Take yourself back to early 2008. Funny or Die isn’t an Emmy-winning TV and film production company, but an incipient start-up best known for a cell-phone video of a swearing child. Zach Galifianakis isn’t beloved by throngs of frat boys and alt-comedy fans alike because of The Hangover and Baskets; instead, he’s merely recognized by a smaller faction of those groups for cult hits like Out Cold and The Comedians of Comedy. And in the era before Comedy Bang! Bang! became a podcast, the name Scott Aukerman probably only rang a bell to L.A.-based comedy nerds and literary agents. That all started to change when Between Two Ferns, co-created by Aukerman and B.J. Porter, was uploaded to Funny or Die. The show helped put that company and those comedians on the map, and had a big hand in shaping the next decade of comedy, online and off.
This week, we’ll find out the answer to the age-old question: “Can a short-form absurdist web series about celebrities being berated in between two potted plants translate into a feature-length film?” In honor of the debut of Aukerman and Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie on Netflix on Friday, we’ve ranked all 22 episodes that have been released since 2008. Despite this being a list from worst to first, it’s a testament to Galifianakis and his writers that there really aren’t that many clunkers.
22. “Bruce Willis” (2010)
Bruce Willis is usually pretty good at the whole acting thing. However — and my apologies to devotees of the 1999 Matthew Perry vehicle The Whole Nine Yards and its 2005 sequel The Whole Ten Yards — comedic acting is not his strong suit. Willis spends most of the episode answering questions with one-word grumbles, then launches into a monologue reminiscing about his sordid glory days as a 20-something in Hollywood. There’s also an advertisement for Speed Stick deodorant sandwiched in between. Compared to the put-on irritation of other guests, Willis seems genuinely annoyed to have to do this. You’re better off watching Red, the movie Willis was promoting, than this episode. Here’s a clip from Red where Dame Helen Mirren fires a machine gun. You’re welcome.
21. “Brad Pitt” (2014)
Compared to comedy movies and TV shows, short-form comedy like sketches, web videos, and stand-up tend to age poorly. Sometimes it’s due to changing societal standards or simply a style becoming hack. Other times it’s because admitted serial sexual abuser Louis C.K. interrupts the show to do a minute of stand-up. Galifianakis bringing Louis on might’ve helped this episode go a pinch more viral in 2014. But watching it in 2019, it’s just a turd in Brad Pitt’s very handsome and funny punch bowl.
20. “Jon Hamm” (2008)
Jon Hamm is every L.A. comedian’s funniest non-comedian friend. Unfortunately, that makes this episode that much more disappointing given that we know from the handsome Mad Men star’s IMDb page just how funny he is. To be fair, this episode was released several years before both Mad Men’s explosion in popularity and Hamm’s comedic breakthrough in Bridesmaids, so our higher expectations are literally from the future. But the episode would rank much higher if Hamm displayed his now-evident comedic chops instead of playing the steely straight man — especially when Galifianakis sneezes directly into his notorious Hamm hog.
19. “James Franco” (2013)
If there’s one thing James Franco loves doing, it’s alluding to possibly, just maybe, being a 1 on the Kinsey Scale. A soft 1. So it’s not shocking that Franco agreed to appear in this fake-out episode that morphs into a typically boisterous Lonely Island music video about gay marriage. Gay marriage and spring break. It’s a little one-note, missing the third-verse turn that sets the Lonely Island apart from other musical comedy acts. Then again, we also have to judge it in context of the year it was released: 2013, which saw a floodgate of legislative statutes and court decisions legalizing gay marriage in 8 more states, bringing the total to 17 and helping solidify what would soon become the law of the land. Clearly, the episode is very much a product of its time.
18. “Jennifer Aniston & Tila Tequila” (2011)
Tila Tequila, huh? Who would’ve thought that the model, reality star, and winner of the Spike TV Guys Choice Award for “So Hot They’re Famous” would be so prophetic about the rise of 21st-century neo-Nazism!? Alas, this interview was filmed a couple years before the decidedly not-white Tequila came out of the closet as someone devoted to preserving the white race. Lucky for us, Jennifer Aniston — along with an appearance from Brody Stevens — is played onstage to a MIDI cover of the Friends theme song to save the episode from the uncharismatic Tequila. She and Galifianakis bond over their shared Greek heritage; whereas Aniston’s fellow thespian father, John, changed his last name from Anastassakis, Zack reveals that his surname was shortened as well from Galifianakisberg. This episode is also notable for being the last episode directed by B.J. Porter, BTF co-creator and former comedy partner of Scott Aukerman.
