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'Baskets' Takes Zach Galifianakis From French Clown School To The Rodeo Ring


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Zach Galifianakis, stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets." He co-created the show with Louis C.K., who's also one of the executive producers. Galifianakis co-starred in "The Hangover" movies. In "Birdman," he played the producer and right-hand man of Michael Keaton's character. Galifianakis created the web series "Between Two Ferns," a satirical interview show on the Funny Or Die website, in which he plays the disaffected host who asks inappropriate questions to his celebrity guests. The guests are real celebrities who appear as themselves. His most famous guest was President Obama. We'll talk about that later.

In Galifianakis's new series, "Baskets," he plays Chip Baskets whose dream is to be an artistic, poetic clown. In the opening episode, he's studying in Paris at a French clown academy, but he doesn't speak French and has no idea what is being said, so he's learning nothing. That's typical of how his life is going. He returns home to Bakersfield, Calif., with his new wife, a French woman who's made it clear she doesn't love him or even like him. The only reason she has married him is to get a green card. She refuses to live with him. He's staying at a cheap, rundown motel, and he can't even afford that. In this scene from episode one, he interviews for a job as a rodeo clown at a small time local rodeo.


ERNEST ADAMS: (As Eddie) It says here that you studied clowning at de Clown Francais - Academie de Clown Francais (ph).

ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) That's correct, at the Academie de Clown Francais.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) Baskets - oh, my God. That - what a name for a clown.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) No, that's my real name. That's my...

ADAMS: (As Eddie) No, you're Baskets the Clown now, pally (ph).

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I have another clown name, and I'd prefer to go by that if you don't mind.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) OK, well, what's your clown name?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) My clown name is Renoir.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) What?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Renoir.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) Can't have no clown here named Renoir. You're Baskets - Baskets the Clown. You know how many of you clowns end up in a basket? That's the most perfect clown name I ever heard.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Great.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) You're hired.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I am?

ADAMS: (As Eddie) Sure. Don't take nothing to get hired around here other than walk in that door right there and tell me you're damn fool enough to want the job.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Thank you very much.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) I don't pay enough. They all quit. You'll quit, too.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I'll take it.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) OK. Care for a cup of coffee before you leave?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) No, I'm OK, thank you.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) OK, well get on out there. Headbutt me some bulls.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I'm sorry, say that again.

ADAMS: (As Eddie) Headbutt me some bulls, that's what keeps them stands filled in the rafters, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) That's - Zach Galifianakis, welcome to FRESH AIR. I always thought there was something really sad about clowns. I never really liked clowns as a kid. I thought I was supposed to, but I didn't. And I thought there's something really off-putting about clown suits, so I'd like to know what your position is (laughter) about clowns.

GALIFIANAKIS: I'm not really creeped out by clowns. I remember seeing "Short Cuts" - there was a Robert Altman movie and there was a female clown in that. And it was just kind of a matter of fact, you know, she was a clown that just went and performed at kids birthday parties. Kind of a regular, you know, existence - and that to me is more interesting is - it's just, you know, people that actually have to do it, not the weird extremes clowns can be or how they are portrayed.

I think it's kind of more interesting to see the boring clown sometimes. And to see him with his makeup on and shopping for cheese is kind of the clown world that we wanted to paint. This guy is a clown accidentally. When he's trying to be a clown at the rodeo, he's not very good. But when he's out in the real world, he falls down a lot or things happen to him, but he's not trying to be a clown. And that's kind of the thing that's - the dark cloud that's over him all the time is he can't be a clown when the lights are on him. He can only accidentally be a clown, and that was kind of an interesting thing to me, too.

GROSS: Your character's mother is played by comic Louie Anderson. He's great in this, and, you know, it's a really unusual casting choice. Louie Anderson is a very large male who's playing your mother.


GROSS: And, you know, he's wearing, like, a house dress, but he's not - he's not, you know, going out of his way to look, quote, "female." Do you know what I mean? He has, you know, what we think of as a woman's hairdo, but he's not changing his voice. I don't know if he's changing his manner much, and somehow it really works. And, like, why did you think of casting him?

GALIFIANAKIS: Well, it kind of went down like this. Louis C.K. and I were at my house and we were chatting about an actress. And I originally had tried to get an actress named Brenda Blethynight (ph) - I think that's how you pronounce her name - who is an English actress, and she was not available. And Louis and I are chatting and I say to Louis, it's a voice that I keep hearing in my head, and I imitated the voice and he said, you mean like Louie Anderson's voice? And I said, yes. And he said (laughter) well, should we call him? And I said, yes. And within five minutes, he was cast in the show.

