that said something about it and, you know, it’s just
not a good environment for a young boy from North Carolina who's very
innocent.

GROSS: I'm just curious, if this isn't too personal, did it change your
idea of what sexy is to see, like, mostly nearly naked women dancing all
the time and then not liking them?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: There is nothing sexy about a strip club. I don’t
understand it. I really don’t. I think that men that go to those things,
and certainly it's okay to go. I'm not saying, you know, I mean, I'm
sure I've been to them, but I think men that go to there, they're kind
of lost. They don’t understand attraction.

GROSS: So did you find the whole experience depressing?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: It is depressing. I mean it's pretty depressing to be
27 and be a busboy anywhere. But you add the stripper element and, you
know, it's, you know what, Terry?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: It’s a good character builder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: That's what you just kind of keep telling yourself,
it's a good character builder. One day you'll have a good strong
character. And my roommate at the time, he was the cashier. He and I - I
was living in his closet on 8th Street in New York and his name is
Miles. And I remember he had lost $1,000 the night before and he had to
go face the music. And it was a mafia-owed place and he had lost this
$1,000 and I remember - this was the mid-'90s, I guess, and our faucet
never turned off the hot water so it was always hot and steamy in this
place. I was living in his closet. I was putting on my cummerbund and he
was tying his shoe. We were getting ready to go walk through the snow to
go to our jobs at the strip joint and he had to face the music.

And I remember him saying to himself - again, this was in the mid-'90s,
he said to himself, he wasn’t - I wasn’t supposed to hear it, as I was
putting my cummerbund on, this is worst than Bosnia. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: And I thought, well, that's a hell of a statement.

GROSS: Speaking of strip joints, you were semi-naked in a couple of
scenes in "The Hangover." And I'm wondering what it's like to be - I
think most of us feel kind of vulnerable when we're not clothed and
especially if somebody's like looking at us. So here you are in a movie
more or less naked, in a scene that's going to be played for laughs and
part of the laugh is going to be how you look because you’re wearing a
jockstrap under your pants. So is it awkward to be in that naked
vulnerable position, knowing that the whole point is that people are
going to be laughing at you?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. It is incredibly awkward. When you’re shooting
it's really awkward. I don't mind people laughing at me. I don’t really
- I mean, obviously I don’t mind that that much. The nudity thing is -
you know, you shoot a movie and then, for me, I forget about it. I
really, I kind of remove myself from everything. And then the movie
comes out and you're like, oh, god, that's right, I was wearing a
jockstrap. And then there's a 15-minute discussion on the phone with
your mom about the jockstrap...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: ...and how you weren't raised that way, and you agree
with her and she has a good point. But you’re doing it, I mean, it
sounds a little corny, but when you hear people really enjoying it and
getting a kick out of it, and if it is not too gratuitous then, you
know, it makes me happy to make people laugh, it really does.

DAVIES: Zach Galifianakis, speaking with Terry Gross.

We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Zach
Galifianakis. He co-stars in the HBO series "Bored to Death," and stars
in the new movie, "It's Kind of a Funny Story."

GROSS: You started in stand-up and I want to play a short excerpt from
the opening of your DVD, "Live at the Purple Onion." So this is you
doing stand-up.

(Soundbite of DVD, "Zach Galifianakis - Live at the Purple Onion")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) My name is Zach Galifianakis and I hope I'm
pronouncing that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) I'm named after my granddad, my middle name.
My name is Zach Granddad Galifianakis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) Growing up, my dad was like, Zach, you have
a great last name, Galifianakis, Galifianakis, begins with a gal and
ends with a kiss.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) I'm like, that's great dad. Can we get it
changed to Galifiana(bleep) please?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Zach Galifianakis, live at the Purple Onion. Was your name
an issue when you started? People who see your name spelled on a page
have no idea how to pronounce it, most of them.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I guess it was an issue, but I really wasn’t thinking
long-term. I just was trying to get on stage and tell jokes and I never
really thought about the name thing. I know that my grandfather would be
very disappointed if I ever changed my - it's actually shortened, Terry.
My real last name is Galifianakisburg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: So, you know, that's an exclusive for your show.