17. “Michael Cera” (2008)
The very first episode of BTF is nowhere near its best, but it serves its purpose as a clear blueprint for the series. Released in January 2008 — a year before The Hangover made Galifianakis a household name and several years before most of those households could pronounce his name — episode No. 1 sets the tone, with the combative host grilling a then-rising Michael Cera. Given Galifianakis’s lack of mainstream fame at this point, you can imagine early viewers wondering why this weird man was being so rude to the nice young boy from Superbad and Juno. The episode also features a rougher production quality and 480p resolution that’s a more natural fit to its public-access inspirations. I kind of wish they’d kept the aesthetic for bigger episodes like President Obama, which was shot in HD and ended on a gag revealing they were in the White House. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
16. “Oscar Buzz Edition Part 1” (2013)
After a two-year hiatus, BTF returned in 2013 with a two-part Oscar special where Galifianakis slung rapid-fire insults at some of that ceremony’s A-list nominees. As you might expect, it’s hit or miss, but at least the bombs are swiftly ushered offstage in a manner that’d make the Apollo Theater’s Sandman proud. First up is Jennifer Lawrence in a try-hard appearance that won’t win over her detractors. J.Law is a great actress, but her fake anger at Galifianakis pales in comparison to the real anger she’s shown in the past to interviewers. Speaking of contrived performances, Anne Hathaway shows up playing fake drunk. She would win an Oscar just days after this though, so I’m guessing her character in Les Misérables did not imbibe. Thankfully, all of this is followed by the much-funnier fantasy police-procedural duo of (Christoph) Waltz and (Naomi) Watts. The MVP of the episode, though, is Amy Adams, who lends her gravitas to the line “Don’t you ever fart on my tits again” to close things out.
15. “Steve Carell” (2010)
Steve Carell has long been Tom Hanks’s chief competitor for the title of Hollywood’s No. 1 Nice Guy, but he comes in hot and nasty on this 2010 episode. It’s almost like a comic book where the main villain is vanquished by an even more Über-powerful bad guy on page three, forcing him to team up with the hero (the audience) to restore the usual good guy–bad guy dynamic of its universe. At first, Galifianakis combats the reverse flow of insults by trying to conduct a straight interview with normal questions. But when that fails, he feigns sadness over the pressure he feels from “the Jews” about Hollywood’s distaste for actors who fall in between comically overweight and super fit. It stops Carell in his tracks and allows Galifianakis to regain the upper hand, not unlike Captain America gaining the ability to use Thor’s hammer at the end of Avengers: Endgame.
14. “Hillary Clinton” (2016)
The 2016 election was supposed to be a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. A little Nae Nae on Ellen here, a little Pokémon Go to the polls over there, and then to tie a nice bow on it, an episode of BTF. But whereas President Obama’s episode felt truly shocking and groundbreaking, this one has the unmistakable stench of a late-September Hail Mary to increase her relatability. The ironic thing is … it actually works. Clinton is relaxed and charming on this public access–meets–Charlie Rose Show scenario. Unfortunately, that didn’t necessarily translate into a top-ten Between Two Ferns installment … or, you know, an election win.
13. “Jimmy Kimmel” (2008)
Like most stand-up appearances, TV shows, and films that Brody Stevens turned up in, this episode was stolen by the late, great comedian. Kimmel does a fine job reacting with mild disgust to Galifianakis’s treatment to him, but it’s Stevens, dressed in a banana suit to hawk bananas — no particular brand, just the fruit — whom viewers will remember. Galifianakis and Stevens were longtime pals, and when the former’s career skyrocketed, he made sure that his talented but troubled friend’s genius wouldn’t be limited to L.A. comedy-club audiences. But Stevens didn’t just steal scenes in blockbuster movies. Galifianakis used his immense post-Hangover clout to sell Brody Stevens: Enjoy It!, an HBO (and later, Comedy Central) show that documented Stevens’s struggle with the mental illness that eventually led to his suicide. Stevens’s cameo here reminds you that Galifianakis’s BTF persona is far from the kind and thoughtful person he is in real life.
12. “Natalie Portman” (2009)
Whether playing a little girl who befriends an assassin, a teenage queen turned guerrilla fighter turned galactic senator, or a brilliant astrophysicist forced to babysit a bumbling hammer-wielding god, Natalie Portman has routinely taken on roles where she portrays the only grown-up in the room. It’s not much different in this solidly funny episode from early on in BTF’s run. There’s very little comedy on Portman’s résumé, but she’s a very commendable straight woman, letting the silence build when asked if she shaved her “V for Vagina” during the filming of V for Vendetta. The real star of the episode is Portman’s toy dog, who plops on his back for much of the interview, serving up Galifianakis’s improvised close-out line: “I got a bigger dick than that.”
