MANCHESTER, Tennessee (AP) -- As Chris Rock performed in front of an audience of tens of thousands, comedian Zach Galifianakis watched admiringly offstage.
Zach Galifianakis characterizes his act as a "free-for-all on the stage that is hit-or-miss."
"I just thought, 'I will never be able to do this," Galifianakis joked in an interview at the recent Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival where he performed in a smaller -- but thoroughly packed -- tent than Rock's.
Galifianakis' standup is a more intimate, ramshackle thing. His act includes one-liners accompanied by his graceful piano playing and unpredictable excursions into the audience. Thickly bearded and unkempt (he jokes that he has the body of a third-grader who's swallowed a panda), Galifianakis isn't Hollywood at all.
"Everything is just kind of like performing in my basement," said Galifianakis. "I just have this free-for-all on the stage that is hit-or-miss. ... I kind of slam myself about that but probably the only way I can do it is just in an organized fashion somewhat. I don't really know what I'm doing."
Galifianakis may not have Rock's polish or giant fan base, but he's undoubtedly one of the most exciting comedians to emerge in the last decade. He's the prime example of a new breed of comic who rises not through comedy clubs, but whose cultish renown grows organically through performances in rock clubs and by videos circulated online.
By what Galifianakis says, though, he may throw off the spotlight just as it's brightening.
One of three children, the 38-year-old Galifianakis was born in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, where his father was an oil heating vendor whose vision for his sons was more football and less theater.
Galifianakis says his parents are sweet, humorous people, but he tells them his act isn't "for adults." They've only once seen him perform about nine years ago and Galifianakis purposely embarrassed them by opening with a joke about masturbating in a park.
He moved to New York to be an actor but dropped out of acting classes because the seriousness of his teary classmates made him giggle: "Crying makes me laugh. I know it's horrible to say."
He began doing standup, he says, in the back of hamburger restaurant in Times Square. By the mid '90s, he was landing parts in sitcoms and movies.
No role has yet fully captured Galifianakis' disheveled wit, though he's been around enough to be a recognizable face: a 2002 VH1 talk show "Late World with Zach," a recurring role on the Fox drama "Tru Calling," a starring role on the fake news comedy "Dog Bites Man," a part in the Ashton Kutcher film "What Happens in Vegas," a starring role in the indie film "Visioneers," a small part in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild."
Instead, Galifianakis has distinguished himself with his standup act, which he's been more likely to perform at music venues, coffee houses and universities than comedy clubs. He was part of the "Comedians of Comedy" 2005 tour and subsequent film with Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford.
It was then that you could see Galifianakis perform as one of his alter egos: Nathaniel Buckner, an 18th-century hack comic ("Thank yee, good to be hither. ... Is this thing on? What is this thing?")
Performing, Galifianakis is devoid of artifice. He keeps a small pad with him on stage which he frequently consults. He alternates at whim between standard joke-telling ("When you look like me, it's hard to get a table for one at Chuck E. Cheese"), strolling amongst the crowd and playing soft, soothing piano while he relates one-liners like "At what age do you tell a highway it was adopted?"
If anyone in the audience shouts out (a not infrequent occurrence for Galifianakis), he often exaggeratedly berates the offender and claims his "rhythm" has been thrown off.
"I have a real disdain for the audience, in general," he explains, only half-joking. "My whole point is: 'You can't think of things to make yourselves laugh, so you have to come watch me? You jerks.' I mean, I don't really mean it. I think offstage I'm somewhat pleasant, but on stage, I start getting this feeling like, 'Why are they here?' "
Videos of his performances are hugely popular on YouTube and MySpace. He's perhaps most famous for his music videos, including a lip-syncing of Anita Baker's "You Bring Me Joy," a video he did with his friend Fiona Apple and one Kanye West personally commissioned as an alternate video to his "Can't Tell Me Nothin'."
For that video, Galifianakis and his friend, indie singer-songwriter Will Oldham, mocked a thug lifestyle while riding tractors through Galifianakis' North Carolina farm. (The comedian splits his time between the farm and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.)
"I live in the hip central of New York and then on my farm, I live among the most country folk," he says. "It's this really nice balance."
His DVD "Live at the Purple Onion" has a cult following, though he says it's "selling whatever the opposite of hot cakes is."
Galifianakis falls into a class of comedians sometimes called "indie comics" -- like Oswalt, Michael Showalter, David Cross, Fred Armisen and Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords." They have emerged as this generation's not-quite-mainsteam comic voices.
While their sensibilities differ, they all revel in breaking down the standard format of a guy with a microphone in front of a brick wall.
That's not say fame isn't encroaching. Galifianakis toured earlier this year with Will Ferrell and has parts in the upcoming films "G-Force" starring Nicolas Cage and "Youth in Revolt" with Michael Cera.
The modesty and lack of pretense in his act aren't a put-on.
"I don't know if I even want to be in the entertainment business," he says. "I kind of want to take advantage of it and rape and pillage it while I can. I'm not much of a go-getter."
Instead, he's increasingly happy just poking around on his farm. He'd like to turn it into a writers' retreat and music school.
His quandary is that continuing his increasingly popular act might come at the sacrifice of the very thing it's predicated on: authenticity.
"It scares me," he says. "Getting known, I think, can be really dangerous to people. I think I'm too smart to get weighed down by that. Somebody said to me once -- I may have come up with this, I can't remember -- 'I want to be so famous I never tell the truth again.' And that's really what happens to a lot of these people. They're not real people anymore."
For now, he plans to tighten his act, including a mock extravagant "Man in the Mirror" finale inspired by his experience listening to the self improvement tapes of Eckhart Tolle while simultaneously being addicted to the Michael Jackson song.
"I love doing it, don't get me wrong" he says of performing comedy. "I could just shave my beard and everything would be fine. I would shave, but then I look like Jodie Foster."
Thanks for posting that vid... I was at that show! Soooo funny. When the girl yells out "five year old with a beard!" and he responds with "I don't do requests," I saw that girl bury her head in her hands....
Zach has the BEST crowd interaction in stand up today.