GROSS: But you must've thought about your name. Your opening joke is
about how people don’t know how to pronounce it.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I mean, there's jokes about it, certainly. But
the joke that you just played - Galifianakis, it begins with a girl and
ends with a kiss - that actually was a campaign slogan. My uncle was a
congressman in North Carolina and he ran against Jesse Helms in 1972 on
the Democratic ticket and that was a thing that I guess his campaign
came up with and it kind of stuck. And so growing up, we heard it all
the time; you know, begins with gal and ends with a kiss. So that was
his kind of charming way of letting the people of North Carolina know
his last name.

GROSS: Well, speaking of Jesse Helms, you refer to that later in this
performance. You talk about how Jesse Helms said, like, what was it,
like, we have an easy pronounced name, not like the other guys. You say
it. I don’t remember it precisely.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I think what happened was, my Uncle Nick was winning
in North Carolina in the early '70s, beating Jesse Helms, which is a
pretty remarkable thing because Jesse Helms I think was popular, but my
uncle was winning. And then, I think around the last two weeks of the
election, Jesse Helms came out with the slogan that said, vote for
Jesse, he's one of us, which I think if you read between the lines,
doesn’t have a Mediterranean last name and, you know, olive skin. And it
turned the election around. Jesse Helms ended up winning out of anti-
Greek rhetoric.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: One of the characters that you - well, a character that you do in
your act is your fake twin brother, Seth.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Describe Seth.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Well, I don’t know if he's fake, Terry. But my brother
is an effeminate Southern, I would say, kind of conservative football
coach. He coaches a team called the Flaming Arrows and he goes on
television sometimes. The first time he went on television, he went on
the Jimmy Kimmel show and he just kind of talked crap about me and I
thought that was a bit rude. So it's kind of a knee-jerk reaction to
people that don’t like my humor and it's this kind of other - it's a
voice of whoever thinks that I'm not good. It's just kind of, it was a
device, I guess, to have my brother go on and make fun of myself.

GROSS: Who is he based on - the voice, the look?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: It was something I used to do in high school, years
ago. I used to do it for the black kids in my high school because back
then, Seth was effeminate and also racist. And so there was this weird
thing where it kind of spread around that if you bumped me in the
hallway, that it would bring Seth out and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: And so these black kids would like nudge me in the
hallway and then I would say all these terrible things to them and they
would die laughing. And they would just, they were really like - really
loved it and respect, they knew that way I was poking fun of, you know,
some of the redneck racist attitudes that, I mean, you know, everybody
grows up with, I think, especially in a smaller town. And so that's
where it started.

DAVIES: Zach Galifianakis, speaking with Terry Gross.

We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with actor Zach
Galifianakis. He co-stars in the HBO series "Bored to Death," and stars
in the new movie "It's Kind of a Funny Story."

GROSS: You’ve done a satirical short interview show on "Funny or Die," a
series called "Between Two Ferns," in which you and your guests are
sitting between these like potted plants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like a really bad talk show set.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And your guests are all like genuine celebrities and then you do
these like horrible...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...interviews with them. And this is you and Jon Hamm. And you
ask him a really funny question.

(Soundbite of "Between Two Ferns")

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) Does it make you sick when you look in the
mirror to see how handsome you are and to know that people are
disfigured? And don’t you think you should think that?

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (as Self) I never really thought of it that way.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) You never thought, hey, why is Jesus so
cruel?

Mr. HAMM (Actor): (as Self) Oh, I thought that.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Self) How many seasons do you think "Mad Men" will
go to?

Mr. HAMM (Actor): (as Self) Well, it's - most shows on cable, they don’t
do a big...

(Soundbite of noise)

Mr. HAMM (Actor): (as Self) You want a tissue or something?

(Soundbite of noise)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Zach Galifianakis with Jon Hamm on Zach's kind of
satirical talk show. And how did you come up with that question to ask
Jon Hamm about feeling guilty because there's so many disfigured people
in the world and he's so handsome?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I think that one was just, that just kind of popped
into my head, that particular one, if I remember correctly. Because I
was sitting really close to him and I, you know, I often wonder that
about really beautiful people, that, you know, that's half the struggle
in life is that if you have that, then everything is going to go really
smoothly. And I find myself staring at people going, my god, look at
those features. But Jon is really, really handsome and also,
unfortunately, one of the coolest guys I've ever met and it's just the
combination of that just makes me sick.

GROSS: You resent the really attractive people who get the perks that
you get when you’re beautiful?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I do. And also, it really bugs me when they happen to
be really nice and charming, too. Because a lot of people, if they're
good-looking, that's what they have and it's, you know, they don’t
really develop a lot of personality. Jon is incredibly funny and quite
charming.

