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Karina’s Capsule: Zach Galifianakis & Web Video Stardom

In the world of box office punditry, people spend a lot of time talking about stars that can “open a movie.” Will Smith’s name on a poster all but guarantees not only a massive opening weekend stateside, it also offers the kind of brand recognition that ensures a film’s long and happy shelf life overseas. Stars of that stature can essentially make (or break) a studio’s entire yearly payroll, which makes them extremely powerful, and they’re compensated accordingly.

As the online video world matures, and the audience’s need to separate the wheat from the proverbial chaff becomes more pressing, we seem to be at the tip of a similar phenomenon. Put simply: brand recognition goes a long way, and the need for familiar names and faces in a world mostly lacking Hollywood’s sophisticated, institutionalized branding means that stars can be anointed very quickly.

Last week’s instant-classic interview with Michael Cera on FunnyOrDie was not nearly as funny or deliriously weird as his authorized but online-only video for Kanye West’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing from last summer, but that hardly matters: Zach Galifianakis has now starred in two major viral video hits in six months.

Considering that these are both fairly high-concept one-offs spaced six months apart, and not a web series that reminds the audience of Galifianakis’s existence every seven days, that’s a pretty significant accomplishment, and it puts Galifianakis near the front of the pack of personalities whose involvement in a web video all but guarantees built-in interest.

Galifianakis’ growing web video stardom is an example of how “professional” content creators (Galifianakis is an actor and working stand-up) can utilize YouTube as a feedback loop, continually propagating their popularity even when they’re not actively posting new material. Go to YouTube looking for the Cera clip, and you’ll find pages worth of results documenting Galifianakis’ creative output from the past several years.

There are (presumably unauthorized) bootlegs of stand-up performances; authorized spoofs of stand-up performances; an earlier example of Galifianakis’ interview schtick, this time featuring an unresponsive Moby; and several lo-fi, high-concept scenes made specifically for the web, including this spin on the famous When Harry Met Sally… orgasm scene. He’s like the Terrence Malick of web video stars: He can afford to work sparingly, because his back catalogue speaks for itself.

A consideration of Galifianakis as model for the new web celebrity comes full circle with this clip, a music video in which Galifianakis faux-emotionally lipsyncs and dances alongside a silent, trying-not-to-crack-up Fiona Apple to her song Not About Love. It’s kind of the quintessential web video –– a pre-Lodwicklip dub,” seemingly more concerned with documenting a momentary whim than nailing a concept or showing off technique. And just like the Kanye video, it was made with the support of a major record label, but other than an association with a recognizable recording star, neither clip announces itself as corporate product. It’s a couple of years old, but it might be a clue to how distinctions between amateur and professional on the web may blur in the future.

11 Responses to “Karina’s Capsule: Zach Galifianakis & Web Video Stardom”

  1. Okay, I personally think Zach G. is hilarious. And I think it’s interesting that he’ll be headlining on offline comedy tour on college campuses to promote both the opening of “Semi Pro” and the Funny or Die site. (Although I take offense at the fact that they’re playing at UNC and not Duke!) Just as in Ask a Ninja Live, we’re seeing more and more of these folks extend their online fame by taking their brands into the “real” world — good move, if you can make it happen.

  2. Karina Longworth

    @TimStreet: Both of Zach’s “hits” have been distributed across a variety of sites–Funny or Die, YouTube, his personal site, College Humor, Kanye West’s official site, etc–so the YouTube numbers alone don’t accurately measure their reach.

  3. Am I missing something?

    His videos are funny but you are comparing his videos with Will Smith opening a movie?

    I’m only seeing video views that are in the hundreds of thousands – not really a “Hit” like Ask A Ninja.

    I would think that you would need over a million views to be considered a hit.

    Now if you put Ask A Ninja against Will Smith then we would have something.

    Were you just trying to come up with something to write about at 3 AM? ;)