March 11th, 2014
04:53 PM ET
4 months ago

The backstory to the Obama-Galifianakis Funny or Die video

(CNN) - Anyone who's watched Funny or Die's interview segment, "Between Two Ferns" with comedic actor Zach Galifianakis, knows the interviewee is in for a few minutes of sheer awkwardness.

The back-and-forth takes place in between two ferns. Literally. And the most popular episode was when Galifianakis belt-whipped Justin Bieber.

So imagine the surprise when the Internet world woke up Tuesday morning to a new episode, this time with Galifianakis grilling President Barack Obama.

"What is it like to be the last black president?" the actor asked a little more than a minute into the interview.

"Seriously, what's it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?" Obama shot back.

By Tuesday afternoon, the video had more than 6.5 million views.

The 6.5 minute interview covered a range of topics, including same-sex marriage.

"You know what I would do if I were president, Mr. President, I would make same-sex divorce illegal. Then see how bad they want it," Galifianakis said.

But the main point of the segment was to give Obama a chance to plug the federal health care law to a younger audience.

Started in 2008, Funny or Die is a comedic video website where users can vote on a video's funniness. Both celebrities and users produce content for the site.

Mike Farah, president of production at the company and executive producer of "Between Two Ferns," told CNN he'd always wanted to do something with Obama since he started working at the company.

That opportunity came knocking when the White House invited celebrities last July to discuss ways to promote Obamacare, as the open enrollment launch date of October 1 was approaching and the law's success depends on having at least 40% of its enrollees comprised of people between the ages of 18 and 34.

A couple months later, singer and actress Jennifer Hudson teamed up with Funny or Die to release a video on the eve of the Obamacare website rollout, parodying the popular ABC program "Scandal."

4.2 million have signed up for Obamacare

Keeping in touch with the White House, Farah said Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett flew out to Los Angeles in September for a meeting with Funny or Die, where they floated the idea of doing an episode of "Between Two Ferns" with the President.

Fast forward to late February: a Funny or Die team came to Washington to film the segment. With the March 31 deadline to enroll in Obamacare fast approaching, Farah said the President wanted to get "more personally involved."

The President was "familiar" with the Galifianakis segment, Farah said.

"He kinda got it," he added. "He knew Zach's persona. He knew what it would be like."

When the crew showed up at the White House, Farah said they had no rehearsals and "handled it like every other episode." The filming didn't take much longer than the edited 6.5 minute video, he said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday they knew "loosely" what the interview would look like, but "there was a lot of ad-libbing in there."

Galifianakis and Obama had to stop the interview at points because the President would break out in laughter, one White House official told CNN.

Farah confirmed that the two "broke a few times."

"It was fun, because then everyone can laugh and it was a huge relief," he continued.

Photos: Comedian in chief

White House officials say knew some of the questions were going to be "edgy," but the President was ready for it. An official said Galifianakis expressed some concern about his questions, but they assured the actor that Obama would be just fine, they said.

The questions were "obviously not done in a way that was mean spirited," Farah added, but he acknowledged "we shoot it and edit in a way that feels awkward."

Asked how they kept it a secret for two weeks, Farah said "we all just like the idea of surprising everyone."

Funny or Die edited the video and waited to make it public on a day that didn't conflict with the White House's schedule.

"The White House has tons of things going on, and we wanted to make sure it was on a day that they were comfortable with," he said.

Carney said in the daily press briefing that Funny or Die was the No. 1 referrer to HealthCare.gov on Tuesday, but he didn't give specific numbers.

Carney also took issue with a question from a reporter asking whether the interview may have damaged the dignity of the presidency.

"We made the right call here," Carney said.

And Obama tweeted out his own personal thanks.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta and CNN White House Producer Matthew Hoye contributed to this report.


Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (244 Responses)
  1. SUE

    Really, there is no dignity anymore....next thing you know the President and his wife will be on Jeopardy.

    March 12, 2014 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  2. Marie Arrington

    As a non resident of the US and having no vested interest in that dog and pony show, I saw it and thought it was bloody hilarious. Zach, looked appropriately uncomfortable and obnoxious in the right places and the POTUS, kept a straight face, mostly.
    I thought it was well done and I can't envision our Crime Minister Harper, being able to pull such a thing off or even agree to such an "interview". Well done!!!!!

    March 12, 2014 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  3. Mark_in_FL

    You can tell this was a win by the amount of froth on the mouths of the right-wing. Anything that angers them this much MUST be a good thing.

    March 12, 2014 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  4. mOE

    Well we know our president's true calling!!! a COMEDIAN

    March 12, 2014 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  5. Jonathan

    Today's news Obama interviewed by Between two Ferns, Tomorrow's news IRS targets Between two Ferns production company.

    March 12, 2014 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  6. Blind Squirrel

    I am old enough to remember Richard Nixon going on Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. Apparently, many conservatives are not. I personally like the fact that my President isn't some personality-less drone and that he feels comfortable doing things like this. I would also remind the right that the prior Administration pretty much single handedly kept Saturday Night Live funny for 8 years. Except it wasn't the same kind of funny.

    March 12, 2014 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  7. Meki60

    Next Sanford and Son (or wife)

    March 12, 2014 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  8. Dean

    SUE

    Really, there is no dignity anymore....next thing you know the President and his wife will be on Jeopardy.

    ___________________________________________________________________________________

    I don't think they would make it past the qualification rounds...no teleprompters allowed.

    March 12, 2014 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  9. Jay

    Could Valerie Jarrett not have picked up the phone and called the people in California rather that wasting our tax dollars flying there?

    March 12, 2014 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  10. Maurice

    Putin rides a horse with his shirt off. WE have a president with a since of Humor! God Bless America :))

    March 12, 2014 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  11. JP

    Show the laughter between them. Otherwise it's moronic, contrived, manipulative and not really funny.

    March 12, 2014 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  12. BC

    @blindsquirrel......Then you should be old enough to know better than supporting a community organizer. That has no clue. Your screen name says it all...your just another dum b a zz liberal that follow this joke of a president around blindly.

    March 12, 2014 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  13. BC

    Next is the Jerry Springer show.

    March 12, 2014 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  14. stingerhp

    Terrible example of Presidential demeanor.. One must however, consider the source.. The comic was good though....

    March 12, 2014 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  15. Kelly

    NOW we're wondering about the "dignity of the office"? I thought that happened when a quarter of this country wondered if he was born here, was called irrelevant, the Anti-Christ, and much worse.

    March 12, 2014 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  16. talbet

    Gave us all a good laugh and now the people posting in here remind everyone that republicans are uptight.

    March 12, 2014 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  17. goblackhawks

    Another embarrassment to the Presidency .. I'm so glad he isn't the "Celebrity" President .. Remember when John McCain said that .. glad he wasn't correct .. maybe the can ask Obama about this on The Tonight Show, The View, etc. The President of the US should never (as President) be interviewed by a "comedian" ... more dumbing down of America

    March 12, 2014 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  18. goblackhawks

    Blind Squirrel .. SNL hasn't been funny since the early 80's .. so if you are old enough to remeber Nixon you should be old enough to have common sense ... since you are a DEM .. I would guess you lack in that

    March 12, 2014 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  19. sonnie3

    Jay Carney(ie Bagdad Bob) said it went over well with the young people. He said that? The young were tricked into obama care and now even they don't like what they see. They are the ones who will have to pay up to make this fiasco float.

    March 12, 2014 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
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