Zach Galifianakis started his career as a cult comedian, until the blockbuster success of “The Hangover” franchise turned him into a mainstream star. Now he’s returning to his roots with the FX original series “Baskets,” an inventive serial comedy sure to be described as “quirky” and “offbeat” more times than anyone will care to count.
Galifianakis created the show with Jonathan Krisel (“Portlandia”) and Louis C.K., and stars as Chip Baskets, a Paris-trained clown who takes a job working at a rodeo in Bakersfield, California. The series co-stars Galifianakis’ longtime friend Martha Kelly, a stand-up comedian making her acting debut as Chip’s sweet-natured foil, and Louie Anderson as Christine Baskets, the mother of Chip and his more successful twin brother Dale. (Of that unconventional casting choice, Galifianakis says, “I wanted to cast Brenda Blethyn; she wasn’t available.”)
Variety spoke with Galifianakis at the recent Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena about the origins of the show, who he expects to tune in and how working with FX compares to his past experiences in TV.
During the show’s TCA panel, Louis C.K. said that he approached you to do a series after he signed his production deal with FX. Were you looking to do TV or was it Louis who made you think about it?
It was Louis. I wasn’t sitting around daydreaming about being on television. Then Louis called me and it seemed to make sense. He told me, “Look, this network will leave you alone. You don’t have to go to meetings.” I’m not a business person. I write dumb jokes for a living. That was very attractive to me, that Louis said there’s a nice freedom they give you, and it turned out to be true. He also told me how he approached his show. I said, “Louis, I’m not sure I have the discipline to write arcs.” Louis, to his credit, said, “Just start writing scenes.” And I did. I started writing little sketches that we figured out how to glue together. It was a very easy decision to make.
The shape of the show is different from “Louie.” If you had a blank canvas, you could have done anything — something sketch-based like “Portlandia” or something like “Louie” where everything changes week to week — but you settled on a more character-based, serialized structure.
I told Jonathan Krisel, the director and co-creator, I didn’t want to do anything edgy. Edgy to me has become bad language, shock. It’s boring now. I wanted to do somewhat of an innocent show, with a little bit of emotion and really dumb jokes. Can we make that work? I’m not sure we can, I don’t know. We tried. We’ll see. You do want you think is interesting and makes you giggle. To sit around and think about it and focus group it to death — I could give two s–s about that stuff.
It almost feels like you’re in film school again, not that I was ever in film school. But anything’s possible. Casting Louie Anderson, being able to cast Martha who I’ve known for years. I didn’t have to get permission. The movie business could learn a lot from the TV business, cause the movie business now is run by hedge fund guys. TV has become a more artful — if that’s the right pretentious word — to try something a little bit different. If this was a movie, it would never be made. The good scripts I read don’t get made.
So all the movies you made were bad scripts? “Birdman”?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. Sometimes there are those that break through, “Birdman” was one, but it’s not like it was in the ’70s and not even like it was in the ’80s or ’90s. They’ve become rides. Obviously there are some very great directors doing wonderful things in the movie business, but they work backwards in the movie business. They go, “Here’s when we need your movie to come out so we can make this much money.” It doesn’t start from a creative point often.
FX seems unusual even for TV. There are a few other networks that function this way, but they’re very focused on artists.
I trusted Louis. He said, “Look, there’s no table reads.” There’s none of that. The notes that I have been given, they were not forced on me at all, have been great. They’ve been just suggestions. They turned out to be great suggestions and we actually agreed with them. That kind of cooperation — they’re business people and we’re the dumb entertainers, let’s not mess with each other’s world, let’s just agree to work with each other — people can really learn from that model.
Another thing about coming to TV is that you’re potentially agreeing to play this character for five or six seasons. Was that something you thought about when you were creating Chip Baskets?
