Gathering the who's of American letters, commentary and screens, last weekend's New Yorker Festival offered a blend of hot air, laughter and stardust.
There was Steve Martin, eschewing his role as comedian and star of the show by interviewing New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl about the art of criticism; Richard Dawkins spoke about his new counter-religion book for kids The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True; Glee star Chris Colfer, courting a room of mostly teenage girls, talked with great sincerity about being propelled into fame and gay role model status; and a string of authors read aloud and reflected on everything from identity and exile to writing about America and Shakespeare.
For the audience, the set-up of the events - in darkened rooms and with speakers seated on stages lit up by spotlights - gave the feeling of being privy to private conversations. Towards the end of the sessions, brief Q&As interrupted the speakers' intimate, enlightened banters. To some stars, the audience's participation seemed like a bothersome must, imposed by the festival guidelines.
But then, comedian Zach Galifianakis' slap-stick entrance onto stage preluded a welcome dose of self-awareness and down-to-Earthness. Tripping over the stairs before taking two beers out of a paper bag - a small can for the interviewer Andy Borowitz and a large one for himself, Galifianakis proved uncomfortable, but still willing, to spend the next 90 minutes talking about himself.
'That joke never gets old - or funny', the plumb, bearded funnyman said of his beer gag. The guffawing audience seemed to disagree. Whenever the conversation threatened to become too sincere, Galifianakis would insert a surprising, turn-around joke, broaching everything from racism to incest. But whereas many comedians confuse insult with humour, Galifianakis does not play with taboos in a gratuitous way.
Galifianakis' journey from struggling stand-up to 'indie comedy' cult figure doesn't seem all-too unfamiliar. He has been on the comedy club circuit. He once hosted a talkshow (albeit one with just a nine-week run). He has created online shows and video clips that have received hundreds and thousands of hits. Currently, he stars in HBO series Bored to Death, but he became a true global name after his role as a social misfit in big-budget movie The Hangover.
However, Galifianakis' comfortable North Carolina upbringing in in a home where, as he put it on Saturday, there was 'too much love', contrasts with an enduring cliché. Namely, that comedy comes from a dark place. Galifianakis was not spurred into the profession through childhood trauma. But what's really refreshing is that he doesn't try to make out as if he was, either. On Saturday, he said his parents are 'wonderful people' and that in his family 'a way of communicating was making fun of each other'. 'My parents are very supportive... I think they are very embarrassed by what I do, but as long as I fly them around the world they don't really give a shit.'
In his online show Between Two Ferns, Galifianakis pokes fun at stardom. 'I just find actors so shitty, I just hate them', he confessed at the New Yorker Festival. On the show, he invites celebrities to mock interviews in a studio where two chairs have been tightly squeezed in between two pot plants. He deliberately gave the show a 'cable access feel'.
'Ego is so funny to me... I just wanted to mock celebrities', Galifianakis said. Clearly uncomfortable with being one himself, he gave the impression of wanting to do comedy but without the attention. 'I would like to do small movies for the rest of my life, but it's a hard thing', he said. '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.' Probed further about what future projects he'd like to do, Galifianakis quipped 'I'd like to stop acting and get into the sex tourism industry'.
Galifianakis successfully turned around his discomfort with being offered a stage on which he could be as self-important as any other celebrity. While many other speakers at the New Yorker Festival relished this opportunity, Galifianakis apparently was keener on showing his fans why he made it onto stage in the first place - because he makes people laugh.
Yet when an audience member asked him what he makes of the debt crisis in his parents' native Greece, Galifianakis gave a sincere answer - some cliché about the Greek model of life in the sun being a better one to follow than America's hectic capitalism. That's when he really proved his point: actors should stick to acting.
Experience the New Yorker Festival on FORA.tv.
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