And it was one of those things that you kind of get a gut feeling inside of you and you just kind of run with it. And we got really lucky because we didn't even know it, but Louie Anderson had been channeling his mom in his standup act for a few years. So he came with this whole character already formed. We didn't have to do anything. The first day of the shoot, though, he had a lot of makeup on, and I just remember saying to the makeup people, he doesn't need any. We don't want to make it cartoonish. This is an homage. It's not a, you know, we're not drag queening him up. And Louie just is very subtle, and, you know, he's heartbreaking in the show. We're lucky to have him.

GROSS: The way Louie Anderson plays him, he's always conveying a combination of sympathy and complaint at the same time. So why don't we hear Louie Anderson in the role? So this is a scene from "Baskets." And your character, Chip Baskets the Clown, can't pay the rent at the cheap motel he's been living in. And he and his insurance agent and kind of maybe friend Martha come to visit his mother, Christine Baskets, who's played by Louie Anderson. And they're all sitting in front of the TV together. The mother has been watching one of the Home Shopping Networks, and you've really come there to try to hit her up for some money.


LOUIE ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) I'll tell you one thing. I'm not paying any money to those foreigners who run that fleabag motel.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Mom, I'll pay you back, OK?

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) I guess you can move in here, until you get on your feet. I can...

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I appreciate the invitation, Mom, but I'm a grown man.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) What about you and Martha starting that greeting card company? Have you seen the cost of greeting cards? I paid $5 for a get well card.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Mom, I have a job. I'm a clown. I just don't have the money.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) You know, Chip, jobs are supposed to pay the bills. That's why they are called jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You use this on a bagel. How's that for cutting a bagel thin? Pretty good.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) What about Arby's? Everyone's happy at Arby's. Plus - bonus - curly fries.

MARTHA KELLY: (As Martha) That's a - that is a good bonus.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Do you love them?

KELLY: (As Martha) I do love them.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) What do you dip yours in?

KELLY: (As Martha) Ketchup, sometimes with blue cheese dressing.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Oh, a mixer.

KELLY: (As Martha) Yeah.

ANDERSON: (As Christine Baskets) Wow, she's a wild one, Chip. What's the seasoning on there? I'm thinking paprika.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so that's Louie Anderson as the mother in "Baskets." We also heard Zach Galifianakis playing Chip the Clown and Martha Kelly playing his friend Martha. You heard a voice in your head. Louis C.K., your executive producer for this, said, oh, that sounds like Louie Anderson. How about - why don't we just call him? There must have been another voice in your head saying, what if he's not good in the role? I mean, did you actually audition him? I mean...

GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah. I mean, no, we did not audition him. And that is one of those things where I probably should have. Looking back, I mean, I'm glad we didn't need to obviously, but it was a roll of the dice. And you go with your gut sometimes, and that gut sometimes is wrong, but Louie's acted before. He's been in things and I've seen him in things. But the director, Jonathan Krisel, has a way of using performers in a way that I've never seen any other director do. And I have a lot of confidence in Jonathan with that stuff. He does it from a very interesting angle where he wants to see the bumps and bruises in your performance. You know, there's not a lot of fast-talking, you know, snappy people in our show. That's - a lot of TV is that. So with casting Louie, it was just enough of a kind of an inspired choice that we want with the gamble of it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Zach Galifianakis, who's a comic and actor. Now he has his own FX TV series called "Baskets." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is comic and actor Zach Galifianakis. His movies include "The Hangover" and "Birdman." And now he has his own TV series on FX. It's called "Baskets," and he plays a pretentious, but untalented, bitter and angry rodeo clown. So you play two parts, actually, in "Baskets." You play Baskets the Clown and his twin brother, who is similar to a character you've done in your comedy performances. I want you to describe the character of the brother.

GALIFIANAKIS: The character of Dale Baskets, Chip's twin brother, is a kind of a very verbose, loud, for some reason he has a southern accent, character that I have actually been doing for a few years in my standup act, and then I've played this character before in a movie. And when we started writing the show, the director said, you know, maybe we should have you play your twin brother. And I was not really interested in it, but he talked me into it. And I'm glad that we did it because Chip is very quiet. I wanted to play him quiet. And Dale is very obnoxiously loud. And it's just fun to have that device of having a twin brother who is kind of your opposite but looks just like you. And then it also let us have the idea that our mother is so disappointed in her natural-born twins that she adopts younger twins to make up for us. It was, you know, a layer that was interesting to us, so that's why we kind of put this character in there.

