Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019)
Written & Directed by Scott Aukerman
The way I consume comedy has changed in the last decade. When I was in college, it was about listening to albums, often bootlegged. I remember hearing and relistening to Dave Chappelle: Killin’ Them Softly, Patton Oswalt’s Feelin’ Kind Patton, and more. One comedian I discovered in those days was Zach Galifianakis. This was during his short-lived stint on VH1 hosting Late World, a talk show explicitly designed around him. Galifianakis was one of those comedians that made me think outside the album as the primary way to access a performer’s sense of humor and aesthetics. Galifianakis constructed a comedic persona, akin to Pee-Wee Herman or Steven Wright, something like themselves but unlike as well. His point of view came from a fascination with confident dumb people which is the person he plays on Between Two Ferns.
Between Two Ferns is the brainchild of comedy impresario Scott Aukerman, the face and creative talent behind Comedy Bang Bang who helped foster a whole generation of podcasts into being. The concept began in the early 2000s when Aukerman and comedy partner B.J. Porter created Comedy Death Ray, a weekly showcase of talent hosted at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood. The segment called Right Now! and resulted in a failed tv pilot, but the idea stayed with Aukerman. The design eventually ended up at Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Funny or Die venture where it has blossomed into the great success that most internet programs would kill for.
The format of Between Two Ferns is modeled after a cable access show, with a minimalist set, the host and guest sitting beside each other at a slight angle. The guests are never told what questions will be asked, and Galifianakis always has very inappropriate and personal barbs to share. It’s a talk show using a roast as its guiding principle. The guests are always very good-natured but play along, feigning being annoyed or upset with the host. Aukerman and Galifiankis have said the show comes out of their shared distaste of the false Hollywood social circles, of talk shows that bring on celebrities with an elephant in the room but never address the fact. One interview with Jon Hamm, an actor who has splendid comedic timing, focuses on all of his film failures and Galifiankis asking, “Is there any role you won’t take?”
The movie version of this idea comes loaded with problems, the same challenges any concept-driven piece of comedy has when it’s forced to expand its scale for a movie. The core of Between Two Ferns features two people, only one of whom is a regular. With the film, we get to go “behind the scenes” and are introduced to the cameraman, sound tech, and producer who now have to part of a plot led by Galifianakis. Thankfully, Aukerman has been around long enough to know the tropes and pitfalls and just makes a plainly dumb movie that doesn’t wear its welcome or attempt to ply platitudes on the audience.
There’s a ridiculous plot that has its absurdity emphasized, so the audience never believes we are supposed to genuinely care about the contrived stakes. Ferrell shows up and offers Galifiankis an ultimatum. The host has two weeks to make ten episodes of Between Two Ferns and deliver them to the Funny or Die offices by 9 am. This provides an excuse to show a series of interviews with actors who were game for spending the day being silly. The highlights here are Paul Rudd, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, and David Letterman. I’m hoping at some point Netflix will post the full interviews because in the format of the film they are edited down to a few minutes.
Between Two Ferns isn’t going to change your life or act as some revelatory new path for comedy. It is very much in the vein of Comedy Bang Bang and associates. If that isn’t your type of comedic entertainment, then you definitely won’t enjoy this. If you’re already a fan, this will be a fun time clocking it at just over eighty minutes.