With the Between Two Ferns: A Fairytale of New York debuting Sunday at 8:30 before the Comedy Awards, I thought it was a perfect time to look back at the Between Two Ferns series. B2F has been incredibly popular, bringing in over 80 million views across the entire series, on Funny or Die alone. Beyond that, whenever a new one is released, it nearly instantly reaches Internet omnipresence.
It’s hard to say why exactly the series has had such enduring popularity, as it has maintained relevance for over four years now (which is nearly four zillion years in Internet time or 28 years in dog time). Of course, it’s wildly funny and unique and very specific to Zach’s voice, but there is an intangible element as well. Zach Galifianakis and producers Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter have done a lot to keep a mystery to the videos. It’s very hard to tell which parts are scripted, which parts are improvised, and which parts are the actors’ genuine reactions. The result is uncomfortable and irreverent and wholly special.
With Between Two Ferns: A Fairytale of New York airing in a couple days, I had Scott Aukerman – who beyond directing and producing the special, is about to have his own show, Comedy Bang! Bang! debut on IFC – tell me how it all got started and walk me through each hilarious one.
How did the idea of working with Zach Galifianakis on something like Between Two Ferns come up? What was that conversation like? Where did the idea of using ferns come up?
To his credit, Zach came in with the idea pretty fully formed in terms of aesthetically what he wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to work with Zach on something. I had this pilot [The Right Now! Show] so we had money and I just said, “Hey, whatever you want to do, let’s do.” And he came in with the idea, with the title, with how he wanted it to look. I had also been talking to Michael Cera about doing something with the pilot so it seemed like a natural thing to put the two of them together on it. Zach really, at least for the general idea of it, had it all down to a science of what he wanted to do. And I think one of my strengths as a producer is if I hear a good idea, I’m not one of those guys who’s going to be like, “Yeah, but what if we changed it to ‘The Zach Galifianakis Show,’ because people will understand it better.” I’ve never been afraid of keeping something unique and banking on the fact that it can become universal.
Now that you’ve done 13, how do you make it fresh? How do you stay true to the idea and still make sure you don’t go through the same joke over and over again?
Ummmm….I don’t know. [Laughs] I always think people are going to say that it jumped the shark. You know, I think we just try to do each one as funny as we can. What helps is that we take a long time in between when we make them. We just kind of put them out whenever Zach feels like doing one. That’s been really beneficial to us. I think it’s been a year since we did the last one and it still feels fresh to us when we do a new one.
How did the Comedy Awards thing come about?
They, Comedy Central that is, had the idea for it and pitched it to us and we just thought it was a really funny idea, Zach especially. And he just really wanted to do it and you know it was just kind of that simple. They made it really easy for us to do. They didn’t have a lot of rules or levels we had to go through, they just offered it to us and it was a pleasure.
Is it filmed the same way as the web or because it’s for this special, is there more pomp to it?
I think it would be difficult for people to watch something that’s just that black background for half an hour. When people see it they’ll see that we took a step, a small step perhaps [Laughs], but a step in terms of visual style for it. We were really influenced by a certain Barbara Walters special. When we watched that special we got very excited about what we could do with this. People will see that we did something different with the style but it still feels like a Between Two Ferns thing.
Cool. So I’m just going to run through the different ones and tell me what you remember about them.
Michael Cera - January 4, 2008
Michael Cera was our first one and I think that’s the most uncomfortable one. Zach gets almost predatorial in it. The great thing about that one is that we shot it in a basement. [Laughs] If there’s a feeling of claustrophobia in it, then it’s definitely because of the environment. But it was the first one and just a real pleasure to work with Zach on that one.
Jimmy Kimmel – April 17, 2008
Jimmy Kimmel was a strange one. Probably my least favorite, not because of Jimmy, but because I think we’re in a sophomore slump, kind of. We didn’t have that much time to work on it. I think we shot it and it was on Jimmy’s show a few hours after that. It was a really difficult one to put together.
So he commissioned you do that one?
That was for his show. He was a big fan of the first one so he asked Zach if he’d like to do one on his show. That’s the only one we’ve done for an actual TV show until this special.
