Netflix's 'Between Two Ferns' and the Art of the Insult

Though there isn’t much of a plot in Netflix's ‘Between Two Ferns’ movie, it doesn’t really need one. There are enough celebrities willing to be roasted, enough close-to-the-bone jokes and just enough momentum to get us safely over the finish line

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Zach Galifianakis plays a clueless bumbler in “Between Two Ferns: The Movie.”
Zach Galifianakis plays a clueless bumbler in “Between Two Ferns: The Movie.” Credit: Adam Rose/Netflix

Insults, when done properly, are funny. When a barb is acerbic and accurate, when the initiator is sharp and when the recipient is gracious or deserving, a well-timed and well-delivered jibe has huge comedic potential.

From the witticisms of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut (“If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off”) to Comedy Central’s ritualistic celebrity roasts, we love it when someone combines brutality and hilarity.

Aside from delivery, one of the key elements in the successful insult is the intended target. While the style and content of the insult can vary – from pithy and clever to cruel and crude – the golden rule is ‘Never punch down.’ Always choose a deserving target.

Since 2008, surrealist comedian Zach Galifianakis has been doing just that on his internet-based, Emmy-winning interview show, “Between Two Ferns.” Best known for the “Hangover” movies and “Birdman,” Galifianakis shot to fame with a series of wildly popular stand-up specials between 2005 and 2007.

Now Netflix – which has proved time and time again that it has more money than original ideas – has dipped back into the bag of ready-made formats and given us “Between Two Ferns: The Movie.” In many cases, Netflix executives are like the scientists in “Jurassic Park.” They’re too busy wondering whether they can do something to think about whether they should.

Fortunately, in the case of “Ferns,” the answer is a resounding “Yes, please!”

The show features Galifianakis, or rather the actor playing the part of a clueless bumbler, conducting embarrassingly awkward and amateurish interviews with A-List celebrities and, famously, even with President Barack Obama.

With its 8-bit graphics, lapel mics held in place with duct tape, misspellings of guests’ names and Spartan set (as the title suggests, the interviews take place with the participants sitting between two potted plants), the improvised show lampoons network talk shows and, as one reviewer put it, offers a “charming critique of the faked intimacy of celebrity interviews.”

Originating as a one-off sketch for a show Fox passed on, creators Galifianakis, Scott Aukerman and B. J. Porter decided to upload it to Funny or Die, a comedy website started by Will Ferrell. With no more than four or five episodes a year, “Ferns” was clearly a side project for all those involved.

Among the guests on these early episodes, which are still available on the Funny or Die website and YouTube, are Natalie Portman, Bruce Willis and Charlize Theron. Galifianakis, with laser-like precision, hones in on exactly those subjects that ‘real’ talk-show hosts avoid. He asks Willis, for example, if he knows that some actors turn down roles and, when Ben Stiller is his guest, he wants to know whether he regrets not following his parents (Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) into comedy.

Killer lines

In later episodes, some of the guests give as good as they get: Jennifer Lawrence, for example, had a crack at his somewhat portly physique, while Obama – who used the show in 2014 to drive traffic to the U.S. government’s insurance portal to sign up for the Affordable Care Act – responds to Galifianakis’ incredibly audacious question (“What’s it like to be the last black president?”) by asking: “What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?”

Anyone familiar with Galifianakis’ work will know that he is the perfect host for this show. His self-deprecation, his feigned cultural cluelessness and his deadpan delivery lend themselves to some killer lines.

And, for once, Netflix did not just take an existing format and try to bring it back to life. This time, they added a little depth. In the stand-alone episodes, it’s not clear how Galifianakis manages to get all these celebrities onto his show. In the movie, it becomes clear that Ferrell is using his showbiz connections to force guests onto the show, taking advantage of Galifianakis’ unintentional hilarity.

There isn’t much of a plot to this movie. Since it’s only 83 minutes long, however, it doesn’t really need one. There are enough movie stars willing to be insulted, enough close-to-the-bone jokes and just enough momentum to get us safely over the finishing line. The interviews with Paul Rudd (“What advice would you give a young actor who wants to hide his Jewishness as well as you have?”) and Benedict Cumberbatch, whose name is predictably but successfully mangled, are particularly funny. And fans of “Game of Thrones” will enjoy Peter Dinklage’s fully committed performance.

“Between Two Ferns: The Movie” is as slight as they come. It’s silly and it’s fun and it certainly looks like everyone involved had a great time making it. Fans of the original web series will welcome the ‘Galifianakis’ character back into their lives; newcomers can enjoy not only this reincarnation, but the source material that inspired it.