Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis launched on the sketch comedy website Funny or Die back in 2008. The premise is pretty simple: the show uses public access production values while comedian Zach Galifianakis plays a deadpan, cutting interviewer talking to celebrities. A typical interaction will be something like Galifianakis asking Ben Stiller if he ever thought about going into comedy like his parents, and Stiller quietly stewing. The premise works because not only does Galifianakis have great comic delivery and timing, but because it works as a surreal, inverse take on the fawning celebrity interview. It lets us indulge the fantasy of what if you had a horribly unprepared and unprofessional person talking to the biggest celebrities and there were no negative consequences. Scott Aukerman’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie tries to take this sketch and expand it into a movie with mixed results. The interview portions are still hilarious, but the road trip plot is the weak thread trying to tie everything together.
Zach Galifianakis and his crew (played by Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul, and Jiavani Linayao) work at a public access channel in North Carolina where Zach has founded unexpected success interviewing celebrities and then having those interviews uploaded to Funny or Die. After accidentally and temporarily killing Matthew McConaughey during an interview, Funny or Die’s chief Will Ferrell makes Zach an offer. If Zach can deliver ten interviews in two weeks, then not only is all forgiven, but Zach will get his dream job of doing a late-night talk show on a real network. Zach and his crew hit the road and proceed to make celebrities uncomfortable.
Aukerman and Galifianakis didn’t really bother with much of a plot or a character arc when they wrote the script. The exchange seems to be that Netflix gave them a lot of money to do a bunch of Between Two Ferns interviews, but those interviews needed to be in the form of a movie rather than the brief 5-to-7-minute bits that ran on Funny or Die. When Galifianakis is paired with a celebrity, the comedy works perfectly. I can’t really remember most of the jokes, but I do know I was laughing pretty hard when Paul Rudd was talking about his fictional charity or Galifianakis was getting Benedict Cumberbatch’s name wrong. The problem is everything that exists outside of those inteviews.
There’s nothing wrong with Galifianakis, Lapkus, Gaul, and Linayao as comic performers; they just don’t really have much to work with. There’s not much effort to give these new characters a personality, so unlike with the celebrities, where the dynamic is usually “Famous person gets uncomfortable questions that could only be asked within the bounds of a comic sketch,” the stuff with the crew has no room to maneuver because there’s not much of a relationship there. They get the occasional funny line, but the material feels painfully underdeveloped, so you’re just kind of waiting to get to the next celebrity interview.
On the one hand, I can’t really call Between Two Ferns: The Movie a failure because it gives me what I’ve loved since the show first hit over ten years ago, which is turning the celebrity interview on its head and doing the kind of insults typically reserved for roasts of D-listers or celebrities at the end of their careers. On the other hand, there’s really no reason for the road trip part of Between Two Ferns to be as weak as it is. Aukerman and Galifianakis are funny guys, and while the celebrity interviews were always going to be the draw of Between Two Ferns, there’s no reason they had to be the only good part.