On Feb. 24, Zach Galifianakis and the crew of his Funny or Die interview series set up their spartan black backdrop in the White House Diplomatic Room and then waited for their guest.
As executive producer Mike Farah recalled on Tuesday, when President Obama rounded a corner, clapped and yelled out “Two Ferns,” they knew they were ready to go with a guest who got it.
“He just got right in to it,” Farah said.
On Tuesday, Funny or Die debuted the latest episode of Galifianakis’ spoof of celebrity interview shows, “Between Two Ferns,” which passed more than 2 million views after about three hours online.
The White House had a clear purpose in doing the 6 1/2 minute segment: To reach young viewers and urge them to sign up for health insurance, with a March 31 deadline looming. But in an ironic age where a traditional PSA can easily get lost in the clutter of online video, an increasing challenge is how to reach an audience that often consumes content via social media.
Last summer, Farah was among the industry figures to attend a meeting with White House advisers where the topic was how Hollywood could help get the message out about healthcare reform. At the top of his list, Farah said, was the idea of having Obama guest on “Between Two Ferns,” the irreverent online video series that has featured such stars as Bradley Cooper, Jon Hamm and Justin Bieber answering inane questions from its host.
Obama stopped by the meeting, but Farah said that he didn’t broach the idea directly with him. Rather, he discussed it with Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama, when she was visiting Los Angeles in September.
What also helped is that the White House was familiar with Funny or Die, which had done topical political satire and humorous videos about healthcare reform, including one featuring Jennifer Hudson. “We built a great working relationship with the White House,” Farah said.
Eventually, they got a confirmation. Farah said that the script “came together pretty quickly. I can’t say it was a very belabored process.” He said that they sought a balance in the humor — in other words, not to go too over the top — but that Obama’s staff “Let Zach do his thing,”
That included mocking the actual rollout of the Affordable Care Act and its website troubles, while still getting in the President’s “plug,” as Galifiniakis called it, of signing up by March 31.
“Why did you get the guy who created the Zune to create the healthcare site?” Galifianakis asks Obama at one point.
Obama largely played the irritated straight man to Galifianakis’ questions, including when the host asks him, “Where are you planning on building the presidential library, in Hawaii or in your home country of Kenya?”
The big reveal comes at the end, when Obama pushes a red button and the black curtain backdrop comes crashing down to reveal the stately surroundings of the Diplomatic Room, including a famous portrait of George Washington.
Farah calls the whole experience “surreal,” but he thinks that his successors will follow Obama’s lead in tapping into pop culture to reach audiences that may otherwise tune out to the daily news cycle. Gerald Ford famously appeared in a seconds long segment for “Saturday Night Live,” and George W. Bush appeared on “Deal or No Deal,” but Obama has shown an even greater willingness to become part of the act. In 2012, for instance, he slow jammed the news on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
But the “Between Two Ferns” interview pushed the bounds even further on presidential engagement with a pop culture persona, which perhaps could only be topped by Obama appearing in-studio for an appearance on “The Colbert Report.”
“In my limited experience in D.C., I found that it is a very cool town, but people still take it very, very seriously,” Farah said. “People are so used to going to meeting after meeting, and nothing ever happening.” He suggested that’s why Funny or Die, with its quick turnaround time, may be a bit refreshing.
“I think it is a smart move [on the White House’s part], and hopefully it helps in some small way,” Farah said.
Update: At today’s briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was grilled by the White House press corps on whether the video demeaned the dignity of the office.
“I think we made the right call here,” Carney said, after noting that Funny Or Die was the No. 1 referrer to Healthcare.gov today.
He said to the reporters, “I think what it says is gone are the days when your broadcasts or your broadcasts or yours can reach everybody we need to reach.” He noted that “Between Two Ferns” videos average 6 million views, and that he expected the Obama interview would exceed that.
One reporter asked, “You bring in Zach Galifianakis and all of your problems are solved?”
“I didn’t say that,” Carney said. “We’re involved in a multifaceted effort to reach communities out there, folks who can benefit from quality affordable health insurance, who can avail themselves of the options they can find on healthcare.gov, and we are looking for creative ways to do that. This is one of them.”
He declined to say exactly which parts of the interview were scripted and which ones were not.
“We knew there would be an opportunity to talk about healthcare.gov and, loosely, what the interview might look like,” he said. “But there’s a lot of ad-libbing in there.”
Update: Carney was right. As of late afternoon on Tuesday, the video had registered more than 6 million views.