Behind the Making of Hillary Clinton’s ‘Between Two Ferns’

In a presidential campaign defined by seething contempt and vitriol, Hillary Clinton sat down for her rudest interview yet: with Zach Galifianakis, for Between Two Ferns. The result is typically hilarious and awkward. As Galifianakis asked about her pantsuits, Trump, and emails, Clinton hit back with pointed glares and a palpable sense of What am I doing here?

Of course, she knew exactly what she was doing — it was her idea. As BTF creator and Comedy Bang! Bang! host Scott Aukerman explained, it was Clinton who suggested doing the short, knowing how successful it had been when President Obama appeared on the show to get the word out about Aukerman spoke with Vulture Thursday morning about how it all came together, including the scripting and approval of questions, whether he knew she had pneumonia, and if he’d ever do one with Trump.

How’s it going?
Scott Aukerman: I’m good. I’m a little tired.

I can imagine. You’re in L.A., so did you just wake up to do interviews?
I actually didn’t just wake up. I’m always too excited to sleep whenever we put one of these out. We keep them so tightly under wraps and put it out in a surprise release in the middle of the night, so I’m always too excited to see what people think of it. I’ve been up since it came out, so I’ve been getting the real-time reaction to it.

The response is interesting, especially compared to the Obama one. You don’t have the same reaction of …
“This not presidential.” But this is such a heavily politicized election cycle that people are coming with their own preconceived impressions of Hillary Clinton, even more so than the Obama one. They bring that to their enjoyment or not enjoyment of the video. I think even more than Obama. But we didn’t really make it for the political pundits or the people who are trying to write think pieces about how it will or will not help the campaign or the people who somehow make a living out of tweeting every five minutes about politics. We made it for the general public who want to be entertained by a funny Between Two Ferns video.

Let’s back up a little bit: How did it happen?
Back in August we heard that there was interest. What we later found out was that she was the one who suggested doing it. Half the time the person being interviewed reaches out personally. That happened with, say, Bruce Willis and Natalie Portman and Brad Pitt. Otherwise it’s a publicist reaching out and saying, “Hey, would you ever consider this person?” and then they have to go convince their client to do it and they quite often say, “I don’t want to do that” and back out. In this case, we heard that there was interest from Hillary Clinton, but we started taking it seriously when we heard, “Oh no, it’s her idea and if you say, ‘yes,’ it’ll actually happen.” We shot it on September 9th.

What was the vetting process like for the questions?
I don’t know if it was because of the short timetable or because when you’re in the middle of a campaign there’s an infinite amount of more important things than making this video, but it actually was not much of a vetting process. When we do these we prefer to do them with a lot of improvisation, where the interviewee doesn’t know what the questions are beforehand, so the campaign was pretty cool about that. In this one, actually, the majority of it was improvised.

What is your process for writing the questions? Do you put out the call to your comedy friends?
We meet beforehand to talk about what we want to do. We always circle around, how do we make it new. Like up until maybe a few hours before, we were heavily considering it being a Halloween episode. Then we realized we haven’t put one out in a couple years. I don’t think that people are really gonna be like, “Oh, it’s the same old thing.” We’ve been doing them eight or nine years and we’ve put out 20 episodes so. “This thing again for the 20th time … in a decade?’ [Laughs.] But yeah, we’ll all put out the word to some funny people. If you read the credits you can get a pretty good idea of who works on it. [Editor’s note: Here are some of the people who got a special thanks: Neil Campbell, David Caspe, Lang Fisher, Dave Ferguson, Mike Gibbons, Fran Gillespie, Tim Kalpakis, Jon Lovett, Pat O’Brien, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, Kulap Vilaysack, Alan Yang.]

Eventually we meet and we try to make Zach feel as prepared as possible. Hosting Comedy Bang! Bang! is a very similar process. I want to feel bulletproof — like I have as much material as I need if I want to use it. Zach is really great in the moment, so he’s constantly riffing during it and tagging jokes and adding really funny things.

It’s interesting how each person has a different way in which they react to Zach. Some are disgusted. Obama was mean. Hillary was sort of dismissive and incredulous. Did they come out in the shooting? Did she come with it?
Yeah, she knew what Between Two Ferns was and what’s expected of a guest: to sit here and be roasted. It’s interesting because we have such a good time shooting it, you wish you could put out a separate video where it shows us having a great time. But these are all about hitting a certain vibe and she was really good about slipping into that.

How much time did you have with her?
They said we’d have about 40 minutes, and then we just kept shooting. She was having a good time, so we shot for about an hour.

Did you know she had pneumonia at the time at all?
No, that was so crazy. She seemed totally normal. We did it at the the end of the day for us, but not the end of her day. It was scheduled for 4 p.m. and then she was doing some CNN interviews, I believe in the same building, and they went long. She did two extra hours with CNN and then came in at six for us and had a really good time. The only clue that I had was that she was drinking hot water. I noticed someone had put hot water there for her. I have a job where I talk constantly, so I was like, Oh, that’s interesting because she has to talk constantly, she’s drinking hot water. Two days later, we found out she had pneumonia and had been diagnosed earlier that day and couldn’t believe that it was true, just from her energy level.

Do you have a sense of one moment she particularly enjoyed?
The discussion about the Trump Steaks was especially amusing to her and the crew.

I want to ask you about a couple specific jokes that people are jumping on. A lot of people like the, “I want to meet the person who makes your pantsuits because for Halloween I want to go as a librarian from outer space.” Was that partly there because it was going to be a Halloween theme at first?
Maybe it was written because it was going to be a Halloween-themed, but we’re also pretty close to Halloween anyway. I also think it just was that person’s real feelings about the pantsuits.

My favorite had to be Hillary saying Trump would wear his “red power tie” and Zach saying, maybe he’ll wear “his white power tie.”
That was one of the first jokes that Zach talked about wanting to do when we started talking about this. Ninety percent of it was improvised, that one may fall within the 10 percent of [it that] we needed to set it up a little bit. But I will say 90 percent is Zach being super quick in the moment.

If the Trump campaign reached would you consider that?
I can’t imagine there being a universe where they would ever actually even reach out, or that it would be a good video even if it was something we wanted to do.

Between this video and the Obama one, do you worry about being seen as a spot where politicians get the word out?
Honestly, the result I want is that people laugh at a video. We always have to judge if someone is interested in doing one, if it is going to be a good video. We’re always willing to walk away. We said for both of them: If this isn’t a good situation – like at any point – we can pull the plug and walk away from it. So there’s little concern of, “Oh, are we repeating ourselves with having another politician on?” But, we just thought it was going to be a good video so we decided to do it.

It’s so hard, after you’ve done the president of the United States, to have the videos be surprising. It’s like at a certain point, we just have to throw that out the window and go, “Hey, let’s make a funny video and hopefully people will watch it.” Maybe the “Oh shit, I can’t believe that happened” factor is gone, but at least you can watch the video and be like, “Oh shit, I can’t believe that it happened this way with these people.”

The Story Behind Clinton’s ‘Between Two Ferns’