Before there was Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns interview with President Obama, there was the dream of a Between Two Ferns interview with President Obama.* Galifianakis and show co-creator/director Scott Aukerman had heard for years that the president was open to doing an episode.
“There were two guests we would hear about from time to time,” Aukerman said in an interview today. “We’d hear that the president wanted to do the show, and that Oprah Winfrey wanted to. You know, the co-president in a lot of people’s minds. I think I read during the last elections the president was considering doing it but instead doing a Reddit AMA. We would sort of chase it down a little bit, and nothing would pan out.”
Aukerman told the whole story of the chase to the Team Coco podcast—go listen to it!—so I asked him about the response to the video. A lightly edited transcript follows, mostly to excise the parts where I apologized that I was in a far-too-insulated room of the Capitol that was murder on my AT&T connection. It’s important that readers know this.
Plug/disclosure: Aukerman’s show Comedy Bang! Bang! (returning to IFC May 8) and his podcast empire at Earwolf are both tremendous. After reading this, download U Talkin’ U2 to Me, his collaborative podcast with Adam Scott.
Slate: From what you told Team Coco, it sounded like the White House gave you pretty free rein. How much of the interview was actually scripted?
Scott Aukerman: We kept expecting there to be more conditions or people trying to lean on us to make it more what they wanted it to be. It was very strange. Zach and I kept looking at each other to say, “They’re eventually going to try to control us.” But, no, they trusted us, they said, “We’re trusting Funny or Die a lot here.” They’re so blown away by the video that I think it worked out for them. It proves that when you let creative people do their thing, you’ll get something good out of it.
Slate: Yeah, there was apparently a 40 percent spike in traffic to healthcare.gov after the video went up. I found that a little funny because on Comedy Bang! Bang! you typically—and I’m guessing archly—refer to the president as “Barack Hussein Obamacare.” Are you pleased about the surge to the health care site?
Aukerman: I think it’s great. My No. 1 responsibility when I did this was to make a funny comedy video. But I don’t think Zach nor I would have gotten involved had we not believed in the subject matter. I personally think the Affordable Care Act is a great thing. I have a lot of empathy for people who’ve had their lives destroyed by medical bills, who couldn’t get health insurance because of pre-exisiting conditions, young people whose lives have been destroyed by terrible accidents. On a personal level, I really wanted to get involved to get the word out.
Slate: How scripted was the president’s part of this? In some of the other videos with big stars—the Justin Bieber episode, the Oscar preview—they seem more flustered and less in on the joke. The president was ready with zingers. How much of that was really him?
Aukerman: The president knew what to expect, but at the same time he came up with a lot of improv stuff. He surprised us. The back and forth between Zach and the president, where they’re kind of verbally assaulting each other—that went very well. Everyone had a general idea of where the conversation was going to go. We knew what Zach wanted to do. We were pleasantly surprised by where the president took it. Honestly, it felt like a real episode of the show. There’s something about the nonscripted sense of surprise. We were ready to pull the plug if it wasn’t going to be a normal Between Two Ferns video.
Slate: How much did you shoot, to get that drawn-out, awkward sense?
Aukerman: We generally try not to talk much about how we do these videos. But the cool part about it was, I think, we went into it expecting everything to be overthought, and mannered. A lot of times when political figures make appearances on talk shows and Saturday Night Live, they’re carefully crafted by what seem like teams of political advisers. They have suggestions about what the president would or wouldn’t want to do. It was very important to them that this video didn’t turn out like that.
Slate: I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but since the segment ran, Texas Rep. Randy Weber—who is sort of well-known for tweeting angry things—and Bill O’Reilly both criticized it. Weber said that the president should be focusing on Benghazi, not a comedy show. O’Reilly said Lincoln never would have sat down for something like this. Have you seen those criticisms?
Aukerman: Well, to the first point, about how the president has time to do something like that—it’s kind of ridiculous. People can do a lot of different things in the day. If they were that concerned about the president never doing something that wasn’t serious and connected to his job, we’d elect two presidents. It would be a tag-team situation—one president is sleeping, they slap hands, and the other one gets in.
I’m certain the president is not slacking off during the day. This is very important, trying to get the people who watch these videos involved in the Affordable Care Act. He has time to talk to young people about what they were doing.
As to the second thing—look, Bill O’Reilly is used to saying kind of stupid things to get attention. There’s not much of a difference between the president appearing on Between Two Ferns and appearing on The O’Reilly Factor. The difference is that we admit we’re a comedy show.
Slate: One thing I’ve noticed in D.C. is that when something “cool” expresses interest in the city, in politics, politicians try to attach themselves to it. We’ve definitely seen this with House of Cards, to pick something sort of recent and unavoidable. This interview’s only been up for a day, but have you had anyone else in politics approach you and say, “Hey, I want on”? Are there other political figures you want to bring in?
Aukerman: Over the years we’ve heard some stuff from some people. You’re right, when something works and when something is popular, other politicians try to glom on to it. That’s why I think this was a genius move from the president. No one’s done it before. Other presidents had done Letterman, SNL, but this is the first sitting president to do a viral video, and people on the left and right are talking about it. Yeah, I would love it if Between Two Ferns became a stop on the campaign trail in a couple of years.
Slate: So that’s an open invitation—come on, Hillary Clinton, come on, Ted Cruz?
Aukerman: I pray that Ted Cruz never gets to our chairs, that he never gets that far. But hey, if he runs and he’s around.
*Correction, March 12, 2014: This post originally misspelled Zach Galifianakis’ last name. It also misstated the title of the podcast U Talkin’ U2 to Me?