GROSS: We should mention that the twin brother is the dean of Basket's career college. This is like a little storefront college. You want to describe the college?

GALIFIANAKIS: Yeah, it is. It's a - that's a good way of putting it. It's a storefront. You know when your Uncle John is sitting around saying that he'd like to start a university, well that's basically what Dale does. He just starts a university to teach people, you know, how to make a quiche and also, you know, boat battery repair. He is kind of a know-it-all, and he opens up a school so he can teach everybody what he knows.

GROSS: Yeah, including sports management, cell phone repair - (laughter) as if they could repaired - ice cream truck repair, plumbing, learning to personalize your license plate. It's this mix of like absurd and real things. Let's hear a scene with you as your character's twin brother. Your character Chip Baskets, the rodeo clown, is broke. He needs money. I won't go into why he needs it. And he figures, well, let me try my brother. So he and his insurance adjuster, Martha, show up at the storefront college to ask the brother for money.


GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) If it ain't my evil twin brother, Chip. How you doin', Chip?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) Hey, Dale.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Did you like my commercial? Who's this?

KELLY: (As Martha) Hi, I'm Martha.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Martha, hey, Dale Baskets. Nice to meet you. Martha, Martha, Martha. There we go. Got it memorized.

KELLY: (As Martha) Oh.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Yeah, if you just say the name three times - Marcia, Marcia, Marcia - got it memorized. Dale, Dale, Dale. I'm kidding. I already know my name, of course. What do you need?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I need - I need to...

KELLY: (As Martha) He needs to borrow...

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Chip Baskets) I need to borrow some money, please.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Dale Baskets) Oh, what a surprise. I'm being sarcastic. He's always looking for money. That's a cute top. Are you a real lesbian?

KELLY: (As Martha) No. Thank you, though.

GROSS: We heard Zach Galifianakis in two roles - as the clown and as the clown's twin brother. How did you first create that character? Because I've heard you do that character before in your stage performances.

GALIFIANAKIS: I started doing that guy in high school. He was just this guy that I created called the effeminate racist. And I thought it would be funny if somebody that was maybe effeminate would be discriminatory against another group - him being discriminated against himself. It was a complicated character. But the African-American kids in my high school knew about this character. It was kind of a secret character that I would do. And it was a way of making fun of rednecks in our high school. And they would bump me in the hallway. And this character would come out. And they would laugh very hard at this character knowing that it was tongue-in-cheek. I remember Antoine, my friend, would bump me in the hallway, and I would tell him that, you know, in that effeminate voice that I was told never to talk to black people in high school. And he knew it was just so absurd that it was not coming from me. It was just making fun of that kind of thought. And I kept doing it. It didn't become a big thing in high school. It was just kind of just among a few friends. And I would do it at home to, you know, my family and stuff. And then a few years later I kind of used him for other things.

GROSS: This was in North Carolina where you grew up?


GROSS: I read a New York Times Magazine profile of you in which you told the reporter that your older brother - and I'm quoting here - "was torturous but in a funny way. He used to say to me, I'm giving you a gag order, and then stuff his dirty underpants into my mouth. He used to drag me stark naked across the lawn then hold me up by my ankles for the passing cars to see." That sounds so horrible and so not funny. What was your reaction as a kid to that?

GALIFIANAKIS: (Laughter) I know. I know. And I don't mean to laugh. But my brothers - and my poor brother. And he - you know, when you kind of give these interviews, you try to think of things that are interesting to the reader. And my brother was like that to me. But he feels so bad about it now. And I hate that I've even said it in the interviews. My brother designed me, I like to say. But he's so remorseful about it now that it's - I feel bad to even talk about it. However, yeah, he used to do that. And I think that formed a weird sense of humor in me - trying to figure out how to make these weird situations comical when they're not supposed to be.

GROSS: You were in "Birdman," which was such a wonderful film. And I want to play a scene from it. But just to recap, it starred Michael Keaton as an actor who's starting a kind of "Batman" franchise. And that franchise was called "Birdman." But several sequels later, he is washed up, trying to make a comeback on Broadway directing and starring in a drama. But the rehearsals for the show are going terribly. One of the stars was injured in an accident, and they need a big name to sell tickets. You play his - I don't know - lawyer who also kind of functions as his publicist and producer. And so you're trying to figure out how to replace this actor. And you've been trying to reassure the Michael Keaton character that you've got it covered, that you're taking care of it. But you need Keaton's help. Keaton has to, like, cooperate and move forward with finding someone.


MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) That's great.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Yeah, it is fantastic, except one thing.

KEATON: (As Riggan) What?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) We don't have an actor. And if we cancel the first preview, the press is going to smell blood. And we can't afford to lose any more money at all.

KEATON: (As Riggan) OK, what do you think I should do?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Well, we hired an understudy. Let's use the understudy.

KEATON: (As Riggan) No.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Riggan, listen to me. Please, for the love of God, listen. Our perfect dream actor is not going to knock on that door and go, hey fellas, when do I start? You don't...


NAOMI WATTS: (As Lesley) Can I talk to you for a second?

KEATON: (As Riggan) Yeah, what's up?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Did you find another actor?

KEATON: (As Riggan) No.

WATTS: (As Lesley) OK, well, Mike's available.

KEATON: (As Riggan) He is?

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?

KEATON: (As Riggan) I thought he was doing the thing?

WATTS: (As Lesley) He was. He quit or got fired.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?

KEATON: (As Riggan) Which is it? Quit or fired?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Well, with Mike it's usually both.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Mike who?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Shiner.


KEATON: (As Riggan) Jake...

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) Oh my gosh. How do you know Mike Shiner?

WATTS: (As Lesley) We share a vagina.

KEATON: (As Riggan) You think he'd want to do it?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Mm-hmm.

GALIFIANAKIS: (As Jake) How do you know?

WATTS: (As Lesley) Because he told me he wanted to do it.

GROSS: OK. That was Naomi Watts as an actress in the play that the Michael Keaton character is directing. So one of the things that made "Birdman" special is the really long tracking shots in which all the action had to be precisely choreographed because it was like, you know - what was the longest take? It was like several minutes, right?


GROSS: And there's always, like, characters walking in and out of the frame. Do you have anything you can describe for us about working in that kind of context where a take had to work for a really long time and everything had to be so precisely choreographed so it was in the frame at exactly the right time?

GALIFIANAKIS: Well, you know, it's like a baton being handed off to you when it's your turn, you know, and you don't want to drop it because then everybody else has lost the race, if you want put it that way. So the stakes were high. And I kind of felt out of place because, again, my confidence level is not huge and I'm more of a standup comic and I'm with these serious actors. But I noticed that Naomi Watts didn't have any confidence either, and that made me feel really good (laughter) because, you know, she was very vulnerable when she was working, I found. And that made me feel really good. So it was a group thing. You know, everybody was there to help each other. And it was very choreographed. I mean, you don't get a lot of rehearsal time sometimes in acting. But we rehearsed this a lot. And there was two weeks of rehearsal. They'd measured off the theater in New York, the St. James - and we rehearsed it in Los Angeles - so that the measuring of the hallways were precise. So the camera guys would come and we would do this little dance for two weeks. So when we got to New York, we knew exactly what we were doing. So it was pretty choreographed. And it needed to be because there was a lot of tricky things to figure out in those shots. The crew to me is - those guys are the real stars of those scenes. You don't get to see them obviously, but the work they did is just tremendous.

GROSS: My guest is Zach Galifianakis. After a short break, we'll talk about interviewing President Obama on his satirical web series "Between Two Ferns." And we'll hear from Mark and Jay Duplass. They co-created the HBO series "Togetherness," which starts its second season a week from Sunday. The show stars Mark. Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor and comic Zach Galifianakis. He co-starred and - he co-created and stars in the new FX comedy series "Baskets." He co-starred in "The Hangover" movies and "Birdman."

So there's one more clip I want to play of your work, and this was from when you got to interview President Obama on your Funny Or Die - Funny Or Die's a comedy website with a whole lot of comic material on it. And you have a web series on there called "Between Two Ferns" in which you play a very inept talk show host who's always asking just, like, inappropriate, offensive questions to his guests and putting them on the spot in really disturbing ways. So Obama was on your show, and obviously the point of him being there was trying to convince young people that they needed to register for Obamacare. My favorite part of the interview is how the segue is made between this really painful, uncomfortable interview that your character, the interviewer, is having with the president of the United States, the segue from that into the president talking about the importance of registering for the health care insurance. So why don't we hear that section of Zach Galifianakis's interview with President Obama?


GALIFIANAKIS: Were you planning on building a presidential library in Hawaii or your home country of Kenya? Because - I mean, both places seem like they would be...

BARACK OBAMA: Zach, that's a ridiculous question.

GALIFIANAKIS: Well, you know, I mean, not to bring up the birth certificate thing, which you really never did really produce...

