'Between Two Ferns' director Scott Aukerman on how they got Obama to laugh at himself
Say what you want about his politics, but President Obama definitely has a sense of humor.
The leader of the free world appeared on Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis to promote the Affordable Care Act, and EW talked with director/producer Scott Aukerman, who co-created the series in 2008, about filming in the White House, Obama’s improv skills, and how they thought the whole thing wasn’t going to happen until the last minute.
The viral video has already racked up more than 6 million views in less than one day on the Funny or Die website. Aukerman was on a plane Tuesday morning and was shocked to see such a large reaction right away. “That’s super nuts! It’s hard to imagine 6 million people watching something in less than six hours,” Aukerman told EW. “How many people are there in the country though? 300 million? We still got a little ways to go.” Aukerman and Galifianakis had been chasing down Obama as a Ferns guest for years, hoping he would follow in the footsteps of Bradley Cooper, Justin Bieber, Natalie Portman, and Michael Cera, among others, who have all appeared on the show. Rumors from the White House that Obama may be interested in doing something “like this” circulated, but nothing ever came of it. “There was a series of false alarms,” Aukerman said.
In July, Aukerman and a group of Funny or Die creators met with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett with the intention of creating viral videos to promote the Affordable Care Act. Aukerman suggested again that Ferns would be a perfect opportunity for Obama and his platform but didn’t hear anything until just three weeks ago. “They said if it were ever to happen, it would be now so start preparing.” Aukerman and Galifianakis were still suspicious that the shoot would get canceled again, even after a specific date and time was set and plane tickets had been purchased for D.C. It wasn’t until the pair were actually in the White House when it finally hit them. “I think this might actually be filmed!” Aukerman joked to Galifianakis at the time. “I remember I stood outside that building when I was 13. I never thought I would be invited in and meet the President.”
The location of the Between Two Ferns set has never been specified, so it was easy to cover up all the official presidential decorations and make it look like any normal episode of the show. And that’s exactly how both Aukerman and the White House wanted it. “The integrity of the process was the same. We didn’t want it to look like a “fake” Ferns episode and, to the White House’s credit, they respected that. They were better than a lot of Hollywood publicists we’ve dealt with!” After waiting in the Presidential Bowling Alley (“I threw a strike!”) and the Map Room and being constantly told not to sit on the antique furniture, Obama came on set with a lot of ideas and improvised a lot, surprising many on set with some great lines. Like all Ferns episodes, Aukerman called this a collaboration with everyone involved.
That included Funny or Die’s crew of young 20-something hipsters with beards — who didn’t quite fit in, but were still welcomed by the White House with open arms. “It’s an important issue to them, so they wanted to get the word out in an unconventional way,” says Aukerman. As for the critics who may say that Obama should be spending his time on more important affairs, Aukerman’s response is simple: “People who get it are the kids he’s trying to reach.”
Aukerman will also return for a third season as host of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang in May, another satirical talk show, though he sees the two very differently, calling Comedy Bang Bang the lighter of the pair. Celebrities appear both as themselves and as characters being interviewed on Bang Bang (think Will Forte as a crazy astronaut). And though he is surprised by the idea that he was even able to pull this off, he gives credit where credit is due, knowing that the video wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Obama and his ability to “think outside the box.”