Hollywood has spent nearly 30 years sniffing around 'A Confederacy of Dunces,' the posthumously published novel by John Kennedy Toole about an obese, boasting, blustering crank named Ignatius Reilly his unlikely adventures in the French District of New Orleans. John Belushi, John Candy, Divine, Chris Farley, and Philip Seymour Hoffman have all taken aim at the project, and Will Ferrell's version -- with Steven Soderbergh behind the camera -- got as far as a staged reading before running aground for mysterious reasons. Now, Zach Galifianakis has tossed his proverbial hunting cap into the ring, telling writer Andy Borowitz at a New Yorker Festival event last night in New York, "I've read two books in my life, and I'd like to do 'Confederacy of Dunces' -- which will never happen."
He's probably right, which is a shame. A cursory glance at the book's opening passage makes it clear why Galiafanakis is perfectly suited for the role. Who better to embody a character whose "full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs"?
Galifianakis delivered lots of laughs and a few key insights during the 90-minute conversation, describing his upbringing and rise through the standup ranks, reflecting on his Hollywood success, and explaining how his contempt for self-regarding celebrities led him to create his hilarious 'Between Two Ferns' series of Web videos.
Asked to describe his hometown of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, he said, "Do you like mouth breathers?," then added, "It's known for moonshine and racism.... It's kind of the Wild West, my town. From my high school graduating class, I know five people who have been murdered and I know five people who have murdered people."
Still, Galifianakis said that, unlike many comics, he comes from a loving family. "I come from too much love -- like, my dad would kiss me on the lips. So it's that kind of funny.... A way of communicating was making fun of each other."
That's not to say that his parents were thrilled with his decision to leave town and pursue a risky career in comedy. "I think they're embarrassed about what I do for a living, but as long as I fly them around the world they don't give a shit."
He did his first standup routine in the back of the Hamburger Harry's restaurant in Times Square. His first joke: "I was at this woman's house, we had been drinking, and she said, 'You can sleep on my futon.' And I said, 'I don't sleep on anything that rhymes with crouton.'" Somehow, it killed. "That show went well and then the other 250 shows were terrible."
In a rare moment of candor, Galifianakis made it clear that the lean years were difficult indeed. "I didn't have a lot of options in life, Andy. Standup is a desperate art form. I just did it. That was my life and I just did it for a long time."
Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles and accepted a job with VH1 hosting a talk show called 'Late World With Zach.' He explained the decision this way: "What am I gonna do? I gotta pay for my Subaru."
Referring to the more recent 'Between Two Ferns' series, Borowitz asked, "When did you decide that what was missing from your career was an Internet-only talk show?" Galifianakis said the concept had originally been part of a pilot for Fox TV. "I just find actors so shitty, I just hate them," he said, while acknowledging the irony that he now belongs in their ranks. "Ego is funny to me.... I just wanted to mock celebrities."
Still, there are some lines even Galifianakis won't cross. After Borowitz showed a clip involving Tila Tequila and Jennifer Aniston (misidentified as JENNIFER ANDERSON), Galifianakis revealed that he'd hired a Brad Pitt lookalike to interrupt the interview, then reconsidered after Aniston asked him please not to go through with it.
Inevitably, talk turned to Galifianakis's breakout role in Todd Phillips' hit comedy 'The Hangover.' Its massive success was hardly a foregone conclusion: Galifianakis recalled having dinner with co-stars Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms after a day of shooting and cautiously suggesting that something special might be happening: "I've been in nothing but shit but this feels like it's going to be -- Bradley, stop looking in the mirror, I'm talking to you!"
Galifianakis said he made a conscious decision following 'The Hangover' to choose a smaller movie like 'It's Kind of a Funny Story': "I didn't want to do the same thing. You can paint yourself into a corner very quickly in that Hollywood town."
Asked if there would be a third and fourth sequel to 'The Hangover,' Galifianakis looked visibly uncomfortable and simply said, "As long as those executives from Warner Bros. can buy new Bentleys."
He added, "I would like to do small movies for the rest of my life, but it's a hard thing. Nobody's going to fund a movie where you're being esoteric. Or maybe they will, but I'm too lazy to figure it out."