How Between Two Ferns Landed Obama

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The Originator Award

Programming – Gold

Rumpled comedian turned movie star Zach Galifianakis couldn’t believe his good fortune—seriously, he couldn’t grasp it.

After being ushered through the White House gates this spring, he found himself sitting in the Diplomatic Reception Room, waiting for President Barack Obama, where the two were scheduled to mix it up for his satirical chat show, Between Two Ferns.

“Zach looked at me and said, ‘You realize this is not happening, right?’” recalls Scott Aukerman, director and executive producer of the popular Funny or Die sketches. “We kept thinking the president didn’t even know about this interview, that some aide was going to come and tell us he was too busy or had a crisis or had to reschedule, which means he never would. We just didn’t believe it was real.”

It’s easy to understand their skepticism. No sitting American president had ever starred in a comedy video that had the potential to go viral. And though the current leader of the free world seemed like a good sport, Galifianakis and Aukerman still wondered if he’d put himself in the inane-question line of fire that’s made Between Two Ferns such a droll Internet darling.

Obama would end up bounding into the room with a hearty “Two Ferns!” greeting and would go on to take part in what was a groundbreaking, six-plus-minute sketch that not only cemented his status as a witty, go-for-the-jugular guy but also promoted his signature project, the Affordable Care Act, as its sign-up deadline loomed.

It was that risk—and presidential payoff—that earned Funny or Die the top honor, the Originator award, in Adweek's first Watch Awards competition, which celebrates the best work and talent in online video.

Galifianakis and Aukerman had doubts long before arriving at the White House. Each step of the way, the pair thought a controlling, image-conscious administration might put the kibosh on their plans. “When we sent Obama’s team the sample jokes and outline, we figured it would be dead immediately. Let’s face it: Zach doesn’t treat the people in the Ferns chair with a lot of reverence,” Aukerman points out.

Lucky for them, Obama and his advisers considered the Ferns audience—mostly young, Web-savvy consumers—enough of a draw to set presidential protocol aside. They didn’t mind a scenario wherein Galifianakis would ask about a presidential library in Kenya or call the commander in chief a nerd. It helped that Obama is quick on his feet and versed in pop culture, suggesting his own barbs about the critically drubbed Hangover 3 and gushing over Galifianakis’ co-star Bradley Cooper. “He really seemed to enjoy poking Zach,” Aukerman says. “A lot of that was improv, and Obama came up with some really good lines.”

The president took some ribbing over the disastrously buggy rollout, with the host asking, “Why did you get the guy who created the Zune to create the healthcare site?” It was all in service of mobilizing people in the final weeks before the Affordable Care Act’s March 31 deadline—and the video did just that. It amassed 10 million views in its first day, with 70 percent of viewers watching the entire clip. (Total views to date are well over 28 million.) Funny or Die quickly became the top referrer to 

The Between Two Ferns project built on an existing relationship between the White House and Funny or Die, which had produced comedy videos with celebrities like Olivia Wilde, Jennifer Hudson and former NFL player Eddie George in support of Obamacare.

Landing the president himself came about in part because “his team knew they needed to try something different—not a typical PSA—and topical content is our sweet spot,” says Mike Farah, Between Two Ferns executive producer and president of production at Funny or Die, who had seeded the concept with Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Along with driving massive traffic, the video kicked up a right-wing firestorm, with Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and other conservatives criticizing the president’s appearance. Stephen Colbert’s cheeky recap of the tussle on The Colbert Report became must-see TV. All the attention only drove the numbers higher.

“It couldn’t just be a straight-up ad for the Affordable Care Act,” as Aukerman sees it. “It had to be a funny video in keeping with the Ferns m.o. That’s what we’re most proud of.”

The Originator Award

Programming – Gold

Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis With President Barack Obama

Company: Funny or Die

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.