Among Forty-Two Ferns

Cody Walker
March 16, 2014
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More than 54,000 people went to HealthCare.gov after watching President Obama spar with Zach Galifianakis last week; I went to the Between Two Ferns homepage and binge-watched the series’ other twenty episodes. I also read as many reviews of Obama’s performance as I could. (Alessandra Stanley of the Times enjoyed it; Bill O’Reilly, not so much.) Something on PR Week (I know, I know, when is it not PR Week) stood out:

Michael Gordon, principal of New York-based Group Gordon Strategic Communications, agrees that the video was a clever way to reach young people. But he says the risks of such a move were apparent in the execution of the video.

“The execution was good, not perfect. There were one or two jokes that lowered the president, even considering the context, and early on, it looked like the president was annoyed rather than looking like he was in on the joke,” he says. “Had he kept a light-hearted demeanor the whole time, he would have come across better and the message would have come through without distraction.”

But Principal Gordon! That’s so wrong! The whole point of a joke of this sort is to not give away that you’re in on the joke. (Here I defer to Mark Twain: “The funniest things are the forbidden. . . . The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”) As soon as Obama (or Galifianakis, for that matter) winks at the audience, the tension is lost and the comedy dies. Because comedy depends on tension, on competing agendas. From Simpsons writer George Meyer: “Two people with different agendas pursuing them to the point of collision—that explains a lot of comedy.” Obama needs to pan The Hangover Part III and plug the Affordable Care Act; Galafianakis needs to mumble about drones. They can’t seem to be having fun. There’s no fun in funny.

Obama’s famous aloofness serves him well in this setting. He’s a funny-from-the-wings, not a funny-from-the-center kind of guy. And his preferred mode is slightly mean. (Recall his New Hampshire debate moment with then-Senator Clinton: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”) He lets his Vice-President slap backs and pose (sort of) for The Onion. As Robert Provine writes in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, “Someone who laughs a lot, and unconditionally, may be called ‘ditz,’ or a ‘good ol’ boy,’ but seldom ‘boss,’ or ‘president.’ The late legislator Morris Udall recognized this issue when he titled his autobiography Too Funny to Be President.”

But back to all those ferns. The other twenty episodes have already blurred a bit in my mind, but one sublime moment remains. Justin Bieber sits to Galifianakis’s right. He’s every bit as sullen as he appears to be in real life (if a videotaped deposition can be taken as real life). Galifianakis rips into his image (“You’ve had three hairstyles. What’s next for your career?”) and then asks, “Who are your celebrity friends, who do you hang with?”

Bieber: Mostly lately, umm, Joy Behar. Pretty much it.

Galifianakis: What’s he like?

Bieber: Cool. [Long beat.]

And for a moment, anyway—detrimental career choices be damned—I’m a Belieber.

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