Zach Galifianakis and the Death of the Leading Man

Remember those Magic Eye books that were all the rage in the early nineties? You stared at a repeating pattern for half a minute, squinting and crossing your eyes, before the embedded image took control of your brain. Having extracted the elephant that was coded in the muted pattern of dull gray shapes, you probably discarded the book into some junk-heap in your closet, but nevertheless you had seen the hidden image. Later, while lying in bed, for a fleeting moment, you pondered the phenomenon of the Magic Eye. You saw the elephant when you looked long enough, but when your brain and eyes lost interest, it disappeared back into the labyrinth of pattern overwhelming your sight, and you went on with life.

A form of comedy has seeped its way into mainstream culture much like the elephant of Magic Eye infamy. At a first glance, this type of humor is a confusing and absurd spectacle for some, but upon a second glance, it shows itself as a radical form of expression. Actor-comedian Zach Galifianakis leads the way in this revolution.

For a long time, males have played women in entertainment, using the incongruous elements of the change-up as a means to a comedic end. Think of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis playing women in Some Like It Hot (1959). Recognizing that Lemmon and Curtis are clearly men (and hideous looking in their feminine get-up), the audience is in on the joke and feels comfortable because there’s no suggestion that the cross-dressers could actually pass as females.

Fast forward sixty years, and we still see the same routine selling itself—male actors acting feminine or posing as females—at the same comedic rate but at an inflated price. Mainstream audiences are still paying for it (think of Adam Sandler’s double role as both female and male identical twins in Jack and Jill (2011)) because to pay for anything more would be abnormal, queer, and for most Americans, down-right uncomfortable.

But Galifianakis’ form of comedy—which is elusive, unashamed, unaffected, and most importantly, radical (shall we call it “demasculinized” comedy?)—allows us to reflect on ourselves in an extremely personal way and impels us to question our fundamental beliefs regarding sexuality and expected gender behaviors. Furthermore, it dents the appeal of the traditional leading man—the George Clooneys and Brad Pitts of the world (not to discredit them; they both do great work), who charm audiences with their too-cool wit—by exposing how boring it can be to be self-serious and, well, on top of the world. We no longer see the rigid division between masculine and feminine that’s been clear for so long in the mainstream representations of males.

After starting his career on the periphery, Galifianakis, the breakout star of The Hangover (2009), has somehow found the ring and slipped into society’s mainstream. Zach Galifianakis’ vulnerable and asexual turn as Alan in The Hangover might be the breaking-on-through-to-the-other-side of this genre—working as the subject to elucidate social ignorance of the subject as a real human being—into the mainstream’s social consciousness.

Nobody knows what to think of Alan (or his antics), a portly social-twit with the affected swagger of a runway model (is this meant to suggest Alan’s gay? No, it’s meant to be shocking in its innocuousness) and Thor’s beard. He makes absurdist, politically-abrasive comments meant to stir the viewer—i.e., when picking up Phil (Bradley Cooper) from the school where he teaches, Alan asks Doug (Justin Bartha), “Do you have to park so close?… I’m not supposed to be within two-hundred feet of a school… or a Chucky Cheese.” Later, Stu (Ed Helms) advises Alan that he shouldn’t attempt to count cards in Las Vegas because it’s illegal, to which Alan responds, “It’s not illegal, it’s frowned upon. Like masturbating on an airplane.” Phil chimes in, “I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, too.” Alan responds, “Yeah, maybe after 9/11 where everybody got so sensitive. Thanks a lot, Bin Laden!”

Of course, pedophilia and public masturbation are serious matters, and 9/11 is a very sensitive subject for the American population. It’s not the situations at which Galifianakis pokes fun, but at the response of the American people to the situations. In other words, he mocks American austerity and its castigatory nature and self-seriousness in the face of averseness, not the actual acts of pedophilia, sexual deviance, or terrorism.