OBAMA: Where's your birth certificate? Why don't you show it to us right now?

GALIFIANAKIS: I don't want to show anybody my birth certificate 'cause it's embarrassing.

OBAMA: What's embarrassing about?

GALIFIANAKIS: My weight on it. It says that I was born 7 pounds, 800 ounces. You know what I would do if I were president, Mr. President? I would make same-sex divorce illegal then see how bad they want it.

OBAMA: I think that's why you're not president, and that's a good thing.

GALIFIANAKIS: You said if you had a son you would not let him play football. What makes you think that he would want to play football? What if he was a nerd like you?

OBAMA: Do you think a woman like Michelle would marry a nerd? Why don't you ask her whether she thinks I'm a nerd?


OBAMA: No, I'm not going to let her near you.

GALIFIANAKIS: So do you go to any websites that are dot-coms or dot-nets or do you mainly just stick with the dot-govs?

OBAMA: No, actually, we go to dot-govs. Have you heard of healthcare.gov?

GALIFIANAKIS: Here we go. OK, let's get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think it's fair to say that I wouldn't be with you here today if I didn't have something to plug. Have you heard of the Affordable Care Act?

GALIFIANAKIS: Oh, yeah, I heard about that. That's the thing that doesn't work. Why would you get the guy that created the Zune to create make your website?

OBAMA: Healthcare.gov works great now. And millions of Americans have already gotten health insurance plans. And what we want is for people to know that you can get affordable health care. And most young Americans, right now, they're not covered. And the truth is that they can get coverage all for what it costs you to pay your cellphone bill.

GALIFIANAKIS: Is this what they mean by drones?

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, that's Zach Galifianakis and President Obama recorded in 2014. So how much of that was written in advance? How much did the president know about the questions you were going to ask him? Did he have, like, answers prepared in advance?

GALIFIANAKIS: Well, when I got there, I asked Cody, his speechwriter, basically what you just asked me. Does he know about (laughter) the show? Has he seen the questions? And then there was one particular question that I kind of needed to know - has he seen this question specifically?

GROSS: So you submitted questions to them?

GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. I mean, we - you know, I mean, it's the president of the United States. We knew that they had something that they wanted to get out to the public and, you know, they wanted to vet it, but they said no to nothing. They were all gung ho for everything. So there was really no, you can't say that. There is none of that from them. But I did - when I got to the White House, I did ask Cody and I pointed to a question that was on a sheet of paper. And I said, yes, but has he seen this question, which was the question, what's it like to be the last black president, which was kind of a darker question. And Cody just looked at me and he goes, I think so, which means, in my mind, of course, he didn't see it (laughter).

So I wasn't 100 percent sure of what he had seen or not seen or how familiar he was, which I think is probably why I was a bit nervous when I went in to actually - because you want to be respectful, obviously. Everybody knows it's kind of a put-on, but still you want to be respectful. So we were told that he, you know, approved of everything, so we just ran with it. And he - we didn't have him for long at all. We just kind of stuck with it, what was written, and that was - I don't know - 16 minutes with him maybe.

GROSS: I'm trying to remember what his answer was to your question, how does it feel to be the last black president?

GALIFIANAKIS: Well, in the edit, I'm not sure what he - what it was, but he hit me in real life in the face. Now, I'm just kidding, Terry.


GALIFIANAKIS: No, I think it was what's it like to be the last time to talk to a president or something like that, yeah.

GROSS: That's right. That is what he said, what's it like for this to be the last time you'll ever talk to a president? Yeah, right, right. He should go into comedy when he leaves the White House.

GALIFIANAKIS: You know, I've said this before, and I don't mean this as an offense. It's just kind of the way it is. D.C. - political people are often not funny. They think they are, but they just aren't (laughter). I've spent enough time in Washington, D.C., and hear those corny jokes that you hear, that, you know, that machine tell sometimes.

President Obama is not like that, and I think that's one of the problems that he has with jealousy, meaning I think people are just jealous of that coolness that he has. But yeah, he is - he has very good timing, really, really good, straight man.

GROSS: Zach, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

GALIFIANAKIS: Terry, I like chatting with you. It's like chatting with an old friend I only talk to once every seven years.

GROSS: Zach Galifianakis co-created and stars in the FX comedy series "Baskets," which is shown Thursday nights. Coming up, we hear from Mark and Jay Duplass. They co-created the HBO series "Togetherness," which starts its second season a week from Sunday. Mark stars in the show. Jay co-stars in the Amazon series "Transparent." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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