GROSS: So one of your accomplishments - one of your short-lived
accomplishments...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...is that you were on "Saturday Night Live" for two weeks. Is
that right?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I was a writer on "Saturday Night Live." I think what
they do is they...

GROSS: For two weeks?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah. I think they have like trial periods, but I
thought I was being hired as a sketch performer. And then I got there
and they're like, no, you're writing sketches for other people, which I
had never done and I was really kind of bummed because I had auditioned
like two or three times. It's a very, I mean back then, I don’t know if
it's this way anymore, I don’t think it is, is it was very, you know,
it's very competitive.

And, you know, for a new person to come in and try to do their sketch -
I mean not - they do these things called table reads where you write
your two sketches per week, and oh, it was completely quiet the whole
time my sketch was being read. It was really awful. I remember Tina Fey,
I was sitting next to her, and she just patted me on the back, like, you
know, don't worry about it, kid.

GROSS: My guest is Zach Galifianakis and he's co-starring in the new
movie "It's Kind of a Funny Story." He's one of the stars of "The
Hangover," and he's also one of the stars of "Bored to Death," the HBO
series. And I want to ask you about "Bored to Death."

You play a comic book artist. Jason Schwartzman plays a writer who
decides to moonlight as a private detective like some of his fictional
heroes. So let me just play your first scene from the first season of
"Bored to Death." And Jason Schwartzman’s girlfriend has just broken up
with him and left him, moved out. You’re at a coffee shop with him
comparing notes about girlfriend trouble.

(Soundbite of HBO series, "Bored to Death")

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Ray) Well, that sucks. Man, I thought you guys
were just mildly unhappy.

Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN (Actor): (as Jonathan) It happened all of a
sudden. She announced the move two days ago.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Ray) Are you destroyed? You’ve got to be
destroyed, right? Are you destroyed? Last time I was heartbroken, I felt
like someone had put on my head one of those Falcon hoods, you know? And
all I could see was complete darkness.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) Falcon hood?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Yeah. Anyway, why didn’t you tell me?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) Because I thought she was bluffing. I
didn’t think she would actually move out. And then, out of nowhere,
these super-efficient Israeli mover guys show up. All of a sudden it's
like a raid on Entebbe in my own apartment.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Let me get my computer. What is the raid on
Entebbe?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) It was an Israeli tactical group of
(bleep). I don’t know. I don’t know. You used the word falcon hood.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) I know what a falcon hood is. Everybody
knows what a falcon hood is.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) Really?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Yeah. Falcon hood, anyone? Raid on Entebbe?
Okay. We're even. Anyway, do you think you can get her back?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) No, I don’t think so. I feel that Suzanne
started to think that I was a loser because I'm struggling to write. I
mean, this second novel...

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Yeah, I know. Listen, just yesterday, Leah
was like why don’t you go teach art in a public school? I'm not going to
teach art at a public school. I don’t wake up until 11 am, go teach art.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) If you did teach it would be steady
income.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (as Jason) Don’t be disgusting. Those women were into
us because we were artists. And then reality hits and no money and no
real future and then, you know, Leah's going to break up with me any
minute now. I mean, we haven't had sex in weeks.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN (as Jonathan) We are losers.

GROSS: That's a scene with Jason Schwartzman and my guest Zach
Galifianakis from "Bored to Death," the HBO series. Now, does the
sentiment your character express in that, is that a sentiment you ever
felt, that somebody fell in love with you because they liked that you
were an artist and then realized that you were an artist who wasn’t
making any money...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...and didn’t own anything?

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: There was a long time where I was an "artist" in
quotes, who had no money. But I guess back then I also never had a
girlfriend. I mean, I had friends, you know, women that come in and out
of your life, but I never had like a steady thing going on for a long,
long time. And then I started getting some walking around money and I
think I found a girlfriend after that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: I didn’t try it when I was desperately poor.

GROSS: So it's been really fun to talk with you. I want to thank you so
much.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: Thank you, Terry. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Zach Galifianakis spoke with Terry Gross.

"Bored to Death" started it's second season last Sunday. Galifianakis
stars in the new movie "It's Kind of a Funny Story." You can see some
scenes from the film at our website, freshair.npr.org. Galifianakis co-
stars in the forthcoming film "Due Date" with Robert Downey Jr.
..COST:
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