No, my whole mind when I’m working on something is, “No one’s ever gonna see this, or want to see it.” I don’t go, “Oh my god, this is the greatest, it’s gonna be on for five seasons!” I’m lucky to be in this position. I’m lucky to be working. If it goes for many seasons that would be great. I wouldn’t feel locked in. But there is a limit to certain things. I like how the British do it. The British do not run it into the ground. I’m hoping that would be the trajectory of something like this. Beating a dead horse — the audience can tell that the horse is dead.
You were a series regular on two very different shows — “Tru Calling” for Fox and “Bored to Death” on HBO. What were those experiences like and did you bring any lessons from those to “Baskets”?
Well, working on a show like “Tru Calling,” it’s noted to death. Super controlled, there’s very little freedom, and for someone like me — an undisciplined actor — it’s not a good marriage. That’s a networky show and it looked like a networky show and it was. That’s fine, you look for work. But then you look at it when you’re employed and it’s like, “What is this? What did I get myself into?” It was a great show to be a part of, and fun and all that, but it’s not a show I ever would’ve watched.
“Bored to Death” was certainly not noted to death but it was more organized than my show. There were table reads and rewrites and 11 p.m. changes. I think I’m like the laziest boss in the world because I’m like, “Yeah, it’s good enough, let’s go home to our families.” Your life is more important than your work life, it’s just trying to find that. The seriousness with which comedy is approached sometimes is laughable. It’s so not loose and it needs to be loose, for me. You go with your gut. And sometimes my gut is really wrong and sometimes it’s OK.
I’m never offended when people don’t like my stuff. It doesn’t bother me at all. Unless I feel like they’re trying to misrepresent what I do, but that’s different. You don’t appeal to everyone. I don’t want to worry about casting a wide net and all of that stuff. This show in particular — things that make me laugh that are a little more subtle, it’s got some dark themes to it and it’s a weird mix. The performances are pretty real but then my pants fall down a lot and there are pratfalls. It’s the element of surprise that I like, to be caught off guard. That makes me laugh.
I really like the show but in talking to other people I usually say, “Just watch it and you’ll know right away if it’s for you or not.”
Yeah, and by the way, the show gets a little more for people as it rolls on. But if people don’t get it, what am I going to do? Sit around and say, “I wish they would get it”? I think a good comic leads an audience and doesn’t kowtow to an audience. “Are people going to get this reference? Maybe not.” I don’t do it to isolate people. I do it because that’s what I think is funny. To match the goofiness with the non-goofiness is kind of an oil and water mix. I hope audiences will like it because it’s different enough. I’m not sure if I’ve seen something with this tone before.
That’s the other thing, when people ask what the show is like I can’t really think of another show to compare it to.
That wasn’t on purpose, that’s just because we were going with our gut it kind of turned out that way.
Another advantage to working with FX is that they won’t necessarily care if you get 5 million viewers every week or not.
That’s a good number, right?
Yeah, actually that’s great.
It’s fine by me, jeez. 7,000 is good.
Is that the target audience?
If I get 7,000 viewers, the network might be disappointed, but it would make me feel real good. There’s 7,000 comedy snobs in my mind — “They get it!”
As long as the right people watch.
How much of the show is scripted and how much of it is loose — and is that why you cast people like Martha and Louie?
Yes, absolutely. The arcs are built in because we need to track that arc. It’s a serial show with dramatic undertones so we wanted it to have that kind of thing. Those are in place. But by the tenth take of something — we don’t get ten takes, we barely get three with this kind of show…
Because of time?
Time. That’s the way it is. I get bored on set after saying the same thing three times. To entertain myself but also to keep things fun and loose on set, you throw a joke out and if it happens to work in the scene, fine. If it doesn’t but it makes life and working on a job more enjoyable, that’s why it’s done. I don’t like to over-improv for the sake of improv-ing. It needs to work for the story we’re trying to tell. But it’s very welcome. I come from that loose background. The jobs where I’ve felt constricted, and there’s been a number of them, they always turn out to be s—. And I can name them.
How dare you! That was my favorite one.
“Baskets” premieres Thursday, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. on FX.