On March 10, 2014, the President of the United States, leader of the free world, arguably the most powerful man on the planet sat down for an interview…amid a couple of house plants with Zach Galifianakis. This was obviously no ordinary interview. This was Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns.
As with all episodes of the popular web series, the interview is awkwardly hilarious, with Galifianakis segueing perfectly between open hostility and inane questions, at one point asking President Obama if his presidential library will be located in Kenya, or why they got the guy who designed the Zune to create the Affordable Care website.
The President, for his part, is quick, funny, and gives a pretty no-nonsense breakdown of the Affordable Care Act, which is the whole reason he’s sitting next to a fern. The episode went viral, for obvious reasons, but it also made Funny or Die the top referrer to Healthcare.gov. The episode was nominated for an Emmy last year and won Best of Show at the 2015 One Show Awards in May.
Here, Funny or Die’s head of production and executive producer Mike Farah talks about the creative process behind the episode, lessons it can teach other marketers and more.
What was the brief–or what was the challenge you were given by Obama’s people for this?
Basically the challenge was to make sure young people knew this law had been passed and it could have a positive impact on their lives. I think the White House was trying to let a lot of citizens know this, but specifically young people–a big part of our audience–to know and sign up because it allowed the actual premiums to come down. Because healthy young people typically need health care less than older people.
So this law had been passed and it just felt like a good thing for our audience to be aware of. We weren’t trying to comment on whether or not it was a good law or bad law, it was passed and we thought it would be helpful. Sadly these things become politicized very quickly but we just thought it was a good thing and something we could poke fun at.
“It’s a good example of a lot of people going with their gut and not over-thinking things.”
Give us the basic rundown of how this came about–you’ve said Obama’s team knew they needed to try something different, but was this something you had pitched them, or were they coming to you for ideas?
I had been pitching Between Two Ferns as an option for a while, but when it became a real opportunity, that’s certainly the idea I led with. there were some back-up ideas because you want to give people a choice, but the focus of the conversation was around the Ferns opportunity.
It was really good that we had already established a very positive relationship with the White House because we made a series of content around the Affordable Care Act. So then when the March 31 deadline to sign up was getting closer, I think the President and White House decided to get him more personally involved in the campaign. This was an idea we had been talking about for many months, but when the stars aligned for him to get involved, our existing relationship with them, and the fact that this was something that wouldn’t take up a lot of his time, it all came together.
Can you briefly describe the writing process–how much was scripted vs improv’d by the two “actors” involved?
It was similar and different to a regular Ferns. Each episode is thematically similar in that you’re trying to get real reactions, some improv, and make some good cutting jokes. But each guest is different in what they’re hoping to know going into each episode. I had been told the President was familiar with Ferns and excited to do it, but I don’t know if he was totally aware of what Ferns was like or what we had prepared going into it. But he’s a smart guy who was prepped well and he got it very quickly.
To his credit, they really let us lead the charge when it came to the creative and the jokes. I think one of the smartest things about it is that the Affordable Care Act stuff doesn’t even come into it until at least 60% through the video. So I think it was smart to let the comedy lead it and then get into the statement he wanted to make about the Affordable Care Act. It was so funny leading up to that part that it just made its impact that much better because the audience was already engaged.
I think we were all pleasantly surprised with the amount of creative freedom we had. The President’s speech writers were big fans so they were very supportive, as well as very smart, talented writers and funny guys in their own right, so there wasn’t any high stakes negotiations about how it would work. They got it. They were fans and had obviously seen episodes beforehand so they knew what they were signing up for.
It’s a good example of a lot of people going with their gut and not over-thinking things.
How did you measure success?
Selfishly, first and foremost, the comedy. Is it funny? Did we do our job and make people laugh? That’s the most important thing because if you do that, a lot of the other stuff follows suit. We’re also really proud how many young people it reached and encouraged to go read about the law and sign up. It’s a really great one-two combination.
What do you think the biggest lesson other marketers could draw from the success of this?
It was just another reminder of how important trust is. When you look at things as partners and you have a common goal, trust people to do what they do well. Now, that doesn’t mean comedians or creatives are always right, and it doesn’t mean the client is wrong all the time. But if you have trust in the people and the process, the talent and skills that got people to where they are in the first place, more times than not it’s going to lead to successful content, a fruitful partnership and more collaboration in the future.