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With the ‘Between Two Ferns’ Movie, Zach Galifianakis Discovers It’s Hard to Make Success Funny

What used to be great about the show (and the comic) was its outsider, anti-showbiz stance. But the new Netflix film is too chummy to be hilarious.

There are several things wrong with Between Two Ferns: The Movie, but here’s all you really need to know: There’s a blooper reel at the end. As the credits roll, we watch outtakes from the interviews conducted by clueless, curiously angry North Carolina public-access talk show host Zach Galifianakis (played by Zach Galifianakis) as he insults the likes of Adam Scott, David Letterman, Jon Hamm and others, and each time he or his guests break because of the relatively mild meanness of his questions. Some of the bloopers are funny or charming. But by and large, they’re mostly cringe-inducing — and not in the good way that Galifianakis’ Funny or Die series once perfected. Rather, these warm, goofy outtakes feel like a violation of everything that the show (and Galifianakis) was supposed to be about. 

A stand-up seeped in the tenets of anti-humor, Galifianakis based his career on torpedoing the sickly-sweet inanity of show business — the shiny, “we’re all friends here,” popular-crowd insularity of celebrity. That was also a large part of the appeal of Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, the internet show he started in 2008 — a year before he became a household name playing the extreme weirdo in The Hangover — in which he portrayed a nobody making stars uncomfortable with his off-color questions and poor preparation. 

Of course, the guests were in on the joke, but the fun of Between Two Ferns in those early days was that its conceit wasn’t yet self-aware. When, for instance, Galifianakis asked Michael Cera to stroke his thigh or clumsily tried hitting on an ashen Natalie Portman, it felt plausibly real — as if some unkempt, unhinged loser had trapped an actual celebrity. Between Two Ferns was anti-humor in its purest form, a knowing attack on Hollywood chat shows’ numbingly cheery insipidness. The thrill was watching what meanness Galifianakis would hurl actors’ way — and how they’d respond to be insulted to their face.

A lot has changed for Galifianakis and Between Two Ferns in the last 11 years, and the new Netflix movie, which debuts today, can be viewed as a victory lap for a show he doesn’t do much anymore. (His last installment, with Jerry Seinfeld, was in 2018, and he’s only filmed four episodes — two with politicians seeking a platform, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — in the last five years.) But while watching The Movie, which made me laugh intermittently, I felt my face freezing into the resigned fixed grin that happens when I’m expecting to enjoy something, but not as much as I was hoping. The Between Two Ferns format is a little too familiar now — a little too easy — but what proves to be a fatal problem is that there’s nothing anti-humor about it, no matter how pseudo-vicious Galifianakis gets. When the show was at its best, it felt like it came from a surly outsider — or at least someone who could capably play a surly outsider. By comparison, The Movie couldn’t be chummier or more insider-y. Galifianakis’ stardom has helped his profile but irreparably harmed his show.

Directed and co-written by longtime collaborator Scott Aukerman (whose former IFC program Comedy Bang! Bang! was its own twist on the anti-humor talk show), The Movie purports to take us behind the scenes of Between Two Ferns as a documentary crew films “Zach” (the Between Two Ferns persona) preparing the latest segment of his bizarre program. Through convoluted circumstances, Will Ferrell (playing himself as the head of Funny or Die, the website that launched Between Two Ferns in real life) makes him a proposition: If Zach can film 10 celebrity interviews in the span of two weeks, he’ll give this weirdo what he’s always wanted, an actual network talk show. Zach accepts, drafting his dopey production team (including the always delightful Lauren Lapkus) to go with him on a cross-country road trip to track down famous people.

What follows is a collection of mini-Between Two Ferns segments connected by Zach’s misadventures, which include him approaching Chrissy Teigen in a bar — and discovering that she loves his show, and especially him. But the fleshing-out of the Zach character isn’t particular interesting, and even more dispiritingly, the actual Between Two Ferns bits are just okay. 

The strongest Ferns episodes always had a flow to their awkwardness, which made them grow more suspenseful and funny as they went along. (Seriously, Sean Penn looked ready to deck Zach’s twin brother Seth at any moment.) But in The Movie, the individual interviews have a clip-reel abruptness that undercuts any sense of tension, animosity or momentum. We don’t get enough time with Peter Dinklage, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Tiffany Haddish, Benedict Cumberbatch, Hailee Steinfeld or Keanu Reeves to feel much anti-rapport between guest and host. But what we definitely sense is that Galifianakis has a lot of famous friends who wanted to be part of the Between Two Ferns universe — they all wanted their turn getting roasted as proof of their hipness and celebrity stature. It’s the movie equivalent of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” segments: By appearing in The Movie, you prove you can take a joke — and that you’re famous enough to merit a groundswell of random hostility.

This is always the problem edgy, outsider comedy faces — the threat of being co-opted by the mainstream you pilloried. In the early years of The Simpsons, the show took shots at everyone, and their guest voices consisted of obscure cult figures or iconic comedians. But as The Simpsons became a beloved TV institution, the shock of the producers landing, say, Dustin Hoffman or Michael Jackson was replaced by a dull conveyor belt of perfunctory celebrity cameos, who were on the show simply because, well, they’re famous, and one of the perks of fame is appearing on The Simpsons. Consequently, there’s nothing special about being on The Simpsons now, and likewise, the big-name guests that Galifianakis procure for The Movie don’t add much to the film. They’re doing a bit — Zach is being mean to me! — but the novelty of the bit has lost its juice, not to mention its illusion that something truly uncomfortable could happen.

