In January 2008, without any fanfare, an unassuming video was uploaded to the web site Funny or Die in which a then-largely unknown comedian named Zach Galifianakis conducted a painfully awkward interview with actor Michael Cera on a bare-bones set featuring two potted ferns. Galifianakis lobbed disdainful questions at Cera and snored aloud at his answers. He mockingly imitated his voice. He tried to force him to tickle his thigh. And a viral comedy hit was born.
Subsequent episodes of “Between Two Ferns” racked up millions of views and a pair of Emmys, with boldfaced names including Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton lining up for turns in the guest chair. Eventually, Galifianakis and co-creator Scott Aukerman started toying with the idea of expanding the series, which skewered the typically bland, fatuous back-and-forth of celebrity interviews, into a full-fledged feature film. But that was easier said than done.
“To take a four- or five-minute video and blow it up into a movie — how would you do that?” Galifianakis says. “And why would you do that?”
Well, they’ve done it. Now streaming on Netflix and featuring appearances by the likes of Keanu Reeves, Brie Larson, Matthew McConaughey, Chrissy Teigen, David Letterman and Tiffany Haddish, the largely improvised mockumentary-style “Between Two Ferns: The Movie” follows Galifianakis as he takes his bizarro public-access talk show across the country in pursuit of his dreams of late-night-hosting glory.
Galifianakis and Aukerman, who wrote and directed the film and hosts the popular podcast “Comedy Bang Bang,” sat down with The Times to discuss how they super-sized “Between Two Ferns,” the one question that was (almost) too offensive for the show and why you shouldn’t hold your breath for President Trump to be a guest.
Where did the initial seed of this movie come from?
Aukerman: We did a half-hour Comedy Central special five years or so ago [“Between Two Ferns: A Fairytale of New York”], where we took a trip out to New York and were just running around having fun and shooting anything that came to our minds. It was the first time we’d done something with “Ferns” that wasn’t just the five-minute video and we had so much fun, we said, “If we can ever think of an idea that is that low-concept enough that we could just set up on the fly and make something really quickly, we would take the opportunity.” So then it just became about figuring out what the story would be.
Zach, you started doing “Between Two Ferns” before your big breakout in 2009 in “The Hangover.” Did becoming famous yourself change your perspective on this kind of satire of celebrity culture?
Galifianakis: No, because my thoughts on celebrity really have not changed. I don’t think there was ever a feeling like, “Oh darn, I’m known now. How do we keep doing these?”
We haven’t done a lot of thinking when we do these. It’s just about what makes us laugh. This is not a thinker of a movie. I don’t want somebody from some highfalutin college trying to make sense of it.
Aukerman: For Zach to say that he doesn’t really think about it is, I think, him being a little humble. It is stuff that we’ve thought about a lot. Where we landed in sort of addressing celebrity-culture themes in the movie is that obviously we have distaste for it, and hopefully we’re saying that getting famous doesn’t make you happy, but I don’t think we’re beating people over the head with it. That’s been the balance with this. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to goof off and be funny.
You’ve got a lot of celebrities packed into this movie. How did you go about lining everyone up?
Aukerman: We started shooting with no one on board. It’s a crazy way to do a movie, to not know what you’re shooting. The crew thought we were insane. The script was just a jumble of ideas, and I would just say, “Trust us. It’s going to be great!” But we were doing it with Funny Or Die and they have such a great reach that we just had faith. Zach would check in with me every once in a while, like, “Who do we got?”
Galifianakis: And you’d tell me and I’d go, “I don’t know who that is.”
Aukerman: Yeah, there was a lot of educating Zach about certain people’s oeuvres.
Galifianakis: I’m so out of the loop. When we did that episode with Jerry Seinfeld and Cardi B [last year], I don’t know if I knew who she was.
Aukerman: Yeah, well, she didn’t know who you were either.
Have you ever pulled back on a joke about someone because you felt like it crossed the line?
Galifianakis: With Natalie Portman, there was one joke where I was like, “Let’s get rid of that” — and she wanted me to say it.
