Published May 17, 2016Exclaim! is reviewing every standup comedy special currently available on Netflix Canada, including this one. You can find a complete list of reviews so far here.
Taped just over a decade ago, this special encapsulates Zach Galifianakis in his now-forgotten time as a piano-playing comic of the 2000s. At first glance, one can easily dismiss this special because it's such a generic, textbook example of alternative comedy. However, somewhat counter-intuitively, that is exactly why this special should be respected: the reason we have this familiarity with alternative comedy in the first place is because Live at the Purple Onion was the defining special that merged alternative comedy with the mainstream.
Like all great specials, Live at the Purple Onion no longer stands out because it popularized techniques that are now ubiquitous among the next generation of comics. Its use of music as a background wash for standup has been adapted by Demetri Martin and Nick Thune. Tone that alternates between subtle and confrontational has been used by Rory Scovel and Bo Burnham. Weaving of a live performance with a sketch comedy narrative has been done in specials like Kristen Schaal's Live at the Fillmore and Reggie Watts' Why Shit So Crazy? These younger comics use these things with more finesse now, but they are in debt to Galifianakis for creating them.
Live at The Purple Onion is packed with hard-hitting one-liners like "The only good time to say I have diarrhoea is during a game of Scrabble, because it's worth a shitload of points," as well as anticlimactic ones like "I was named after my grandad. Yes, my name is Zach Grandad Galifianakis."
It includes great sketch comedy moments like when Galifianakis, in character as his brother Seth, nearly cries as he describes how the smell of Funyuns makes him desperately miss his brother. On the other hand, the non-standup portions of the special often disappoint, such as when Galifianakis jestingly compliments his friend on his "fatcting" (a portmanteau of fat and acting) after he reacts to something with overdramatic anger.
But in the end, Galifianakis's risks make up for the jokes that don't fly. With brilliant highlights like his smooth improvisation about politics, or his closer, in which he shares his jokes in writing while backed up by a children's choir, it's easy to err on the side of generosity and believe that his occasional flubs weren't mistakes veiled in showmanship: they were masterfully planned, unpredictable moments.