“Baskets” is such an oddity that even its co-creator and star, Zach Galifianakis, isn't sure if it will work.
In the FX comedy (it debuts Thursday night at 10), Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, who has devoted his life to the art of clowning, a vocation he treats with utter seriousness, despite flunking out of a Parisian clown school because he doesn't speak a word of French. Broke, bitter, and lonely, he returns to his hometown of Bakersfield with French wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), whose infidelity and gold-digging he doesn't understand, even though she told him upfront that she didn't love him and would marry him only for a chance to live in America. Chip finds work as a rodeo clown, unappreciated by either the audience (except when he's being knocked over by the bulls) or his co-workers, somehow acquires a loyal sidekick in Costco insurance adjuster Martha (Martha Kelly, a stand-up comedian and longtime friend of Galifianakis making her acting debut), and reluctantly spends time with his mother Christine (Louie Anderson in drag) and more successful twin brother Dale (Galifianakis again).
It's a very strange, dry show – the saddest of all possible sad clown stories – with an incongruous mix of material and approach. As Jonathan Krisel (“Tim and Eric”), who created the series with Galifianakis and Louis C.K., put it at press tour over the weekend, “We”ve got a guy in drag. We”ve got slapstick. We”re doing all the big, broad comedy things but in the most toned-down drama universe.”
So, yes, it's very weird. Almost all of the laughter comes either from Martha's deadpan acceptance of being bullied by Chip and the world at large, or from Louie Anderson throwing himself whole-heartedly into his role as Christine. (His performance is so sharp and warm that it never feels like a stunt that he's playing a woman.) Most of it operates on a frequency that will be undetectable to most people but that will hit a very thin slice of humanity very hard. (During that TCA panel, one critic called it “by far my favorite show of the new season, but I have the sneaking feeling it was made entirely for me.”) I found enough enjoyment in Kelly and Anderson's performances, and the way they played off the simmering internal rage of Galifianakis as Chip, that I watched all five episodes FX made available to critics, and will watch the rest, but “Baskets” will be aggressively not for even a large percentage of the FX audience.
At press tour, I spoke with Galifianakis about what he and his fellow creators wanted to do with the series, which was originally conceived of as taking place behind the scenes at “Between Two Ferns,” before it evolved into its current form.
Were there any stylistic models you looked at and said, “I want it to feel like this” or look like this?
Zach Galifianakis: There wasn't a ton of things that we were drawing from. I knew the photography needed to be muted a bit. Not as bright and fun. Other than that, we went with it. Obviously, it doesn't seem like we're copying anything. Jonathan is very knowledgeable, and I kept saying to him, “The photography, the more serious it looks, the better it is for us.” Because juxtaposition is everything for me, and it'll sell the comedy a bit better.
You're really going into uncharted territory. Even “Louie,” distinct as it is, has aspects of Woody Allen and other filmmakers that feel familiar. When you're making something so different, how do you know when it's working and when it's not?
Zach Galifianakis: We don't. I don't know. You write things that are of interest to you. There's no focus group. Jonathan and I have the same sensibility, we know Louis CK is up for silliness, so can we do a show with dramatic undertones, and then my pants fall down? Will people go for it? Element of surprise is really fun for me in comedy. I have to be surprised, and everything's been done. When Jonathan and I started talking about this show, I didn't want to do an edgy show, I didn't want bad language. I think edginess is the new hackiness. I wanted to do a weird throwback, physical humor, dumb jokes, mixed with these themes that are sometimes hard to swallow, just to see if we can get away with it. Look, Alan, I have no idea. It's not a wide net we're casting, and I know that. But I'm proud of the show, that's for sure.
It's really interesting whenever a scene has you and Martha and Louie (Anderson) together, because Martha is so deadpan, and Louie is so gregarious, and your performance is so internal most of the time. When you came up with the idea to cast the two of them, were you thinking about how their energy would interact with yours?
