Entertainment

Zach Galifianakis Keeps It Weird with Netflix's 'Between Two Ferns: The Movie'

between two ferns the movie
Adam Rose/Netflix

When Between Two Ferns, the anti-comedy talk show where Zach Galifianakis casually insults stone-faced celebrities while surrounded by two large green plants, first debuted in 2008, the modern viral comedy video was still in its infancy. Initially filmed as a segment for a rejected Fox sketch pilot The Right Now!, made by BTF producers Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, the joyfully uncomfortable first episode featured Michael Cera and appeared with minimal fanfare on Funny or Die, the nascent comedy platform then best known for a video of a toddler swearing at Will Ferrell. In the days before TikTok, Vine, or Instagram, the vaguely low-rent Ferns was the type of offbeat, mildly alienating clip you might e-mail to a like-minded friend, colleague, or family member with a tentative note like, "Brutal, right?" 

After 21 short-form episodes, including a 2014 entry where President Barack Obama explained his health care plan to America, and one Comedy Central special, the show has now broadened its scope with Between Two Ferns: The Movie, a star-studded feature-length expansion of the series with a less handmade, but still ramshackle, touch to it. There are more big names here -- Matthew McConaughey, Keanu Reeves, Brie Larson, Peter Dinklage, David Letterman, Chance the Rapper, and Tiffany Haddish all find themselves in the hot seat -- and there's a loose, Wayne's World-like road trip plot about going from public access to cable, but the fundamental set-up hasn't changed. Aukerman directs the action, the luminaries squirm, and Galifianakis delivers questions like, "Is it frustrating to have people think of you as a complete bozo?" with a straight face. The most significant difference is instead of hearing about it from a friend, it will probably be served up to you by Netflix's all-knowing algorithm.

Playing a less successful, more confrontational version of himself, Galifianakis remains a prickly, aloof screen presence. The North Carolina-born actor rose to prominence as a bearded, piano-playing alt-comedy outsider best known for his deadpan delivery and button-pushing provocations -- his 2006 special Live at the Purple Onion was one of Netflix's first comedy specials and a mid-'00s dorm room staple -- but 2009's hit The Hangover turned him into a genuine oddball movie star, one capable of convincing other famous people to potentially embarrass themselves in internet videos. The key was that Galifianakis always came off looking worse than his baffled, over-it victims. 

But was Between Two Ferns ever really that mean-spirited? Despite some moments of awkwardness and tension, particularly in episodes with Hollywood tough guys like Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, the series has always been firmly rooted in the same showbiz satire tradition as The Larry Sanders Show, where guests withstand some light mockery but mostly scan as good sports for being "in on the joke." As a deconstruction of the talk show format, Between Two Ferns was subsequently one-upped by more conceptually daring projects like Adult Swim's The Eric Andre Show, public access-to-TruTV's The Chris Gethard Show, and IFC's lab experiment Comedy Bang! Bang!, the TV spin-off of Aukerman's popular podcast. For most comedy fans, the tonal weirdness of Between Two Ferns no longer scans as particularly abrasive. 

between two ferns the movie
Adam Rose/Netflix

What Between Two Ferns, which continued to blow up as Galifianakis became more of a household name, offered was the illusion of discomfort. Though Between Two Ferns: The Movie breaks that basic pretense with a gag reel over the credits, which finds Galifianakis cracking up while asking rude questions, like when Brie Larson first got her period, the movie makes up for the absence of venom with a disarming goofiness, established in the first interview where Matthew McConaughey gets drenched in a plumbing mishap. The surreal moments, like Dinklage showing off a carton of Fabergé eggs, out-number the dud gags and nonsensical story beats, like a sequence where Galifianakis has sex with Chrissy Teigen and later gets pepper-sprayed by her vengeance-seeking husband, John Legend.  

To concoct a narrative surrounding the interview segments, Galifianakis and Aukerman build an underdog tale about the North Carolina public access station that produces Between Two Ferns facing off against Will Ferrell's cocaine-loving Funny Or Die corporate overlord. (Given recent controversies surrounding the site, which co-founder Adam McKay left in 2018, the portrayal of its public face as a click-hungry, money-obsessed monster is either self-aware or tone deaf.) Besides the prominent actors and musicians, the cast is filled with familiar faces from LA's improv comedy scene, like Orange is the New Black's Lauren Lapkus as the show's producer, UCB performer Jiavani Linayao as a crew member, and frequent guests from the Earwolf podcast network, which Aukerman co-founded in 2010. Spotting the brief cameos from comedians, like viral song-parody master Demi Adejuyigbe or Comedy Bang! Bang! favorite Paul F. Tompkins, is half the fun. 

Compared to other risk-taking comedy acts stretched to feature-length, Between Two Ferns: The Movie lacks the go-for-broke subversive energy of Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie or the crowd-pleasing stunts of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. In a recent interview with the AV Club, Aukerman described the movie as "six years" in the making, but the heavily improvised shooting style, which meant leaving more than a few "crazy scenes" on the cutting room floor, gives the film a free-wheeling sensibility. It's a proudly low-stakes endeavor, eager to riff from one set-piece to the next. More established and less embattled than he was in 2008, Galifianakis doesn't appear excited by the creative possibilities of comic cruelty. He's made a sweet, gentle movie that's properly calibrated to a streaming era where audiences are likely less eager to sit in squeamish agony for 80 minutes. Is he pulling his punches? Perhaps. But maybe the point was never to bloody anyone's nose in the first place. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.