I must confess that I had never heard of “Between Two Ferns” until the moment when the leader of the free world asked Zach Galifianakis if he dislikes the annual White House turkey pardon because it means there’s one fewer bird for him to eat.
And so when that moment occurred last Tuesday, I had to double check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Upon establishing that I was not—that the tall, thin man on the left was, in fact, the president of the United States and the heavyset furball on the right was, well, Zach Galifianakis—I observed a moment of reflection at the realization that yet another frontier in the continued convergence of politics and pop culture had been crossed.
For those who are still not in the know: “Between Two Ferns” is a recurring online spoof, viewable on FunnyOrDie.com, in which the aforementioned Hangover star mockingly interviews various celebrities with a mixture of detachment and passive-aggressive contempt. This results in deliriously awkward encounters whose entertainment value is largely determined by how well the interview subjects play along. According to Galifianakis, the segments are neither scripted nor rehearsed.
When this silly little program began six years ago, its creators probably did not foresee that a future American president would grace its highly-austere set with his presence. Now that one has—ostensibly as yet another attempt to pitch Obamacare to young people—we are left to muse on whether it was a good idea for him to do so.
Whatever Obama’s purpose and his particular comedic skill, is it not beneath the office of the presidency to engage in this sort of vulgar, lowbrow enterprise that doesn’t even take itself seriously?
What makes the question difficult to resolve is precisely the particular comedic skill of this particular commander-in-chief. In point of fact, the Obama “Between Two Ferns” bit was actually, genuinely funny, and not just from the shock value of Obama’s mere presence.
As he has proved many times throughout his tenure, Obama has a gift for dry, deadpan wit that is unprecedented in the modern era of presidents.
Sure, men like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were perfectly capable of cracking the odd joke while in office—speaking at a black tie fundraiser, say, or appearing with David Letterman or Jay Leno.
But could you imagine either of them being able to keep up with a comedic wild man like Zach Galifianakis? I must say that I cannot, although I would sure love to see them try.
Obama is different. In the “Ferns” sketch, for instance, when Galifianakis begins a rant about not owning a cell phone because “I don’t want you people looking at my texts,” the president interrupts, “Nobody’s interested in your texts.” As with other exchanges during the interview—not least the business about the turkey—there is a cutting meanness to this retort that we are not accustomed to hearing from a political leader, even in jest.
Normally, politicians are allowed to be funny, but their humor is not allowed to have any real edge. In the interests of avoiding controversy, our public officials tailor their sense of humor so it can be understood by the dumbest person in the room, and so that even the person looking to be outraged can find nothing about which to gripe.
The reason we should find this status quo objectionable is because of the low opinion of the public that it implies. Because expressing a pedestrian sense of humor is just one more pathetic form of pandering.
By occasionally defying convention on this front—by appearing on “Between Two Ferns” in the knowledge that not everyone would “get” it—President Obama deserves a small degree of praise. By deploying wit that is subtle and sophisticated, he shows a respect for his audience and a nerve to push the envelope regarding what a holder of his office can get away with. He is not afraid to engage in American popular culture, and thus does not consider himself above or separate from it.
To our original question: Does this undermine the dignity of the presidency itself? I think it’s all a matter of context. To be the president, as in any other position of leadership, is to know when to be serious and when to be silly, and there is little reason he cannot be both.
Bill O’Reilly has argued otherwise, positing on his Fox News program last week that “Lincoln would not have done” a program like “Between Two Ferns.” To this, Alex Pareene of Salon unearthed priceless (and fairly conclusive) evidence to the contrary, in the form of primary documents from the 1860s showing that there was little that Honest Abe enjoyed more than a good old-fashioned fart joke.