You won't ever catch Maria Bamford or Zach Galifianakismaking jokes about airplane peanuts. These comedians eschew the Seinfeldian "Have you ever noticed " brand of humor. Instead, they take their cues from more "alternative" comics like Janeane Garofalo and David Cross, telling anecdotes rather than formulaic jokes and finding humor in self-examination.
Not that Bamford and Galifianakis have completely discounted the power of the traditional joke, or "bit." After all, as Galifianakis admits, America is accustomed to that kind of comedy. "A lot of times people who go to comedy clubs now are there to see that formula," he says. "When you try to do something different, they're confused by it."
But they believe the form is evolving. "I think the road comic guy, the '80s kind of guy, is fading out," says Galifianakis. "What happened, I think, is that TV ruined stand-up. A formula started happening. I think it got tired, or it's getting tired."
In fact, nonconformity is yielding results for both Bamford and Galifianakis, whose combined credits include talk shows, prime-time network TV appearances, film roles and comedy specials.
Bamford developed her taste for comedy performing one-woman shows as a college student in Minneapolis. "I'd play the violin with my head shaved," she remembers, "and did all these freakish character monologues. It was more of a performance art-type thing." She later moved on to Los Angeles, where she met Galifianakis at java joints like Gypsy Café and Lulu's Beehive. "When I started doing stand-up more," she says, "I started shortening the character monologues to little bits."
Bamford holds Galifianakis, who's bringing her to Houston as his middle act, in high esteem. "He's sort of like a mentor," she says. She prefers letting someone else headline, viewing the middle position as "the sweet spot," when the crowd is at its best.
Both Bamford and Galifianakis tend to avoid the comedy club circuit, preferring alternative spaces. "They're a little more accepting" of something that isn't typical, says Bamford.
But neither minds playing clubs in certain cities, including Houston and San Francisco, where crowds are more open-minded. Galifianakis is having especially good luck now that he's gained more name recognition. His short-lived VH1 show, Late Night with Zach (where he mocked the network with a protest sign that read, "I HAVE A SHOW ON A CHANNEL THAT THINKS CREED IS COOL"), has upped his popularity considerably.
How do comics know if a crowd will accept their kind of funny? Galifianakis sometimes tries out his TCBY bit as a barometer. "It's really dumb," he admits, "but I like it."
The joke goes like this: "TCBY stands for 'This Can't Be Yogurt.' I want to open a TCBY and serve soup. Then people will come up to me at the counter and say, 'This can't be yogurt.' And I'll say, 'I know. It's soup.'"
If the crowd doesn't respond to that one, Galifianakis knows he's in trouble. But if they like it, it's safe to move on to, say, "The only thing I remember about college is how many times my grandmother died "