Co-created by executive producers Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia, SNL, Man Seeking Woman), Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis, the FX dramedy Baskets (which is personally my favorite new comedy) follows Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) who wants nothing more than to achieve his dream of being a French clown. However, financial difficulties and an impenetrable language barrier send him back home to Bakersfield, where he gets an unsatisfying job as a rodeo clown while finding himself still competing with his siblings for the approval and affection of his mother (Louie Anderson).
While at the TCA Press Tour to promote his new show, Zach Galifianakis spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how the idea for Baskets evolved, the tricky tone of the show, the unusual character dynamics, Chip Baskets’ journey of growth, and what might actually make this guy happy. He also talked about how much fun he had working with Kristen Wiig on Masterminds, an action comedy about a night guard at an armored car company who organizes one of the biggest bank heists in American history, and voicing The Joker for The Lego Batman Movie.
Collider: How exactly did the idea for Baskets come about?
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: Selfishly, I didn’t want to play the goof. Obviously, there’s always going to be some goofiness, but I didn’t want to play the loud, obnoxious guy, which I feel like I’ve played before. I wanted to play angry and bitter. At first, it was going to be a show about the behind-the-scenes of this internet show I have, called Between Two Ferns, but I couldn’t make that work out in my mind and Jonathan [Krisel] talked me out of it. And then, rodeo clown just popped into my head and I never thought about anything else. I didn’t give it any other profession. And then, I can’t remember who, maybe it was Louie C.K., said, “Well, let’s give him more professional, pretentious training from France.” To mix that in with Bakersfield, and for a clown to have a chip on his shoulder because he knows real comedy theory, that snobbery makes me laugh, especially in the rodeo setting. It was just these aha moments that you run with. I try not to over-think things in comedy. I don’t over-think anything. But, that was it. Louie and I and Jonathan would chat.
On the surface, there’s a simplicity to this show, but in reality, is it much more complicated than it seems, with the clown aspect and the fact that you’re playing twins?
GALIFIANAKIS: That’s hard, but the most difficult thing was the tone. We are doing these dramatic undertones, and then there will be a pratfall. Whether audiences are willing to accept that or not, it will be exciting to see if they do. It’s a weird show, and I mean that in a good way. But, that was the trickiest thing. I would say to Jonathan, “Are we going to be able to get away with these things that are making us laugh?” We weren’t concerned too much. My sense of humor is not for everybody, and that doesn’t offend me, at all. But, I hope it reaches enough people because I’m proud of it.
How did the unusual dynamic between Chip Baskets and Martha (Martha Kelly) come about?
GALIFIANAKIS: I always knew I wanted him to have an assistant, if you will. Martha and I have that relationship sometimes, in real life. I’ve known her for years, and that’s how we’ve always talked. I’ll be rude to her, but I don’t mean it. She’s easy to be rude to. She’s so boring. And I can say that to her and she’ll laugh. Martha, the person, seems like she carries herself without any confidence, but if you’re allowed to make fun of somebody like that, that means she’s really together. That’s attractive to me. I call her the voice of Ambien. There’s something about her boringness that, on camera, is really interesting. There are not a lot of characters like that on TV, that are that monotone and deadpan. If there is, it’s usually done too much, to a cartoonish effect. I think Martha strikes it nicely with her performance.
What does Louie Anderson add to this family dynamic, as the Baskets matriarch?
GALIFIANAKIS: Louie was gung-ho to do it. There was no real coaching with Louie. He came with this character. We didn’t even know this when we cast him, but he’s been channeling his mom on stage, for the last few years, so this character was built in. Louie would come on set and just turn it on, and it was really easy to play with. Louie is a really funny person. I didn’t know him, at all. We’re really lucky to have him. He steals the show. He’s the heartbreaker on this show. It’s fun to be able to play straight man, a little bit, next to that. I think people will notice Louie in this.
Will Chip Baskets have a journey of growth, this season, or is he someone who’s stuck?
GALIFIANAKIS: You can’t stay stuck with a character like this. It’s not a sitcom, in a traditional sense. Maybe you could get away with that, in that situation, because it’s heavy on the jokes and the jokes are important. The emotional arc in this is important, too, not to be pretentious. Too late, Zach! You’ll start seeing him a little bit more layered and not as, “Life sucks and I’m angry.” I think you’re going to have to see him grow, and then not grow, and then take two steps back, if the show goes on. I have no idea. I haven’t even thought about a second season yet.
