Few comedians are more adept at making an audience squirm than Zach Galifianakis. The segment on his web show, “Between Two Ferns,” where he relishes in torturing his guest, Michael Cera, was one of the most uproariously uncomfortable sketches I’ve ever seen. It ends with Galifianakis trying to force Cera to tickle his inner thigh, leading the poor kid to protest by making a noise that sounds like a goat imitating Curly (of The Three Stooges). The sheer absurdity of the moment overrode its unsettling content, yet only by a hair.
Nothing in Galifianakis’s new FX series, “Baskets,” comes close to matching the bold risk-taking of his best work, at least not in its first five episodes. For much of the show’s pilot, I was concerned that its portrayal of a sad sack clown would fall quickly into one-joke territory. The fact that its main character, played by Galifianakis, is named Chip Baskets violates Roger Ebert’s First Law of Comedy, which stated that “No funny names are funny unless they are used by W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx.” However, I did find myself chuckling when Chip’s clown name is revealed to be Renoir—that is, until he drops out of his pretentious clowning school in France and is forced to work for a rodeo in Bakersfield. That’s when Chip's new boss (Ernest Adams) orders him to rename his clown “Baskets.” Many of the funniest elements in these early scenes are in the form of oddball details, such as how the boss sips from a mug shaped like a toilet. Chip, however, remains a melancholy presence, lacking the galvanizing persona that made Neil Hamburger’s routines in Rick Alverson’s 2015 film “Entertainment” (also featuring Michael Cera) such a kick. The crusted makeup ever-present on Chip’s sullen face causes him to resemble the sort of clown that would feel right at home in a Rob Zombie joint.
Co-created by Louis C.K., Galifianakis and “Portlandia's" Jonathan Krisel (who also serves as the director), “Baskets” shows more promise as its first season progresses. The basic premise may be relatively thin, but the colorful ensemble gradually begins to overtake the narrative in ways that are as amusing as they are inspired. Consider the character of Martha, played brilliantly by poker-faced comic Martha Kelly, an insurance claims adjuster who pursues Baskets with passive-aggressive geniality. Sporting all the loyalty of “Peanuts” gang member Marcie, Martha is somehow unfazed by Chip’s complete disinterest in her, and it’s clear that she has a history of involving herself in unhealthy relationships. There’s a great gag centering on her psychologically imbalanced dog that recalls the scene in “Annie Hall” when Alvy finds himself faced with a spider the size of a Buick. There’s no question she’s a better match for Chip than his so-called-“wife,” Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), a beautiful French women who agrees to marry him just so she’ll be able to obtain her green card. She informs him of this during a would-be-romantic dinner where Chip drowns out her voice by aggressively salting his food. In one of the show’s best lines, Chip confesses that he had hoped Penelope would grow to love him, considering all the nice stories he had heard “about arranged marriages and Stockholm Syndrome.”
Though there are numerous guffaws in “Baskets,” many of them courtesy of Chip’s twin brother Dale (borrowing Galifianakis’s own lisping voice from “The Campaign”) and the gleefully amateurish commercials for his career center, it is during the fourth episode where this series grows from an intermittently funny farce to a frequently funny one. Much of the credit must be given to the initially perplexing casting of “Life with Louie” star Louie Anderson as Chip’s mother. He may look like Jonathan Winters in drag, but Anderson whole-heartedly embraces the role of a Costco-loving, churchgoing Reaganite, infusing the character with a sense of dignity without resorting to tired caricatures (or worse, transphobic pratfalls). The concern she has for her troubled son is evident even in how she incessantly kids him, and she is especially skilled at utilizing her supposed status as a simpleton to undermine the manipulations of others. When she finally confronts Penelope during the show’s fifth (and so far best) episode, she takes her on a side-splitting tour of Bakersville before blindsiding her with a much-needed ultimatum. Anderson doesn’t play this scene for laughs, and by then, we have totally bought him in the role. It’s a gender-bending feat on par with Divine’s iconic work in “Hairspray.”
The fifth episode also features the show’s finest showcase to date for Galifianakis, while taking its cue from John Hughes’s oft-imitated 1989 gem, “Uncle Buck.” Charged with looking after his two young nieces, Chip haplessly dispenses some fatherly wisdom (“Suicide is not the answer usually”), while mistakenly believing he can bring order to an adolescent spat through the use of a Speaking Koosh. This material plays as hilariously as it reads, but what surprised me was the poignance that occurs later on, when Chip gives his younger niece an honest assessment of the spastic dance moves that led her to be mocked at school. He admits that she’s not a very good dancer, but cheers her up by encouraging her to dance even worse next time. That way, she’ll be able to own every laugh she receives. It’s a simple notion that speaks volumes about how performers enable their insecurities to fuel their work as opposed to obstructing it. The scene ends with Chip earning his first genuine laugh—from his nieces, naturally—and he doesn’t acquire it by getting gored by a bull. He triumphs simply by being himself. “Baskets” may not be an instant must-see, but considering how much I grew to care about the characters after only a few episodes, the show could prove to be a slam dunk for Galifianakis & Co. by its inaugural season’s finale.