Zach Galifianakis Can’t Help It

If he did it his way, Zach Galifianakis would have called his VH1 late- night talk show Do You Like Robots? He would have designed his set like Charlie Rose’s-wood oval, stark black background, no audience. He would have bagged the monologue, and he would have dissuaded celebrities from appearing. And he would have installed a trapdoor underneath the guest’s seat. Say something moronic, and wheeeeeee!

Instead, Mr. Galifianakis-a 32-year-old veteran of New York’s alternative-comedy scene who used to live in a closet on Bleecker Street and walk 90 blocks to clubs because he didn’t have the $1.50 for subway fare-had it other people’s way, and got himself a screwy, doomed VH1 talk show called Late World with Zach . He had a flashy set with an audience that was paid to be there-some of them bussed in from halfway houses. He began the first episode by thanking “all the Jews that made this possible, and the one big Jew, Jesus Christ,” but each night he needed to trudge through a monologue, and he interviewed a lot of celebrities, which he hated. He never got that guest trapdoor, though he begged.

Then Mr. Galifianakis got the trapdoor himself. Launched in March 2002, Late World with Zach was canceled after nine weeks. But it flamed out in style. As Late World sank, Mr. Galifianakis did the I-don’t-give-a-shit program he always wanted to do. He ridiculed his format, seethed at his network. He wore a shirt on the air that read MY DAYS R #’D and showed a sign that read I HAVE A SHOW ON A CHANNEL THAT THINKS CREED IS COOL. He did a show with only one person in the audience, who up and left before it was over. He taped one episode in his house, interviewing Ricki Lake while washing his dishes. (“How do you do it?” he asked Ms. Lake about her talk show. “I can’t stand doing this.”) He brought on weird, cool bands never played on VH1, like the Shins. He signed off by sending a final thank-you to “the Jews.”

Late World , in its final stages, was a brilliant wreck-messy and rude, flawed yet funny. It was the best thing on VH1, the best late-night show anyone had done in a while. It was free-spirited, semi-angry anti-television, and it reminded Robert Morton, the veteran producer VH1 hired to resuscitate Late World in its final gasps, of the embryonic don’t-give-a-shit days of another malcontent he used to advise.

“You got the same sense on Zach’s show that we did early on in the Letterman show,” said Mr. Morton. Another Letterman vet, Fred Graver, then VH1′s senior vice president of programming and production and now an executive producer with MTV Networks, said, “Particularly in the last couple of weeks, it looked like Dave’s morning show, where it was a man looking at the camera and saying, ‘ God , why am I here?’ and ‘Let’s try something else.’ It was incredibly fun.”

But it was too little, too late, too expensive, too unwatched and Late World was yanked. VH1 moved on-most of the people who championed the show are no longer at the network, like Mr. Graver and former network president John Sykes, who is now running Viacom’s Infinity Radio division-and Mr. Galifianakis, who began as a semi-unknown comic with a bushy red beard, remains a semi-unknown with a bushy red beard, albeit one with a slightly larger number on his A.T.M. receipts.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Mr. Galifianakis swirled into the Algonquin Hotel, plopped in a comfortable chair and tried to explain what the hell happened.

“Hollywood is just such a fucking idiot machine,” Mr. Galifianakis said. He was wearing jeans and an old Bruce Springsteen T-shirt, and he promptly ordered himself a gin-and-tonic and a beer. “That was one of the good aspects of the show-we were making fun of Hollywood as much as we could. We were also trying to mock the late-night talk show. I really didn’t deserve to have a show. I was the last person.”