While director Todd Phillips chooses not to expose the specifics of Alan’s comments, the viewer, of course, can assume why Alan is banned from school areas and that he is ignorant to social norms. We don’t ever see Alan as a real threat to society. What these opening scenes do is set up a familiar formula—a weirdo and effeminate type cast against responsible, masculine leading men. As they make their way to Las Vegas for Doug’s bachelor party, the hi-jinks ensue and the jokes are aimed fast and furiously at Alan.

Before spending a night out on the town, Alan spikes the drinks at his brother-in-law’s bachelor party in hopes that it will help his new friends “let loose”—an absolutely absurd and criminal conceptual structure—and yet when his friends (who blacked out because of the incident) confront him, Galafianakis convinces us that his character’s intentions were pure and that he just really wanted everyone to have a good time. In doing so, we ultimately empathize with Alan, who would otherwise simply be seen as a side-show circus act to his “normal” counterparts.

Alan is the anti-leading man and yet contains the strand of one—he extracts empathy from the viewer when least expected. He represents everything normalcy and society rejects because finally sympathizing with the weirdo (rather than pitying him) puts us on an equal plane with him. Furthermore, we must look at how poorly we have treated the Alans of the world for so long, with whom we now sympathize.

And this is where Phil—who, for all purposes, is the leading man of The Hangover—becomes important. Will Phil disregard Alan as a hapless idiot? Or will he accept Alan as a functioning, although different, part of society? Phil ultimately represents the viewer, the demographic the film hopes to reach. After all, it’s Phil who plays the responsible and mature male, as can be attested to in the scene where the bride-to-be calls Phil in order to find out what has happened to her fiancé, Doug, in the Vegas comedy of errors. (It is important that she does not call Alan). Phil takes responsibility and tells Tracy (Sasha Baresse), “We fucked up… we lost Doug.” The leading man, finally having taken responsibility for his actions, must reflect on his place in the world. Cheers to director Todd Phillips—Phil is unprecedented in his acceptance of the strange Alan.

While Galifianakis’s role as Alan might seem harmless, when paired with his oftentimes visceral stand-up comedy routine, we have ourselves a double-edged comedic weapon and his weird and deviant characters become richer. On his Live: From the Purple Onion DVD (2006), he sneaks in a very intimate personal anecdote—he reveals that his uncle, Nick Galifianakis, ran against Jesse Helms for a senate seat in North Carolina. Helms’s campaign, apparently, coined a slogan, “Vote for Helms. He’s One of Us”—a direct attack on the Galifianakis surname, which sounds “foreign.” Zach ends this quip very seriously, looking flustered as he runs his hands through his hair, “I hate the right, I hate them with a passion.” What he puts into very concrete terms in his stand-up routine translates to and informs the abnormalcies, deviant behavior, and anti-establishment aspects of the characters he portrays. Not often does a comedian allow that type of vulnerability into a stage show, but vulnerability is the strand that allows Galifianakis to hit comedic nerves that have been un-nurtured for too long.

George Carlin often mocked the same subject that Galifianakis does. He once quipped, “Here’s all you need to know about men and women: men are stupid and women are crazy…If you don’t think men are stupid, check the newspaper. Ninety-nine percent of all the truly horrifying shit going on in this world was initiated, established, perpetrated, and enabled or continued by men. And that includes the wave and the high-five: two of history’s truly low points.” Carlin was ahead of his time, as great comedians are, for they are the most direct and uninhibited observers of modern culture. They have the special ability of somehow finding ways into the hearts of their subjects. But Carlin was looking in from the outside. He was not the elephant of the Magic Eye. He could only tell a story about the elephant. In his physicality, his sharp-scrawny, haggard-hanging profile and bearded-gravel mouth, Carlin could never be the subject—he was too rough. He was able to win over his fans because he looked like his fans—blue-collar and so tired and bored with life that profanity (along with a six-pack) was enough for a laugh before hitting the hay.

