Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Obama 'Tween the "Ferns"

Funny or Die is not part of my usual media consumption rotation. Sure, I watch their videos occasionally when they go viral and I get linked to one. I've seen a couple of installments of "Between Two Ferns" too, the site's no-budget anti-talk show hosted by comedian Zach Galifianakis where interviewer and interviewee exchange insults with each other in stark contrast to the love-fests that most celebrity interviews have become. Actually, I've seen more memes spawned by the show than the actual show, particularly the one with Jennifer Lawrence mocking Galifianakis's weight.

And then yesterday, President Obama (identified as a "Community Organizer") showed up and took a seat between the ferns and everyone went nuts. He was plugging the Affordable Healthcare Act and, of course, and specifically targeting the young internet-loving demographic that comprises Funny Or Die's core audience. And the great thing was, he was in on the joke. He and Galifianakis lobbed some relative softballs at each other, but there were still a few zingers on sore subjects - birth certificates, basketball, and "Hangover 3" among them. The tone was right, the comedy wasn't compromised, and both the site and the president came away from the outing looking great.

Here I should add all the usual disclaimers that though I voted for Obama last time around, I do not agree with all of his positions and policies, the actions of his administration, and certainly not his approach to handling some very serious issues. As a campaigner, however, he's rarely made a wrong step. From a marketing standpoint the "Between Two Ferns" appearance was a shrewd move, right up there with Richard Nixon's cameo on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." There aren't many other politicians I can imagine going toe to toe with Galifianakis. When they do feature in comedy bits like this, it's usually something like Stephen Colbert unleashing absurdity on a member of Congress in a "Better Know a District" segment of "the Colbert Report," where the politician plays the straight man (or woman). Or Ali G. maneuvering poor Pat Buchanan into making an idiot of himself.

This also signals a big moment for new media. Sure, Twitter has become a default talking point, and a Reddit IAMA session has become a regular stop on press tours, but you rarely see the mainstream really participate in the internet culture of viral videos and mash-up parodies made way outside the bounds of the traditional production system except to point it out or comment on it. Funny or Die might be considered a borderline case, as it has many famous contributors and backers, employs a professional writing staff, and recently partnered with HBO briefly to produce a short-lived sketch. However, by and large it has remained largely a web-based phenomenon that follows the anarchic, DIY, bare-bones aesthetic of most user-generated web content. In fact, the last time I checked the site, a good chunk of the Funny or Die website's content was still user submitted.

I'm right at the upper age limit of the intended target audience here, so I can appreciate what Funny or Die is doing while recognizing how alien the approach is to outsiders. The rules and the expectations of web content are very different. The set of "Between Two Ferns" consists of the two ferns, a few chairs, and a table, and the graphics package that looks like a relic of the early '80s, purposefully evoking the feel of an old public access show. The celebrities who appear don't behave they would on a regular talk show, engaging in ironic self-mockery with the understanding that they're playing to a very different audience. We're starting to see the same kind of humor appear on late night talk shows and in commercials, but there's still a significant divide between web culture and the mainstream media. That divide got a whole lot smaller when Obama dropped in for an interview. The President of the United States is about as mainstream as it gets, and exudes legitimacy.

It's been fascinating to look at the reactions to the appearance. Right wing pundits have been predictably outraged, though past presidents have employed similar tactics in the past. Capitol Hill stalwarts have been confused and worried about whether the appearance was appropriate or the best use of Obama's time, considering everything else that's going on in the world right now. The general public doesn't seem to care all that much one way or the other, and many remain completely unaware that the POTUS deigned to grace a lowly comedy website with his presence. However, the results are clear. got a healthy boost in traffic thanks to the "Ferns" interview after millions of people watched it on Funny or Die, and some of the visitors signed up for plans.

I have to wonder if a traditional marketing campaign would have been remotely as successful.


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