But the offer was too good to refuse. Sure, VH1 was in turmoil-the network’s ratings had plunged in the previous year, as old carcasses like Behind the Music grew ripe-but Late World was an out-of-the-blue carrot to a comic whose previous experience had consisted of crappy movies ( Out Cold, Heartbreakers ) and lousy TV shows ( Apt. 2F, Boston Common ). VH1 liked the fact that Mr. Galifianakis knew music-he performed his act behind a piano, sprinkling punch lines while tinkling like Van Cliburn-and was approachable. A Hollywood studio was assembled and the show was hurried onto the air in eight weeks, and soon Mr. Galifianakis’ bearded mug was shining down from billboards in Times Square and Sunset Boulevard. THE NEW FACE OF VH1, the billboards cried. WHAT DO YOU EXPECT? WE’RE A MUSIC NETWORK.

In retrospect, it seems like a ludicrous proposition. Mr. Galifianakis, though well-liked in comedy circles-”He is genuinely and naturally funny,” says his friend Janeane Garafalo-was hardly a household name. Late-night talk shows are absurdly expensive, particularly for cable, and VH1 had never done one.

Mr. Galifianakis said his employer was cagey about him taking on its franchises.

“VH1 said to us, ‘O.K, here’s our list of artists that we want you to talk about, but not make fun of,’” he said. “Mary J. Blige, you know, whoever they play. Creed was on the list. They were called ‘the core artists,’ and they would hang it up in the office. I started ripping them down: ‘Are you crazy ? Of course we’re going to make fun of them!’”

He struggled with the drudgeries of hosting. He detested doing topical Enron jokes from behind his piano. But the nadir was the celebrity interviews. He loathed feigning interest in the lives of the B-listers Late World attracted. And it showed.

“In the back of your mind, when you are interviewing someone, you’re like, ‘Goddamn, when is this thing going to be over?’ or ‘ What are they saying?’” Mr. Galifianakis said, taking a swig of beer. “There were a couple of times when I was doing this show where I was like, ‘Why is this interesting? I don’t find it interesting.’ And it becomes the job of the host to make it enjoyable for the guest and the audience.”

Of his worst guests, he said, “They are puppets. They trust their publicists and their agents too much, and they forgot what brought them there in the first place.”

It wasn’t all bad, Mr. Galifianakis said. He assembled a staff of trusted pals, like head writer Tommy Blacha, ex of Late Night with Conan O’Brien . A few guests did get Late World ‘s effort to deconstruct celebrity culture. Andy Richter did an interview while barreling around in a convertible. Best in Show ‘s Fred Willard appeared as an on-air consultant, offering Mr. Galifianakis dopey on-air tips as he went along. He constantly made fun of his anonymity, even among his own studio audience. “He literally stood on line for the show and nobody recognized him,” said Mr. Graver.

But he violated the cardinal rule of hosting: He loathed sucking up to people whose work he didn’t like.

“Bill Paxton comes on, and I watched his movie [ Frailty ] before he came on,” Mr. Galifianakis said. “It was one of the worst things I ever saw in my life. So he comes on the show, and he comes back to my dressing room and goes, ‘So I hear you saw my movie! What did you think?’ And I could not bring myself to say I liked it. But I should have, because it was so obvious-I went, ‘Hold on-I got something to do,’ and I left the room or something. You might as well lie at that point.

“Lisa Loeb came on and she was terrible,” he said. “I hated her. For me to come out and clap and say, ‘That’s great!’-that’s wrong! It’s wrong! But what can I do? She was gracious to come on the show. But we did a pre-interview, part of it got edited, and I said some Asian joke about slant eyes or something and she goes, ‘That’s not funny,’ and I go, ‘I know, ‘ and I said it like, ‘I can’t control myself.’

“But then I have to go out and go, ‘Thank you, Lisa, that was wonderful.’” Mr. Galifianakis continued. “And Dweezil Zappa played guitar with her. I felt like going to Dweezil Zappa, ‘Your father must be turning in his grave, that you’re playing backup guitar to Lisa Loeb !’”

Maybe Mr. Galifianakis was predestined for TV. There was, after all, always a part of him that enjoyed playing the tortured one. In his act, he tells a joke about having a difficult childhood. “I was the only straight kid in an all-gay high school,” the joke goes. After school, “Kids would say to me, ‘Hey Zach, where are you going- to get some pussy ?”