Furthermore, we must look at predecessors who set the stage for Galifianakis in mainstream entertainment. Bill Murray and Robert Downey, Jr. have been championing the anti-leading man for years. Downey turned in a fantastically underappreciated performance as Tommy, a blue-collar homosexual and part of a 50s-leaning nuclear-family in Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995). Bill Murray, as one of film’s funniest characters of all time, played the obsessive-compulsive, hypo-chondriacal, and neurotic Bob Wiley, the antithesis of stereotypical maleness, in Frank Oz’s What About Bob? (1991). Both actors play men who have been represented only in the fringe for decades: the soft (assumedly homosexual), vulnerable, and unabashed neurotic like Bob Wiley (also, think of Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors, or, hell, in any Allen film). Both Murray and Downey, Jr., however, have too much Midwestern (yes, Downey was born in New York, but still…) spite—too much blue-collar upbringing and Catholic-like guilt—to ever let go of their, for lack of a better term, toughness. (Their sort will forever be battling the judgmental phantom male prototype in their emotionally un-nurtured minds).

Zach Galifanakis has done what his predecessors couldn’t—he has attained the fourth dimension as an actor-comedian. He has no emotional block prohibiting him from illuminating his subject’s silly and derisive prejudices. He has the ability to shake a viewer from his or her skin and ponder unanswered questions that have been stuck down in the guts for too long. Whereas the aforementioned actors and comedians compel us to think about the absurdity of social processes and personal prejudices, none of them are quite a part of their chosen subjects, and so can never be truly viable sources of undercover investigative findings. Galifianakis lives his comedy, both on and off-screen. In a 2010 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, in reaction to California’s Proposition 19 (which would allow citizens to grow their own weed), Galifianakis blazed a joint on air. This straightforward approach of resistance to establishment and cultural normalcy very clearly permeates his roles and stand-up comedy.

The hesitant viewer might worry that Galifiankis’ effeminate turns as Alan and as Ethan in 2010’s Due Date are possible representations of his orientation (despite the fact that neither Alan nor Ethan ever show any interest in men or women; Galifianakis very cleverly eludes that topic, knowing how literally some people interpret expression). Other viewers might see these roles as torpedoes aimed at the castle of the male paradigm, piercing the protective bubble of traditional masculinity.

But from any perspective, Galifianakis has sneaked into the world like the elephant in the Magic Eye. He is there even if we don’t want to see him. He challenges us to let go, to see him, and to see ourselves in him. Maybe you’ll find him in the junk-heap someday and pick him up, maybe you won’t. But ponder this, if you will…

Cruise. Pitt. Clooney. Depp. Newman. Galifianakis. Wayne. Bale. Brando. DeNiro. Hanks. Peck.

Most people in this world feel lonely, weird, and insecure, and many of us don’t ever want to think of ourselves as being weird because it might lead to loneliness. Galifianakis’ form of comedy, despite its façade of arrogance and confidence, is the most vulnerable expression of discontent with the social paradigm. If only we allow ourselves to lose control and see it for its true aim, this new comedy can change the world in the same way that Heath Ledger did as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)—because it can cause us to look at the nature of good and evil as well as the punitive system and its effects on the soul. Of course, this idea seems ludicrous, and I’m sure Galifianakis would make a joke about it. But for those of you willing to search out the elephant and look past the beard and cynicism, see Zach Galifianakis for what he truly is: a radical comedic genius on a crusade to end ignorance and idiocy.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Pingback: Home Video of the Week: ‘Visioneers’, Starring Zach Galifianakis | Cultural Transmogrifier Magazine

  2. I hope that was good weed, man.

  3. Pingback: Rewind: ‘Arrested Development’ – ‘Charity Drive’ | Cultural Transmogrifier Magazine

  4. Pingback: The End of the World: Understanding Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ through Louis C.K. and Camus | Cultural Transmogrifier Magazine

  5. Pingback: Is Larry David the good guy after all? | Vancouver Ecodensity

Leave a Reply