"Our whole goal going into this was to make a Between Two Ferns that happens to have the President in it, and then let everything else work itself out"
The road to the White House is a long one — and the road to getting President Obama to appear on an episode of an absurdist web series is long, too. Also, it turns out, circular. It started at the White House and ended there, with the taping of Zach Galifianakis’ Funny or Die talk show Between Two Ferns, which appeared online this morning.
The first step, says Mike Farah, Funny Or Die’s president of production and an executive producer of Between Two Ferns, was a meeting at the White House last July, which was part of the official effort to engage with Hollywood on the topic of the Affordable Care Act. He and his team came prepared with ideas. At the top of the list was Between Two Ferns.
“We didn’t pitch the President that idea — that would have been pretty inappropriate — but that started a whole partnership with the White House,” Farah says. “It was cool to meet the President, but it was a lot better to go out and do the work to try and make some things.”
The first product of that partnership was a spoof of Scandal, starring Jennifer Hudson, which launched in September. Farah says that pitching the ACA at Funny Or Die made sense, considering the site’s history of comedy about political subjects; though the topic of the healthcare law is a touchy one, he sees it as a natural extension of pre-existing topical videos. “Ultimately, we felt like this was a law that had been passed,” he says, though he acknowledges that it’s a “divisive” one. In addition, he points to statistics showing that young people signing up for insurance is crucial for the law’s effective implementation, and that Funny Or Die’s audience is “really young and engaged.” (According to their statistics, an average episode of Between Two Ferns gets 6 million views; Justin Bieber’s appearance got 16 million.)
When the President’s advisor Valerie Jarrett visited Funny Or Die in the fall, she sat down with Galifianakis and the topic of Between Two Ferns finally came up. So, by the time the President wanted to get more directly involved, the groundwork had been laid.
The journey that began at the White House last summer brought the Funny Or Die team back there a few weeks ago, to film the episode. Farah describes the production as seamless and says there was very little material on the cutting room floor — nor were there “George-Clooney-esque pranks on set” that could be blooper-reel-worthy, unfortunately for Presidential-humor fans. There was no particularly special security needed beyond the normal White House visit screening, and the effort to keep the video secret until today’s launch sounds fairly low-key, too; the goal was to surprise viewers, but Farah gives more credit for the secrecy to the Funny Or Die team’s being busy finishing it up than he does to any extreme secrecy measures.
As TIME’s James Poniewozik noted in his take on the episode, the Funny or Die-produced series is an “unusually edgy kind of comedy for any politician,” given that a lack of tact is perhaps the primary characteristic of the public-television host character played by Galifianakis. But Farah says that the administration gave the comedian a lot of leeway in finding a balance between not disrespecting the Presidency and allowing Galifianakis to use his “idiot persona.” The result: the President of the United States examining a nasty spider bite and trading barbs about basketball. It helped that Obama had seen the show before, so he knew what to expect. (Was the whole thing scripted, then? Farah won’t give a straight answer, though he does say that Galifianakis was able to do some things off the cuff. “I think I’m supposed to refer you to the White House for that,” he says. “I don’t want to get in trouble. But everything I said about [Obama] knowing the drill, all that stuff is accurate.”)
Farah says he thinks the President had a good time during the taping. The comedy team did, too — so good, in fact, that he says he wants to do even more ACA content before the March 31 open enrollment deadline, though it’ll be hard to top having the President show up. His ultimate goal, however, is the same as it was when the site launched and as it will be when that deadline passes. “I’m obviously proud of the ACA component but I think I’m even more proud that it’s a really funny video,” he says. “Our whole goal going into this was to make a Between Two Ferns that happens to have the President in it, and then let everything else work itself out.”
And as for the ultimate goal on the White House side? Apparently, it’s not mutually exclusive with humor:
UPDATE, 2:00 pm: At today’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney addressed the topic of Between Two Ferns. Asked whether it was a scripted comedy bit or a real interview, Carney — like Mike Farah — did not give a yes/no answer, though he did say there was a lot of ad-libbing. One question did get a straight answer, however: Did having the President on Between Two Ferns damage the dignity of the office? “No,” said Carney.