Let me guess: Was this the joke where Zach points out that she shaved her head for the movie “V for Vendetta” and asks if she also shaved her “V for vagina”?
Aukerman: Yes, that was one of the jokes I’ve been most proud to write. Zach showed it to her and was like, “I don’t want to say this.” And she’s like, “That’s funny. You should say it.”
Zach is very nice and a genuinely caring person and he doesn’t like to insult people. But the thing is, they want him to be mean. They’re coming on for the Zach Galifianakis experience. But Zach gets very embarrassed.
Galifianakis: It’s more uncomfortable for me than the guest. I’ve never thought about that but it’s completely true.
Over the years you’ve been doing “Between Two Ferns,” has the way you make the episodes changed at all?
Aukerman: We’ve gotten a little more economical, especially on the movie. Normally people give us so little time that we have had to get more streamlined about it. I remember Barack Obama’s people said he was going to give us 45 minutes. I said, “OK, just give me a 10-minute warning [before he has to go].” Three minutes into the video, they come and say, “10-minute warning.” [laughs]
Galifianakis: [to Aukerman] Do you remember I got him on a trivia question?
Aukerman: Yeah, what was it?
Galifianakis: Who was Gerald Ford’s vice president? It was [Nelson] Rockefeller. By the way, no one ever knows it. You could ask Gerald Ford — he wouldn’t know.
Have there ever been people who wanted to be guests on “Between Two Ferns” who you said no to because you thought it wouldn’t work for some reason?
Aukerman: To be a really good subject, you have to have a body of work with some failures that we can make fun of. Ideally you also have a personal life that’s had a lot of drama in it. Any time somebody says, “Hey, this person wants to do it,” I’ll start thinking, “What are the jokes?” And if you can’t come up with enough angles on it…
Galifianakis: We’ve had business entities reach out to us. Ford wanted to do something. And Harvey Weinstein, years ago — do you remember that?
Aukerman: Hmm, I’m trying to think of anything we could make fun of him about.
Galifiankis: Well, this was 10 years ago. He had some movie, I can’t remember. And I’m like, ‘Why does he want [to do this]? Nobody knows who he is.’
Aukerman: I think he just wanted to jerk off in a fern. He was like, “There’s an opportunity!”
Galifiankis: And we have two of them!
Zach, after you did the episode with Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, I asked you if you’d consider doing one with Donald Trump and you said no. Do you still feel that way now?
Galifianakis: I would love to have people that I don’t necessarily agree with politically; George Will would be the greatest guest ever now that I think about it. But I just think — and I’m not saying this from a mean point of view — I think I would be taking advantage of Trump. There’s something off with him. There’s something way off.
Aukerman: I think comedically it’s just not a good fit because he wouldn’t have a sense of humor about it, which might be kind of interesting to film but not a fun situation for us. I also just think he’s boring, so it’s like, why bother?
Galifianakis: Somehow Trump can turn everything sad. He has that magic. And I don’t want that. I want people to laugh. I think humor is his Achilles heel. [deadpan] Also his breath smells horrible. I’ve been near him. That might be why people fear him.
Would you do an episode with one of the 2020 presidential candidates, like Bernie Sanders?
Galifianakis: We asked Bernie a couple of years ago and he said no, which I respect immensely.
What is the future of “Between Two Ferns” at this point?
Galifianakis: My feeling is, how long can you do this kind of show? Humor changes. We’re also living in meaner times and I’m wondering how a mean interview type thing plays in this climate.
I mean, look, creatively you never should say no to anything. If it feels right and we’re lucky enough to have someone that wants to do it again, yeah. But it’s run a good course, put it that way. And this would be a nice ending to it.
Aukerman: Every single one, we’ve said, “That’s probably it.” And then someone calls up and says, “Can we do an episode?” and we go, “Yeah, ok.” If the Rock were to be promoting something in four months — we have a great idea for the Rock — I think, Why not? The closer the movie gets to coming out, we’ve also started thinking about how the universe could continue, be it in a sequel or a television version of stuff. I just think that we shouldn’t put a period at the end of the sentence yet.
Galifianakis: We’ll put an exclamation point on it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.