Zach Galifianakis: Well, I knew that Martha was really going to be good to be opposite of this character I had in my mind. I know Martha, we have the same kind of energy together. The Louie Anderson of it was just an ah-ha moment: his name came up, and we said, “Let's just cast him.” But you're right: in this show, I was more interested in playing the straight man, even though he's not necessarily that. He's more reactive. The shots of him reacting to the goofiness is something I've never been able to do (in other roles); everyone's just reacting to the goofiness I'm doing. I like that Louie steals the show. I'm completely comfortable with that.
You said you originally wanted Brenda Blethyn to play your mom, and when she said no, you wound up with Louie. How, if at all, did the writing of that character change once it was going to be Louie?
Zach Galifianakis: Brenda Blethyn was a one-day phone call, and she couldn't do it. It was really always going to be Louie. He was easy to write for. He's been doing his mom on stage for years. We got really lucky. On the first day of the show, they had all this makeup on him, and I was like, “He doesn't need makeup. Just put a wig on him. He's going to look like a woman.” We didn't want to drag him up. I always find that people that perform as women, especially drag queens, are often really sexist. They only see women as being bitchy. His character can be a little mean. But there's no wink to the camera. There's no wink to the camera. He's just playing the character, and who cares?
As you said, you're not trying to cast a wide net here. If you were doing this for network, you'd have to really soften Chip, and instead you really commit to his own commitment.
Zach Galifianakis: This isn't a CBS show. Nothing against that, but this is an off-kilter show on cable that the channel lets you do interesting things. Look, if it works, it works. And if it doesn't, it's just a miniseries.
You have experience playing characters who make either the audience or the people around them uncomfortable. Have you figured out by now if there's a line to that? Or will you push it as far as you can in terms of how much of an asshole he is to Martha or anyone else?
Zach Galifianakis: I think there probably is a line. He's mean to her, but he's mad at the world. It's not about Martha. He respects his mom a little, but Martha – look, she deserves it. (laughs) She's the worst improv'er I've ever seen. I mean, I cast the worst person!
Had you been interested in the sad clown archetype?
Zach Galifianakis: I think sadness and anger are really fertile ground for comedy. No one is really interested in a happy person doing comedy. I watch a happy person doing stand-up, and I go, “What the hell is this? This person's happy!” You need internal conflict. You need the guy to be out of step with society. It's a tool for comedy. I find anger to be funny. I find people that are so wrapped up in their own personalities to be funny, and lost. Like myself in real life. I've always been attracted to sad. If you look at Woody Allen movies, he's often playing a sad clown, and it's always been interesting. And angry clown is even more interesting. I didn't want him to be creepy. I've played enough creepy characters. I just wanted him to be a little bit heartbroken. He's walking around, and his wife is sleeping with other men. He's angry about that and doesn't know how to figure that out. And that's interesting to me because he's a clown. If he were an accountant, that isn't the same.
How did you come up with the idea that you were going to be playing your own twin, and that they'd be named after the Rescue Rangers?
Zach Galifianakis: (laughs) I'm glad somebody's paying attention to that. I didn't want to do the twin. Jonathan talked me into it. I've done it before, in a movie, in a stand-up special. But because Chip's so quiet, I needed to have someone who was opposite of him and verbose, to explain a history of why he might be the way he is. And it's also easy and fun to play that kind of effeminate, aggressive person. Effeminate people seem soft and sweet, but it's much more interesting when they're mean. Again, juxtaposition.
You said you don't know if it's going to work, it could be a miniseries. What conversations have you had with FX about how it would be decided if it continues?
Zach Galifianakis: I haven't had any conversations. I think they'll see if there's any interest from the audience. If there's enough weirdos that find it attractive, then it would go on. If there's not enough weirdos, then that's okay. You just move on. But the experience with that channel – there's not a lot of those entities that give you that freedom. So it would be a bummer in that respect. That would mean it's just my fault. (laughs) You know what I mean?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com