For Galifianakis, the transition from anti-humor comic to Hollywood star has been uneasy. Since The Hangover, which he’s great in, he’s struggled to find a movie that doesn’t just repeat his oddball persona from that comedy smash. (He seemed to be far more at home on Baskets, his Emmy-winning series, which I didn’t watch but have been told gave him room to explore his sad-clown side.) Hollywood films require personalities that are a little bigger, brighter, sunnier — they don’t do well with Galifianakis’ willful weirdness — although, ironically, in his own talk-show interviews and public demeanor, he’s a more polished presence than he used to be. That change is probably inevitable. (After a while, you probably get tired of convincing people that you aren’t as strange as your Between Two Ferns character.) But it hurts the film.

Constantly in The Movie, people will make fun of Zach because he’s fat, which has been a zinger hurled his way since the earliest days of Between Two Ferns. But Galifianakis has slimmed down in the last decade, so the putdown doesn’t make as much sense now — it’s an old insult that doesn’t apply to the fitter, far more successful Zach Galifianakis. The whole conceit of Between Two Ferns was that this guy was a stupid loser, but the Zach we see in The Movie is a winner pretending he’s still a stupid loser. It creates a noticeable disconnect, and if you don’t know why, that blooper reel makes it clear. Showing footage of him and his guests lose it is a way for the film to assure us, “Don’t worry, this is all in fun — no one’s getting their feelings hurt.” It’s the sort of inane Hollywood nicety that the old Zach Galifianakis would never have tolerated. What’s funny about that?

Here are three other takeaways from Between Two Ferns: The Movie

#1. I’m so mad I never knew where the ‘Between Two Ferns’ theme came from.

When I went to the Between Two Ferns: The Movie premiere, they were playing the show’s cheesy/bubbly theme song in the theater, which made me laugh. The song always makes me chuckle — it’s a perfect parody of Muzak-y cable-access music — and I was commenting to a colleague that I always wondered how the Ferns team found it. Or maybe the producers wrote it themselves? Well, I finally decided to look up this information, and I’m shocked I never recognized the source.

What we all know as the “Between Two Ferns song” is, actually, Dave Blume’s satin-y rendition of “Theme From Taxi Driver (Reprise).” Yes, that Taxi Driver. The blog The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann connects the dots, explaining that when the soundtrack album for the disturbing 1976 film was released, the second side was “dedicated to ‘interpretations’ of the music arranged and conducted by Dave Blume. These were beautifully played jazz numbers, but — with the exception of the instantly recognizable ‘Theme From Taxi Driver’ — they seemed to have little to do with the movie.” Bernard Herrmann’s menacing music was given a breezy remodel by Blume, a composer, copy editor and club owner who died in 2006 at the age of 74.

Listen to Blume’s “Theme From Taxi Driver (Reprise)” and it’s impossible not to envision an ultra-groovy Travis Bickle slowly becoming more homicidal. Knowing the source for Between Two Ferns’ theme only makes the choice funnier. 

#2. Here’s the best pop-culture reference in the film.

There aren’t a lot of truly great bizarre jokes in The Movie, but here’s one that I liked, mostly because of the totally obscure piece of pop culture it’s referencing.

When Zach talks to Teigen, they hit it off immediately, and he asks her how she got her start. She responds that people ask her that all the time, and it’s a simple answer: One day, she received a package with a note saying that if she pushed the button on the top of the box, she’d be rich, but that one random person would die. Teigen happily pushed the button, and well, the rest is history.

I’d love to know the percentage of viewers who will get that she’s alluding to “Button, Button,” a 1970 short story written by genre author Richard Matheson, who also wrote the novel I Am Legend and several episodes of The Twilight Zone. Even if you don’t know the short story, you perhaps know the 1986 Twilight Zone episode inspired by the story. More likely, you have a dim memory of The Box, a critically-derided 2009 thriller starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella that was based on the Matheson story. (By the way, that’s the last film to date made by Donnie Darko filmmaker Richard Kelly.)

What I want to know: How long has the Between Two Ferns team been sitting on that “Button, Button” reference? After all, the conceit of just about every episode is that Zach pushes his magic button at some point. Were they waiting for the right moment? Or did it just occur to them?

#3. Do Yourself a Favor and Rewatch Galifianakis’ first Letterman appearance.

It is no surprise that Galifianakis and Letterman are friends. Both comics have a jaundiced view of celebrity, and both have fashioned careers out of poking fun at showbiz artifice. But the first time that Galifianakis appeared on Letterman’s show, Dave wasn’t there.

It was the spring of 2000, just a few months after Letterman had undergone quintuple bypass surgery, and guest hosts were filling in for him. On the March 7th episode, Janeane Garofalo took the reins, and she introduced her old buddy Galifianakis for his network television debut. And out he came, clean-shaven, rocking a scarf, a denim jacket and a big, happy grin that he quickly tried to shake so he could launch into his opening bit.

“I usually do stand-up comedy — tonight, I really don’t feel like it,” he announced, trying to seem solemn and sincere. “Tonight, I’m gonna play the piano and talk about myself. Please don’t laugh — none of this is funny.”

What followed was a series of non-sequitur comments in the style of Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg, all accompanied by pretty piano noodling. As is his style, Galifianakis didn’t go for the obvious punchline — he prefers the weird observation or conjuring up a bizarre mental image, like the scratch-and-sniff headshot that “smells like failure and onions.”

But despite the anti-humor trappings, there’s also a buoyant energy to his performance — no more apparent than when he delivers the nonsensical line, “You ain’t got no pancake mix!” and then says, “I’ve always wanted to say that in front of five million people.” The audience whoops in approval — the crowd loved the whole set, and when it was over, Garofalo gave him the biggest, warmest hug. 

Nearly 20 years later, that tension between detachment and teddy-bear energy remains at the core of Galifianakis’ appeal. After sitting through his so-so Netflix movie, it was a pleasure to be reminded how fresh and fun that tension seemed a couple decades ago.