This guy is in a horrible marriage with a woman who’s really mean to him, and he has one friend that he won’t even admit to being his friend. Have you thought about what would actually make Chip Baskets happy?
GALIFIANAKIS: I think the only thing that would really make him happy would be living in France and performing and being taken seriously as a clown, and that’s not part of him now. He has that no longer. He probably can’t go back to that ‘cause he failed at that, so he might have to find something new. And what that new thing is, I don’t know yet. We probably will have to invent something for him to go after. But, I don’t know. If it fails, I’m just going to tell people it was a mini-series.
If anyone kept getting knocked down with what they were trying to do, they likely would have found something else to do by now. Why is being a clown so important to this guy?
GALIFIANAKIS: I think it’s just an immature thing that happens to people when they’re young. Something traumatic happens to people when they’re kids. You can see it. I feel like that’s what happens to us, as human beings. Maybe he was a kid and clowning was his thing and something happened to him, and that became his blanket and his comfort. When I was a kid, I used to walk around in clown outfits in my neighborhood. There was something there that I was attracted to. But, we need to make it believable. I think he’s more attracted to the lifestyle of an artist. That is the role that he really wants to be in, and clowning was his in. He met these romantic people in Paris. I’ve been parts of scenes like that, where you’re in this really bizarre art world and people are crazy and different. I’ve been to nudist parties with artists, but I was clothed. There is a very underbelly scene that’s incredibly romantic and that a lot of people don’t even know about. There are pockets in places like Paris and Vancouver, and that romance is what he was attracted to, but his experience was as a clown. But, he’s not going to find it in the rodeo. That’s the complete opposite. But me, as a person, I’m more attracted now to the rodeo. I would never go to the nudist party anymore. No one wants to see that anyway.
The trailer for your movie Masterminds, which you made with Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis, also looks pretty out there with the humor. How much was it to do that?
GALIFIANAKIS: Kristen Wiig makes me laugh until I feel like I could fall down. She’s so funny. If I had known her in New York City years ago, we would have been thick as thieves. I’m very happy with Masterminds. I don’t know if it will ever come out, but I’m really happy with it. It’s tonally different. It’s over-the-top. American comedies seem to be big and loud, and I’m more attracted to being a little bit more subtle and quiet, these days. You can’t do a Baskets in the movie business. No one would give you funding for it.
Did you have a hand in creating a show like Baskets because you were not finding that in film?
GALIFIANAKIS: Specifically in comedy, it’s broad, it’s loud and there’s a lot of bad language. Cursing has become jokes. Anybody can say, “Motherfucker,” but if you hear that now in movies, it gets laughs. That’s not a joke. So, that becomes tiring. I’m 46. If you’re doing the same thing at 46, in this profession, that you did at 36, you have to challenge yourself. If you have people that are interested in your career, you don’t want to bore them with the same thing. I painted myself into a corner. This industry can do that. I was the chubby, weirdo guy. After The Hangover movies, the amount of the exact same thing that I got offered, I was flattered to be asked to work. All I can say is that I am 46. It’s not that my tastes have changed, but I want to challenge myself a little bit. The element of surprise is what’s fun to do. We’re not trying to shock people, but we’d like to catch them off guard with some jokes. Angry and sad have always been funny to me. When someone is happy on screen, who wants to watch that? There’s gotta be conflict. Internal conflict is what we gave this character. What his internal conflict is, is somewhat defined, but hopefully there might be some more layers that we add to him to make it a little bit more rich, if we get the chance.
How much fun is it to be voicing The Joker for The Lego Batman Movie?
GALIFIANAKIS: It’s fun! I’ve only done a couple of sessions. Will Arnett is playing Batman. It’s crazy! I’m lucky. I was telling diarrhea jokes in coffee houses ten years ago, so I’m very fortunate.
You’re joining quite a legacy of people who have played and voiced The Joker.
GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah. I didn’t know that Mark Hamill does a cartoon version until I got the job and people would tell me. I hear his is fantastic. I don’t want to listen to it because my confidence will be very low.
Baskets airs on Thursday nights on FX.