OK, you’ve got the hit movie in “The Hangover.”
You got the New York Times Magazine profile.
You got the cult following as a stand-up comedian of prodigious and unpredictable talent.
Now don’t blow it by letting some agent or manager try to turn you into a comedy commodity.
It happens regularly: A comedy performer has an unexpected hit and his flavor-of-the-month-ness attracts the “suits” (as Billy Walsh called them on “Entourage”) – the facilitator types who latch on to new talent like a remora on a shark to try to guide them to bigger, fatter feeding grounds.
Invariably, it leads the comedian to abandon his instincts – or compromise his vision – in pursuit of a massive payday. Or it leads the comic to believe that, in fact, his flatulence is vanilla-scented – and that every idea that comes to his mind or bursts from his lips is pure genius, deserving of the aforementioned buttload of cash.
Neither is ever more than occasionally true.
If you look at the trajectory of movie comedy in the past 30-plus years, most of it can be seen as an extension of “Saturday Night Live” – indeed, almost all of it. And in most cases, the role model has been the career of Chevy Chase.
That’s not a good thing.
Chase was the writer who convinced producer Lorne Michaels to let him appear onscreen when “SNL” went on the air in 1976. Almost immediately, he was a sensation with his “I’m Chevy Chase – and you’re not” catchphrase, his smirky humor and his willingness to take painful pratfalls.
He was the first “SNL” star to break out to films – and went on to an undistinguished movie career notable for its lack of memorable films (possible exceptions: “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Caddyshack”).
He was quickly followed to Hollywood by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who could be funny together but neither of whom ever headlined a movie without the other that was worth the price of admission.
They set the mold for the “SNL” machine: Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell. Each has had a couple of funny movies; most have a batting average well below Derek Jeter’s lifetime mark, in terms of comedies that a) really worked and b) still hold up today.
The exception is Murray, who’s had his share of missteps (“Larger Than Life,” “Garfield”). But Murray, like Steve Martin, has adventurous taste and a willingness to stretch himself, working for directors like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch.
Martin, who is brilliant in movies he writes himself, has the unfortunate and alarming habit of starring in brutally unfunny multiplex fodder like the “Pink Panther” movies, “Sgt. Bilko” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” I’ve gone off on Martin – and Murphy and Robin Williams, the big three of 80s movie comedy – in a previous post.
Through the early ’90s, there was no one hotter than Jim Carrey – who stopped being funny once he started making $15 million a movie. Or the Farrelly brothers – who can’t find the funny when they step away from the ‘R’ rating.
The success of Sandler, Ferrell, Schneider, et al, has less to do with the quality of their movies than the power of marketing. Each has dozens of titles on his filmography – and no more than three that you’d want to see at all, let alone more than once.
The same thing is happening now to Steve Carell, Jack Black and Seth Rogen. Carell and Rogen both hit big in movies thanks to Judd Apatow (who is in serious danger of spreading himself too thin as Hollywood’s comic genius du jour). But Carell then did “Evan Almighty” and “Get Smart” – gaack! Luckily he’s got “The Office,” on which he is so brilliant week after week.
Rogen, too, is in trouble – perhaps already overexposed after “Observe and Report.” He and Apatow team up with Sandler in this summer’s “Funny People,” but he needs to take a breath.
Black made a major misstep with “Year One” – following another one in “Be Kind Rewind.” I’ve always liked Black’s energy – but he needs to get a little pickier and select more projects like “Margot at the Wedding” and fewer like “Nacho Libre.”
I find it dismaying when I read interviews with young comics who proclaim Sandler as their role model. I’ll give him props for films like “Reign Over Me” and “Punch-Drunk Love” – but little else on his resume. Sandler’s success is really what’s wrong with film comedy today.
As for you, Zach Galifianakis, well, it depends on what you want. Right about now, you’re probably being bombarded with all the scripts Rogen, Carell, Black and others took a pass on – and multimillion-dollar offers that might make them seem not as awful as they probably are.
I know, I know – it’s easy from my vantage point to counsel against selling out for a stack of cash that would set you for life (since I’ll never have to make that choice). But people have long memories – and the availability of material on DVD and the Internet keeps refreshing them. Your bad choices will be with you forever.
You’re a wildly creative guy with a wonderfully offbeat sense of humor. Your cred is on the rise because you’ve been true to your own vision. Stay focused, Zach.