FUNNY OR DIE
‘Between Two Ferns’ Director Scott Aukerman: Trump Would Be Terrible on the Show
The director of ‘Between Two Ferns’ talks about Hillary Clinton’s improv skills and Donald Trump’s terrible sense of humor.
After years of insulting celebrity guests like Charlize Theron, Sean Penn and Justin Bieber, Zach Galifianakis took his Funny or Die web series “Between Two Ferns” to a whole new level in 2014 when he hosted President Barack Obama for an episode that has now been viewed more than 50 million times. This morning, he and director Scott Aukerman surprised the internet again by dropping a new installment that features Hillary Clinton.
In the episode, Galifianakis asks Clinton what will happen if she gets pregnant in office, whether she’s currently “down with TPP,” and if Donald Trump’s success has made her consider going “more racist” with her message. Missing are any jokes about Clinton’s health, but that is because, as Aukerman tells The Daily Beast in a new interview, they shot the video on September 9, the same day she was diagnosed with pneumonia, but two days before her near-collapse from dehydration in New York City.
Last fall, Funny or Die made clear its intentions to become a major player in this year’s election, even tapping former Obama White House aide Brad Jenkins to launch its new Washington, D.C. bureau. The “Between Two Ferns” episode starring Clinton is the site’s biggest gambit yet to influence the political conversation just a few days before the first presidential debate.
Calling from Los Angeles early Thursday morning, Aukerman said he couldn’t really sleep the night before because he was so excited to see how people would react to the new video. The comedian and director had just finished editing the final episode of his other fake talk show, Comedy Bang! Bang!, which will conclude after five seasons on IFC this December.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
How did the Hillary Clinton episode come together?
This one actually came together pretty quickly. The Clinton camp reached out to us and said that there was interest and what we found out later that it was actually her idea. A lot of times with “Between Two Ferns” if it’s someone in entertainment, their publicist will reach out. Or in the case of Obama, the White House reached out, and you never quite know if the person knows that their people are reaching out about it. But in this case, Mrs. Clinton is the one who reached out about doing it, as she was a big fan of the Obama one. So that kind of personal touch streamlined the process of getting it done. So it came together pretty quickly. We filmed it on September 9th. We shot it in New York, and flew out and had about an hour with her, which was actually more time that we had anticipated. I think we’d agreed on something like 40 minutes, but she was having a good time and stuck around and did more than that. You’re always sort of nervous about something like this happening so quickly, but in this case I thought it came out really well.
What was she like to work with on set?
I mean, it’s always intimidating when someone of that importance and stature decides to work with you, so I think everyone’s a little nervous at the top. But she really set us at ease. And I think after one of Zach’s first questions she laughed really loud and you know, that made us feel like she gets it, she’s not insulted by this and she’s having a good time. So it was really a pretty relaxed, fun shoot, I would say.
Would you say she was more or less game to play around than Obama?
I couldn’t handicap who was more or less game, but just because of the process of shooting this one, it ended up being more improvised than the Obama one. The majority of this one is actually improvised, which is kind of how we usually do them. To be honest, it was kind of thrilling directing it, going, oh wow, we got a lot of really good stuff. Because when you improvise stuff, you’re not reading from a script, you just never know how it’s going to go. This one, it was just really cool to be watching it while it was happening and knowing that we were doing a good episode.
Were there any topics that her camp said were off-limits?
No, they were really cool about making sure we had the process that we normally like to do. These have to be authentic in a certain way, otherwise they don’t really work. While they may have been nervous about it, she didn’t seem nervous about it. They were also very protective of us having an authentic experience and putting up a video the way that we wanted to, which you can’t always say is the case with some of these sometimes. We’ve had varying degrees of stars and their handlers wanting to control the situation a little more. But they were actually pretty relaxed about this.
It’s funny that celebrities would be more concerned about the outcome of a video like this than someone less than two months away from an election.
Yeah, I’m sure they have bigger things to worry about than how this video comes out.
What about jokes that you pitched and her team rejected or that just didn’t make the final cut?
Everything that made it into the cut we’re pretty happy with. It’s probably our favorite stuff. I mean, that’s why we put it in. Sometimes you make these and you have your favorites and for one reason or another the star lobbies you to take it out and you miss it. But in this case, this was our favorite stuff and we were allowed to do what we wanted with it.
How did the idea to put the Trump ad in the middle of the interview come up?
That was just an idea that came up in one of our pitch meetings. We just thought it was a really funny idea. [laughs] We’ve always thought about putting an ad in the middle of one of these episodes, so we were like, wouldn’t it be really funny to play an ad for her opponent? That would be rudest thing to do.
The video you did with Obama was credited with a significant increase in HealthCare.gov sign-ups by the younger demographic that Clinton needs to reach. What are your hopes for the impact of this one?
For me, I’m not aiming for reaction from the people who have somehow made it a job to tweet all day about politics or people who are political pundits or commentators, trying to spin how it’s going to help or hurt or anything like that. I’m really making another “Between Two Ferns” episode where I want it to be really funny and I want people to have the reaction of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they got some of those jokes in” and that’s mainly what I’m concerned about.
Yeah, I mean, she has a reputation of not being a warm or funny person and yet everyone who meets her says she is so much more warm and funny than they thought she would be. Is that the experience that you had?
I would agree with that. It’s so insane to me that we expect our presidents to be these incredible orators and speechmakers. It’s just not in some people’s skill set. To have to talk all day, everyday, I empathize a lot with anyone who has to do that. I would agree with that assessment a little bit in that we found her warm and fun to be around and laughing a lot. It’s definitely something that was cool to see.
I mean, you always have to make a decision about what type of person you want to have on your show, you know? And everyone has to draw the line somewhere. We’ve always been of the opinion that, for instance with the Obama one, if it wasn’t going to come out the way we wanted it to come out, we’d rather it not come out at all. And so we were very much in that mindset with this one. It had to be authentic. It had to be a real experience for us, otherwise we didn’t want to do it. So, you know, I think that Hillary Clinton, her temperament and personality leant itself to it being a good video. I’m not sure that, were we to have Trump on, that it would be the same kind of experience, so I doubt that that would ever happen.
If Trump came to you and said he wanted to do Between Two Ferns, would you and Zach do it?
It’s not even in the realm of possibility of something that would ever happen. I just can’t imagine him ever being cool enough to do that. Or if he did it, the first joke out of Zach’s mouth, he would lash out and start taunting Zach with some of his insults and it just wouldn’t be a good experience, so I don’t even think that it would ever happen.