11. “Happy Holidays Edition” (2013)
This unlisted holiday episode from 2013 is hard to find; it’s only available if you have the link. Why is it unlisted, you (and a YouTube user named Cleezus) might ask? “Maybe because of the jokes? People nowadays tend to be offended easily,” posits another YouTube commentator named Animus Zero. But to paraphrase Jane’s Addiction, there’s nothing particularly shocking about this episode. It’s just your typically great episode of BTF where two A-listers (Samuel L Jackson and Tobey Maguire) get roasted over the greatest hits on their IMDb page. Besides Christmas lights in the ferns, the only holiday-related aspect of this episode is a special appearance by all 87 members of Reflektor-era Arcade Fire to close out the episode with a lo-fi rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.”
10. “Will Ferrell & Jon Hamm” (2011)
A strangely nice episode, at least in its first few minutes. In a welcome reprieve from the web series’s usual shtick of Galifianakis playing an alt–insult comic, the appearance of Funny or Die boss man Will Ferrell is notable for its fist bumps, bro hugs, and cherry feedings by hand and mouth. But the pleasantries quickly vanish as Galifianakis soon finds himself being verbally abused by a young girl who strolls on set. The episode is also noteworthy for prominently featuring a clip of a chimpanzee forcing a frog to go down on him while a child wails in the background. When the oral history of Funny or Die is written, I hope they interview the clearance coordinator responsible for bringing that clip to the attention of over 12 million viewers.
9. “Oscar Buzz Edition Part 2” (2013)
Part two of BTF’s first and only Oscar special features the series’s best sight gag: Galifianakis introducing Daniel Day-Lewis, only for Webster’s Emmanuel Lewis to walk on set. Unlike the late Gary Coleman, Lewis’s fellow diminutive actor who starred in an ’80s sitcom about a black child adopted by a rich white family, the Webster star has mainly stayed out of the spotlight since his heyday. Lewis’s surprising cameo appearance is brief, as are the appearances by Jessica Chastain and Sally Field. That’s because this episode belongs to repeat guest Bradley Cooper. Galifianakis’s former co-star returns this time as an Oscar nominee, the first of seven nominations he’s received for acting, producing, and writing. He and Galifianakis get into a very realistic argument that ends with the latter getting knocked unconscious by a plant to the head. Don’t worry, it wasn’t one of the ferns.
8. “Jerry Seinfeld & Cardi B” (2018)
Poor Jerry Seinfeld. First those damn college kids don’t laugh at his jokes, then he gets upstaged by Cardi B on his own episode of BTF! Though to be fair, it’s nearly impossible to not get upstaged by Cardi B. Seinfeld is the perfect guest for BTF, as his public persona has only grown more cantankerous as the years pile on. Yes, this episode has the expected barbs traded back and forth about Bee Movie, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and “Kramer’s great stand-up bit.” But the episode’s highlight is a sweet moment between Seinfeld and Wayne Knight, best known as his sitcom nemesis Newman. When Seinfeld lambastes Galifianakis for having Knight show up in a “clichéd, exploitative way,” Knight meekly tells his former co-star, “I thought that’s what you wanted.” I wonder how often in the last two decades has that conversation played out in Knight’s mind for real?
7. “Bradley Cooper” (2009)
Released just days before The Hangover launched Galifianakis into an excruciating bout with fame, this episode with co-star Bradley Cooper reminds you why the first installment of the movie franchise was so winning despite it’s fratty inclinations: chemistry! It’s too bad Galifianakis is, you know, a brilliant artist with self-respect instead of a Hollywood stooge, because if he were the latter, there would already exist a buddy comedy with these two. But at least we’ll always have Cooper’s two heated episodes of BTF. This first one features an exchange that sums up the entire show. Cooper: “Why are you being mean to me?” Galifianakis: “I’m not. Just asking questions.”
