Zach Woods on the joke he told that fills him with shame — and the best heckle he's received
Zach Woods is a gentle comedy assassin, one who quietly steals scenes, expertly dismembers them, and respectfully buries their corpses. The Office alum served up standout laughs for six seasons on Silicon Valley as the compassionate, over-devoted, delicately damaged, off-kilter Piped Piper servant Jared, and now, just two months after Silicon Valley logged off, Woods returns to HBO in the space farce Avenue 5, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. This time he stars as Matt, this ship’s agreeable yet aggressively apathetic head of customer relations. “Playing a friendly nihilist was nice because I didn’t want to just do another version of Jared,” notes Woods, 35. “‘Be nice’ is the only thing he believes in.”
Woods’ next role propels him into the cinematic orbit: he stars opposite Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the black comedy Downhill (Feb. 14), playing Zach, a coworker of Pete (Ferrell) who has been giddily skipping through Europe with a new romantic interest. “He’s just drenched in serotonin and down to give up his whole identity because he’s feeling so in love,” Woods says. “And then over the course of the movie, you see the limitations of that freewheeling life.” The UCB-trained actor with no comedy limits (well, maybe just one, as you’ll soon read about) opened up to EW for the latest edition of Comedy of My Life.
The album or TV show that made me want to pursue comedy
I used to fall asleep listening to Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker. I wanted to be well-liked, and I felt oppressively aware of other people’s experience of me. And I liked how “f— you” he was. It’s a very aggressive delivery. He’s literally screaming—he’s so smart and so funny—and he’d say things that seemed completely impermissible.
There’s this weird song on it, “No Sex (in the Champagne Room)” and I didn’t know what that meant at all. And I still don’t really know what it means. As an adult, [you often say], “There’s all these things when you’re a kid, you’re like, ‘Oh, I heard that thing and I didn’t know what it meant. And now I know.'” I have no better idea about what there’s no sex in the champagne room means now as a 35-year-old man than I did when I was a 14-year-old falling asleep to Bigger & Blacker.
The first laugh I ever got
I remember going to my cousins’ house in Brooklyn — it was a cousin’s birthday party where I was the obligatory invitee. And I remember being intimidated by all these New York City kids and they had everyone go around and introduce themselves at the beginning of the party. “I’m Carl. “I’m Jennifer.” And then it got to me and I said, “I’m hungry.” And I remember it got the response it deserved. And then I remember my Uncle Alan going, “Okay, Hungry, but what’s your real name?” I was probably five, six years old, I still remember the hot-faced humiliation of that stale joke. We’re going around the circle, I’m ignoring everyone else’s name because I’m busy keying up this real zinger.
My father told me, “I always thought you were going to be a funny adult, because as a kid you would try to be funny and fail all the time. You were constantly trying to be funny and it was not working. I would watch and think, ‘Oh, he’s going to be funny one day, because he’s gonna figure it out eventually. Like, with that many at-bats, how could he not eventually start to connect?”
My unlikely comedic inspiration
John Cazale. He’s an incredible actor; he’s a strange-looking guy but beautiful in his way. In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino says to him, “We can go to any country in the world. Where do you want to go?” He goes, “Wyoming.” He doesn’t know it’s not a country, and it’s a whole biography in a single word. It’s so sad and sweet and funny.
The joke that fills me with shame
In my first improv class at UCB, I was 16 and Billy Merritt — the lion of New York improv — asked every-one, “What brought you to the class?” I was like, “Train.” Billy was so compassionate with me. He gave a pity laugh and was like, “But seriously, what was it?” And I was like, “I know I look like a young boy, but I’m actually in my 40s and I have an adrenal condition.” People laughed and I went, “No, I’m serious.” Then people got quiet and I was like, “No, I was joking.” How I was not immediately asked to leave remains a mystery. It was such efficient dickheadery, too; I don’t know if you could convey unlikability in a more efficient way. Insisting on a debilitating condition as an icebreaker, I don’t recommend to anyone.
The part of me that I have exploited the most for a laugh
Probably my whole body and the way I move physically. I had multiple screenings for Marfan Syndrome when I was a kid. Like, they just could not believe that I didn’t have Marfan Syndrome because I had a hole in my chest and my wingspan is longer than my height. Doctors kept being like, “Let’s just check this again.” I had such a weird sort of Abe Lincoln frame. Abe Lincoln did have Marfan Syndrome, actually. I think as I’ve gotten older, my body has normalized. I’ve gained weight and I don’t feel like as much of an apologetic skeleton that I feel like I was for the first 28 years of my life. But for a long time I felt like my body was just sort of a shelf for my head, and I felt so disconnected from it in a way. My body would betray me in ways that were funny and not always in my control.