In reality, Mr. Galifianakis, like the writer David Sedaris, grew up in a close-knit Greek family in North Carolina. The town was Wilkesboro. His father-who used to tell young Zach that his mouthful of a surname was a gift, since it “begins with a gal and ends with a kiss”-was in the propane business, and his mother ran a community center. He had a kid sister and an older brother, the latter of whom lovingly abused him.

“‘He would stuff his dirty underwear into my mouth and say, ‘I’m giving you a gag order!’” Mr. Galifianakis recalled recently over lunch at French Roast on the Upper West Side.

He wandered through high school and almost all of college, bailing from North Carolina State one failed math course from a degree. He moved to New York in 1992 and started taking acting classes, where he was not a model thespian. “I actually had acting teachers say to me, ‘This is no time for your skits!’” he said.

One night, he met a female comic at the Lower East Side bar Max Fish, and she convinced him to try stand-up. Soon he was grabbing open-mike time and doing entry-level gigs at places like the Hamburger Harry’s in Times Square. “I used to do stand-up on ships that circled Manhattan, prom shows with kids making out on the floor,” he said. “Literally. I was walking over them to get to the microphone.”

He lived everywhere, first the closet on Bleecker-it really was a closet, with the futon curled like a taco shell-then a one-bedroom with three other people on MacDougal Street, then to Park Slope, then to Eighth Street and another closet. Then he got lucky and found a $500 two-bedroom on Ludlow Street in a crack house.

“It literally was a crack house,” Mr. Galifianakis said. “When I first moved in there, there were kids on the steps with guns, literally selling it.”

One night he was walking home with a friend named Jody when he decided to play a little trick. “I thought it would be smart to get these kids afraid of me,” he said. “So I said, ‘Jody, when we get to the door, ask me what it’s like to be a cop.’

“So we get to the stoop, and Jody-he’s like the worst actor in the world-he’s literally like, ‘So, Zach, what’s it like being a cop ?’ And I went, ‘Pretty nice . You can help people .’ And we walked inside. I was like, ‘I don’t know how that went.’

He found out. “I was leaving the next day, and one of the kids came up to me right in my face and he’s like, ‘You’re a cop?’ And I went, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘I hope you’re cool.’ And I went, ‘I hope you’re cool.’ I was incredibly scared.”

He hung on at the crack house and kept odd day jobs. He worked as a nanny to a precocious young boy. The kid is now in his teens; they’re still friends.

But the kid, too, tormented Mr. Galifianakis. “He was 10, I guess, and we were watching Beavis & Butthead at his house, and I was like, ‘O.K., let’s do some homework.’ And he’s like, ‘No.’ I’m like, ‘Let’s do homework. Turn the TV off.’ ‘No!’ So I get up and turn the TV off, sit back down, start unfolding the books, and he gets up, turns the TV on and says, ‘You do what I say or I’m going to tell my mom that you touched my penis.’

“I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ I panicked. I called my friends, and they were like, ‘You got to tell the mother!’ I never told the mother until yesterday, and the kid, he laughed so hard when I told him. He laughed like, ‘Yeah, that’s me ! I know I did that.’ And then he said to me: ‘I know you touched my penis.’ Smart-ass kid.”

After nannying, he took the obvious next step in the career route, working as a busboy in a strip club, Stringfellow’s (now Tens). He auditioned for commercials and soaps. At one point he briefly wrote for Saturday Night Live. He fell in with the city’s growing cadre of alternative comics-people like Ms. Garafalo, Sarah Silverman and Mr. Show ‘s Bob Odenkirk and David Cross-who performed at downtown clubs like Luna Lounge and eschewed the yuk-yuk shtick of mainstream stand-up.

Mr. Galifianakis’ act, was-and is-largely composed of absurdist non sequiturs like “The only thing I remember about college is how many times my grandmother died” and “I realize I’m having a hard time growing up and maturing. I realized that the other day in my fort.”