Jon Hamm – December 12, 2008
Well, Jon is one of the best, of course. I’ve known Jon for a long time and that one kind of re-invigorated our love for doing them. It was so fun to do and he’s so great to work with. Yeah, it really made us fall back in love with doing those again.
Natalie Portman – May 6, 2009
Yeah, Natalie. That’s an uncomfortable one, isn’t it? Probably has my favorite line in the whole series, the “V for Vagina” line.
I think that might be the most famous line from the series.
Yeah, that’s a really good one and Natalie’s face when he asks her that, is very funny. And her dog, super cute dog. We did find out that it’s a pain to shoot with dogs – animals in general.
Bradley Cooper – May 26, 2009
Obviously Zach had worked with Bradley on The Hangover, and it came out right before The Hangover was released. So it really was the last one we did before Zach got super famous. It’s one of my favorites. I’d say it’s top two. And Bradley was really making me laugh when we were doing it. His character that he was sort of playing was really funny to me.
Charlize Theron – September 4, 2009
Charlize was a pleasure to work with. Down to earth, didn’t come with any handler, was game for anything, and I cant say too much about it but her performance in it is really extraordinary.
Conan O’Brien & Andy Richter (and Andy Dick) – November 11, 2009
Conan, boy Conan. That was in the small, small window when he was the host of The Tonight Show. We got in there right under the wire. It’s almost obsolete though when you’re watching it.
Yeah, I was watching it back and like, “Are they going to address that issue?” And then I realized, “Oh, this is back when we thought he was going to host The Tonight Show for the next 20 years.”
Yeah, I forget for how long he was the host, but that was right in there. That was when everything was still good. [Laughs]
It’s a nice time capsule of that when you could still make fun of how poorly the show was going and not feel that bad about it.
I almost wish that we had gotten to do it, though, when he found out he was going to be cancelled. It almost would’ve made a little more noise on the Internet.
Ben Stiller – March 16, 2010
Ben, that’s a great one too. Ben does that whole “put-upon” thing so great. And he’s such a great guy to work with. Just the fact that he even did something like that and an episode of my podcast [Comedy Bang! Bang!]. He’s really stayed in touch with his comedic roots in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a guy whose been a movie star for the past two decades.
Steve Carell – July 29, 2010
Carell is probably my favorite out of all of them. Carell’s take on the whole interview was really, really funny, to try to put it back on Zach. And Zach’s performance in it is really fantastic. Just his crying. And I think that pound-for-pound, pardon the pun, that’s the funniest one of them.
Sean Penn – August 31, 2010
Sean Penn, that’s a really uncomfortable one. When he threatens to knock Zach out, things got really tense in the studio. I haven’t seen Sean Penn since then, but quite honestly, I’m afraid to ever see him again.
Bruce Willis – October 12, 2010
Bruce Willis, that’s the one where I remember having an intense fear that I was going to set Hollywood star Zach Galifianakis on fire and burn him alive. [Laughs]
Tila Tequila (and Jennifer Aniston) – February 9, 2011
Tila Tequila is how we call that one. That one I do remember getting into a big fight, it wasn’t a fight, getting into a big discussion with Funny or Die on what the title of it was going to be. Because we wanted to call it Tila Tequila and they, for obvious reasons, wanted to call it Jennifer Aniston. And we won that discussion and I don’t think it hurt the video at all. They said we were going to give up 5 million views because of it..
That’s so interesting that they could pinpoint it to 5 million people not watching. I mean, everybody shares those videos; I can’t imagine anything like that actually affecting it.
It was quite a discussion. But I will say that Tila Tequila was amazing to work with.
Will Ferrell (and Jon Hamm) – May 23, 2011
Will Ferrell, yeah. Well first of all, Jon Hamm coming back to get his keys, that was very nice of Jon to do. I love the Will Ferrell one. To be honest, I just watched it for the first time since we put it out – since I was prepping for this special and I wanted to kind of reconnect with what we did on the Ferns shows – and I just think that one’s so funny. Will just makes me laugh so hard on it. I was playing it the other day and my wife was listening in the other room and she burst out laughing when Will gets really mad at Zach. The two of them together is just comedy gold.
It’s almost like you’re pitching the movie they’re in together later this summer [The Campaign].
I wish I’d pitched that movie. I’d be a rich man.