6. “Charlize Theron” (2009)
If you’re a fan of solid or gaseous states of matter, sorry, this ain’t the episode for you. But if you’re a big liquid head, dive right in! In this episode, Charlize Theron tears up while talking about her cancer-stricken dog, sensually describes the sweat dripping down her inner thigh, and almost breaks Galifianakis’s brain by whispering her desire to jump into a pool. The fluids don’t stop, as it ends with Theron pissing herself over the thought of a “fat garden gnome” like Galifianakis joining her in the deep end. Theron may be best known for prestige dramas and summer action blockbusters, but this episode proves she’d be great top-lining a straight comedy
5. “Justin Bieber” (2013)
In 2013, Justin Bieber had firmly exited his cute-as-a-button Tiger Beat–cover model era but had not yet crisis-managed his way into his role as a man devoted both to Jesus Christ and singing the guest hooks on other artists’ songs. Because in the year of Justin’s Lord 2013, Bieber was firmly in the period that necessitated his current persona. I’m talking about, of course, his bad-boy years. Remember those? In a two-year span, Bieber got a DUI, peed in a janitor’s bucket, egged his neighbor’s house, and wrote that Anne Frank would’ve been a Belieber. This was a time when Bieber was a very easy target, but he takes Galifianakis’s insults like a champ, even if it was because his PR handlers were just out of his eyeline. Galifianakis uses this episode as an opportunity to ask a question many people had been wondering for years: When he said Anne Frank would’ve been a Belieber, did he mean an 80-year-old Anne Frank would be a fan? Or was Bieber positing a scenario where he can time-travel? And if it’s the latter, would he kill baby Hitler or leave him alone because he’d also be a Belieber? In other words: a truly excellent interview.
4. “Conan O’Brien & Andy Richter” (2009)
It’s always jarring to see a talk-show host interviewed by a peer. Why is James Corden on Stephen Colbert’s set? What’s David Letterman doing on Jimmy Kimmel’s couch? Are they going to fight?! It’s doubly strange when a talk-show host is interviewed between two large vascular plants on a Dadaist web series. In what shouldn’t come as a total surprise, Conan O’Brien and longtime sidekick Andy Richter make for a classic episode of BTF filled with backhanded compliments, seething rage, and awkward intervals shot only a couple months into Conan’s abbreviated Tonight Show run. The only detriment of the episode is an unwanted surprise appearance by Andy Dick. Unwanted Surprise With Andy Dick, huh? That sounds like both a failed Comedy Central talk-show pilot and the legal-troubles section of his Wikipedia page.
3. “President Barack Obama” (2014)
President Obama’s BTF episode was astonishing for many reasons. But the biggest stunner was that it’s reason for existing — to enroll young people in Obamacare after a disastrous two months when HealthCare.gov was basically inaccessible — surpassed all expectations. The White House said that traffic to the website increased by 40 percent in just one day, with most of that traffic surely coming from the young YouTube-watching Americans who were essential to propping up the Affordable Care Act.
But the episode wouldn’t be the second most-watched video on Funny or Die’s YouTube account (sandwiched in between two Justin Bieber clips) if not for the jokes and the assured comedy styling of our nation’s first black president. Sure, the “What’s it like to be the nation’s last black president?” and running for a third term would be “sorta like doing a third Hangover movie” are the jokes everybody remembers. But I’m partial to Galifianakis’s bored remark after Obama implores viewers to sign up for health care: “Is this what they mean by drones?”
2. “Sean Penn” (2010)
The only episode to feature Galifianakis’s affable twin alter ego Seth Galifianakis, this episode with Hollywood curmudgeon Sean Penn is also one of the shortest. And for good reason: Galifianakis revealed on David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction that he believed Penn was legitimately angry with him. So Galifianakis abruptly walked over to director Scott Aukerman and told him the shoot was over. But it turns out that the two-time Oscar winner was just being good at the job that’s earned him those two Oscars, as Galifianakis tells Letterman that they went out for a nice dinner later that evening. This episode may be truncated, but it’s perfect the way it is.
1. “Ben Stiller” (2010)
There are several routes comedians can choose when playing themselves as fictionalized assholes. After more or less creating cringe comedy with bits like the Fridays incident, Andy Kaufman morphed into a literal wrestling heel who only fought women. Tim Heidecker’s annoyed, pissy persona heard in early episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang! has slowly evolved with every new layer added to the On Cinema cosmos into a fully fleshed right-wing alternate-universe Tim. And then you have Ben Stiller, who has mastered the art of playing a singular pompous version of himself, dripping with disdain toward the people around him. Yes, Stiller is rightfully lauded for playing cartoonishly villainous characters in films like Heavyweights, Dodgeball, and Greenberg (I consider him that film’s antagonist). But my favorite Stiller is when he, as himself, can’t stop lording his arrogance over those around him in shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras, music videos like Puff Daddy’s “Bad Boys for Life,” and countless awards-show appearances.
Watching Stiller go fern-to-fern with Galifianakis is like watching the LeBron versus Jordan fantasy matchup of NBA fans’ dreams. It’s two legends in complete control of contempt, trading passive-aggressive insults like two Wasps continuing a centuries-long dispute that was started by their great-great-grandfathers over a fountain pen. It’s two men wanting to strangle each other with their eyes. It’s Galifianakis referring to Stiller’s most famous role as “Jewlander.” You won’t find more realistic scorn featured in these 22 episodes, and for that reason, this is the best episode of BTF.