We’ve all seen bad celebrity interviews. All celebrities, at some point, deliver a bad interview. They’re tired or otherwise stressed and they have that one bad interview that will be the subject of entertainment shows and blogs for the next several days. Some celebrities are just bad at press—the shy ones, the combative ones, the defensive ones. They can work on it and learn behaviors to help them, but some of them just aren’t made for the press machine. I don’t hold that against those types of celebrities. They can’t help it, the same way I can’t help sucking at math. I do hold it against them when they don’t learn to cope—press is a big part of the job, after all—because if I can learn to use a calculator a shy celebrity can learn to get through a three minute interview without losing her shit.
But part of a bad celebrity interview is a bad celebrity interviewer. It’s not like these people go into the junket with no clue what they’re getting into. They’re given press packets that will include a list of desired topics as well as no-go questions. Ask a no-go question of a recalcitrant celebrity like, say, Sean Penn, and you may get punched in the face. I was once told not to ask Billy Bob Thornton anything about Angelina Jolie (they had recently split) or his new baby on the way with wife/girlfriend/whatever #322. So despite the fact that I was dying to know how he justified dumping Angie over having a child (he claimed he didn’t want more yet she was adopting eldest son Maddox), when his new piece was pregnant with his whateverth kid.
Still, I swallowed that shit down because I am not a dumbass and I can read. I followed the rules, and the interaction (it wasn’t an interview for the press) went smoothly. We even had a pleasant exchange about what we were reading at the time. He seemed interested in my book about the Battle of Little Big Horn. See—on the right topics, even the worst celebrities can be pleasant and open. Just don’t stick your foot in. So when it comes to a bad celebrity, there are always two sides to the story.
Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” web series operates on the assumption that a bad interviewer can make a bad interview just as easily—if not more so—as a bad celebrity. Galifiankis presents the show as a hyper-awkward, totally un-self-aware version of himself. He keeps a straight face—his ability to hold it together while asking things like, “Did you ever get around to fingering anyone?” of people like Jon Hamm is incredible—and uses stops and starts to great effect. The rhythm of the questions, the time not allotted to guests to answer, the way his hand hovers over a button that will produce sound effects, waiting for the answer so he can cut it off—all of it is done to unnerve his guests. His questions are inappropriate, invasive, rude, and weird. The kind of questions that get you blacklisted from press junkets.
Yet it’s hilarious. We like to see celebrities discomfited, and we also like to see when they’re a good sport. Watch the Jon Hamm interview and tell me you don’t like him more for taking it on the chin. My question about “Between Two Ferns” has always been how “in” are the guests? How much do they know about what’s going to happen? Based on the first few episodes, which date back to 2008, I think they at least knew they were going into a comedic situation and they needed to keep a straight face. Look at those first guests: Michael Cera, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Hamm and Natalie Portman. Kimmel is a comedian, and Cera, Hamm and Portman are actors with demonstrable comedic ability and who also are good sports about this kind of thing.
However, I don’t think they prep the questions nor have any idea of how far Galifianakis can take a bit. In each of those first four episodes you can see genuine surprise and sometimes shock from the guests. They keep trying to move the interview on but clearly they’re each taken aback at certain points. The wrench in my assumption: episode six, featuring Bradley Cooper (introduced as “Brad Lee Cooper”), Galifiankis’s co-star in The Hangover. It’s a funny bit, especially when Galifianakis comments on Cooper’s recent Details magazine cover and says, “It’s a great magazine if you’ve run out of cologne.” This episode, more than any of the others before it, feels scripted. The way Cooper and Galifianakis go back and forth, particularly when they begin slap-fighting—it feels like Cooper knew every line, coming and going.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and honestly, the show would only be more genius if Galifianakis is scripting some episodes and not others. One episode which is clearly scripted is episode seven with Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter. Conan opens with a Papa Smurf reference about Galifianakis’ blue coat, which Richter and Galifianakis both don’t laugh at. At the end of the show, Andy Dick comes on and tells a similar joke and this time Richter and Galifianakis laugh. The only way to line that up is for Conan to at least know he needs to open with a Papa Smurf joke.
The last few episodes have featured actors on the defensive, now clearly knowing what to expect from Galifianakis. Steve Carrell and Ben Stiller both come out with guns blazing, attacking Galifianakis and refusing to get sucked into his “game”. The best of these, though, is Sean Penn’s interview, conducted by Galifianakis’ twin brother “Seth”. Penn is exactly the kind of actor who always seems to have bad celebrity interviews, so this is the perfect combination of bad celebrity and bad interviewer, and it leads to one of the funniest episodes. At one point, Penn, clearly defensive, mutters something like, “I’m just trying to protect…because I know…” Penn’s interview seems like those first four—he obviously is ready for something absurd but he doesn’t seem prepared for the actual questions. And I swear he almost punches Galifianakis in the face.
“Between Two Ferns” is one of the most brilliant comedy series on the internet—no, it’s the most brilliant. Because you can’t tell what is a joke and what isn’t, because Galifianakis simultaneously pleases our desire to see celebrities in a bad interview but to also feel like actors we like and admire are good sports. Because he crafts each episode to feel so completely organic when at least he is completely in control of the scene. Whether the actors are prepared or not, Galifianakis is in total command of each episode, following his script down to the last pen tap. He isn’t chancing anything, even if sometimes he may not know the exact outcome of a scenario. It’s vaudeville theater, really, and some of the finest scene work you’ll see anywhere.
Due Date was okay, genuinely funny in some places but the jokes felt few and far between, and Robert Downey, Jr. and Galifianakis had pleasing comic chemistry together. Really all the movie did was make me wish for an RDJ “Between Two Ferns”.