“I looo-ooved watching him perform,” Ms. Silverman said. Mr. Odenkirk called him “the cuddly Steven Wright.”

Mr. Galifianakis finally broke down and moved to L.A., but not long after settling there, he won a role in Apt. 2F , an MTV sitcom. Apt. 2F was filmed in New York, so he commuted, but the show was short-lived. “My brother calls me the first time he sees it and goes, ‘I give Apt. 2F two F’s!’”

A brief role as a stoner on the also-short-lived Boston Common followed, but his true break came in early 2000, when Ms. Garafalo subbed for a recovering David Letterman on the CBS Late Show and got him booked. Agents were impressed, and Mr. Galifianakis got more work.

But Late World was supposed to be the big breakout. Ms. Silverman, who appeared on the show a few times, said VH1 had “gold in their laps” with Mr. Galifianakis and “kind of blew it.” But other friends weren’t as surprised.

“Television, by its very nature, is geared toward failure,” Ms. Garafalo said. “A lot of times with television comedy, it’s comedy by committee, which does not work. You can’t take a committee of uncreative people and put them in charge of Zach Galifianakis in a half-hour format on as vanilla a network as VH1. It just doesn’t work.

“Television,” Ms. Garafalo said, “seeks to neutralize talent.”

Mr. Galifianakis said he’s not bitter. In general, in fact, he is rather upbeat about VH1, saying the network pretty much left him alone and, by the end, started liking when he made fun of them. He simply feels he was in a tough spot: network in flux, expensive show (especially for cable), competitive genre, big pressure, high stakes. When the ratings failed to deliver, well ….

“I think they did their best,” said Bob Odenkirk. “I sure wonder if you can do a show like that on cable and succeed.”

But most everyone associated with the show feels the plug was pulled too fast. Robert Morton said that by the time he arrived at Late World , VH1 was “kind of over the show.”

“It was stupid they were over it so fast, because it was a good show,” Mr. Morton said. “It’s all about having a network that is going to support you for at least one year to develop. Conan O’Brien had 13-week contracts in the beginning. He was always hanging from the gallows. And the network [NBC] supported him-’O.K., we’ll give you a chance.’ They did that with Letterman. If you have a network that is so concerned with getting that instant rush and quick ratings boost, then it’s the wrong kind of show to launch on your network.”

Mr. Graver said there was remorse at VH1 when Late World was K.O.’d. “We all seriously feel that Zach is going to go on and do something terrific, and people will unearth this show and say, ‘Hey, look, he was doing it back then.’”

Mr. Galifianakis deflected such sympathies. He said he’d be happy going back to playing coffeehouses like the old days. If nothing else, Late World ‘s short flame has given him a cult following. He played Town Hall with The Daily Show ‘s Lewis Black in June, and the 19-year-old kids in the audience laughed in an in-the-know kind of way, like 19-year-old kids did years ago for Jon Stewart when he, too, was just a funny guy with a show that got canceled by a music network.

Mostly he was happy to be out of L.A., decompressing in New York. He was hanging around with his girlfriend, Watermelon, who is something of a cult figure herself. Watermelon, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde who sells pot cookies in the nude on a beach in Vancouver, Canada, has appeared several times on the cover of High Times. “She’s insane,” Mr. Galifianakis said of his lady. “A good girl, though.”

At first, there was talk that Late World could come back in a once-a-week format, but Mr. Galifianakis said that was now doubtful. He does have a new movie coming out, Below , a World War II drama in which he plays a weird hand on a submarine, and he said he’s up for a part in a film “where I play a coke addict and my head gets eaten by a piranha.”

Piranhas might be easier now that Mr. Galifianakis has been fed to television’s sharks. “Everybody is more remorseful about it than I am,” he said. “It’s weird, because when you do a show like that and your name is attached to it, you’re kind of almost considered a wash-up. But you just move on.

Said Zach Galifianakis: “There’s more to life than doing a TV show.”