The joke that fans call out to me on the streets
Dressing up as Lady Gaga on The Office — for some reason people really bring that up a lot. Jared being locked in the self-driving car, people seemed to respond to that. I get “This guy f—s!” a lot. It’s an insane thing to say to somebody that you haven’t met, even if it’s a reference. This has happened to me multiple times, where someone will come up to me and sort of timidly say, “This guy f—s,” and then they’ll go, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I just had to.” It’s very sweet in a way. But it’s such a strange thing. I was walking near Broadway theaters and Matilda the Musical was letting out, and all these little kids were out on the sidewalk and these two finance bros were like, “This guys f—s!!!” I was thinking, “What will their parents make of a grimacing man hurrying by as two guys in suits scream, ‘This guy f—s!’ surrounded by children who have just watched a Roald Dahl musical?”
The co-star who always made me break character during filming
When I was a kid, I used to watch Will Ferrell sketches, and I always felt annoyed when people would laugh. I was like, “Goddamn it. This is so funny. Just don’t ruin it!” And then the first TV show I ever did was The Office, and he did The Office for a while and I realized it’s like such an empathy-bestowing experience. Will Ferrell is almost predatorially funny; he can smell the blood in the water. I was terrified. He would start to improvise and be so goddamn funny, I’d feel myself start to lose it. He has the most finely tuned antenna: He zeroes in on you and just puts more and more weight on you until you can’t handle it and fall to pieces. I remember shooting that show and being like, “Oh, I see. It’s not a choice.” And I just f—ed up so many takes.
The co-star that I loved to break
On Silicon Valley, we’d have these quiet two-person scenes scenes with Thomas Middleditch. So even though there’s a camera crew and sound and everything around, it felt like you were having this intimate little conversation. The nice thing about Thomas is he doesn’t recover quickly so if you make him laugh, production-wise, it’s a problem. He can’t put the snakes back in the peanut jar that fast. He’s kind of down for the count a little bit, and that is the greatest feeling in the world.
The best comedic advice I ever received
Anya Saffir, my acting coach, told me this apocryphal New York theater story. There was some play where this guy asks for a cup of coffee on stage, and it always gets a big laugh because of the context. For some reason that’s funny in the context of the play. A few weeks into the run, he says to his co-star, “Hey, the laugh seems to be getting smaller and smaller. That line always used to kill and now it’s not.” And apparently his co-star said, “Well, you used to ask for a cup of coffee — now you ask for a laugh.” And I thought that was really interesting. It was like: Just ask for the cup of coffee.
My surefire way to save a bit that is bombing
Break the reality of the scene, turn toward the audience, and share a thorough account of my thoughts about Israel.
The best heckle I’ve ever heard at one of my improv shows
Someone once yelled, “No, thank you!” with no further context. I think the courtesy of it was the thing that was most devastating. You can write off someone with “You f—ing suck!” and it’s like, “It’s just some dickhead.” But if someone goes, “No, thank you, I politely decline to partake in what you’re doing,” it’s amazing.
The most underrated comedian working today
This is kind of a crazy answer, because he’s massively famous and sells out Royal Albert Hall, but I still think is underrated is Bill Burr — even though he’s widely acknowledged to be a brilliant comedian. In Paper Tiger, he begins with this caustic anti-PC thing, he’s just being so provocative and so rejecting of the progressive ethos that basically me and everyone I know is so immersed in in Los Angeles. But what’s so interesting is at the end, he tells this story of how he has to give up his pit bull, and his wife every night would cry and grieve, and how he wasn’t able to do that. He almost resented her for doing that; he was like, “Tough it out!” And then when the day came to give away his dog — he was having a baby and the dog bit a bunch of people — he couldn’t even look his dog in the eyes. It was the most painful thing. Then he goes into the bathroom and he starts to sob. And then for one second he’s like this sad little boy, and he turns that vulnerability into anger. And the phrase he uses is “I bottled it up and put it on the shelf that lives in every man’s heart. And I wonder what person I love will eventually have to pay for this.”… It’s this very profound taking of responsibility for this sickly male emotional toxicity because you can’t feel vulnerability. I think that special is a work of art. It’s so complicated and beautiful, but it doesn’t advertise itself as being an important comedy special.
The one topic not to be joked about
Flatulence. When people say, “He who smelt it, dealt it,” that’s the epitome of victim blaming.
The joke I want told at my funeral
I want them to say that I died of an adrenal condition that made me age before my time. I want them to make that same horrible joke over my dead body.