Zach Galifianakis has always channeled a good portion of his energy toward the absurd end of the comedic spectrum, while still reaching mass popularity—seemingly accidentally—through big Hollywood movies, most specifically The Hangover. But his heart clearly doesn’t stray far from the comedy underground, as evidenced by his internet chat show, Between Two Ferns. The concept of the series, which launched in 2008 and has aired just 13 episodes total, is that Galifianakis is a semi-obnoxious interviewer who asks his very famous guests—Bruce Willis, Jennifer Aniston, Sean Penn—ridiculous, hilarious, inappropriate questions. You’ve probably seen at least a few of them on Funny Or Die—they basically define “viral video.” At their best, they are—and he is—genius.
For this half-hour special, leading up to the imaginatively named Comedy Awards on Comedy Central, the concept doesn’t change much, though the crappy cable-access set has been abandoned in favor of on-location interview segments with Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, and Richard Branson.
It’s never quite clear how much preparation is done with guests for Ferns. Galifianakis has claimed that there’s basically none, and that the guests are just quick on their feet. That’s never rung quite true, and it certainly doesn’t seem like the case here: The lines from his guests’ mouths sound scripted by Galifianakis, particularly those that take him to task. (He seems to love to have his guests crack jokes about his weight.)
Fey is funniest here—he pronounces her name “Tinafey,” which is awesome—particularly when the two get into a little tussle about the conceit of Ferns itself, breaking the conceit itself in order to deconstruct it, which seems like a very Galifianakis thing to do. (First, though, he has to ask her whether “the carpet matches the pubes.”) It’s that mixture of completely absurd and obnoxious and some sort of remote bit of commentary on the Hollywood publicity machine that makes Ferns funny on at least two levels. There might be four, who knows.
Anyway, after Fey suffers the indignity of Galifianakis being loudly served breakfast in the middle of their interview, she gets to go on a rant about the whole interview process, which goes something like: “It’s almost like you’re being willfully obtuse in your questions to make some kind of vague point about the fatuous nature of celebrity interviews, which is a pretty well-trod observation… It’s like ‘Ooh, I’ll be rude to a celebrity to prove that I’m too cool to be caring about celebrity,’ at the same time increasing your own celebrity.” (“That’s pretty good,” Galifianakis counters, “for a girl.”)
In the Branson segment, it’s pretty much Zach solo, as the joke is basically Branson ignoring him the whole time so Galifianakis can just lob inappropriate jokes like “I was surprised after hearing of your expansive wealth that you’re not Jewish.” (It’s not that Branson isn’t game—everybody who appears on Ferns knows what they’re in for, and he does a little cutaway bit that’s good for a laugh.)
Stewart tries to give a little bit more back, but it doesn’t ring quite as smart as Fey’s remarks. The celebrities on Between Two Ferns mostly serve as putty for Galifianakis, who admirably never breaks character, getting insulted when Stewart gives him shit for just being the guy who carries babies and monkeys in the Hangover movies. These aren’t the best Ferns episodes yet—go watch the Sean Penn and Tila Tequila episodes online—but any new bits that come more or less unfiltered by Galifianakis’ smart-silly mind are welcome. And it’s nice to see him in a tux, too—he cleans up terribly.