The backstory to the Obama-Galifianakis Funny or Die video
By Ashley Killough
(CNN) — Anyone who’s watched Funny or Die’s interview segment, “Between Two Ferns” with comedic actor Zach Galifianakis, knows the interviewee is in for a few minutes of sheer awkwardness.
The back-and-forth takes place in between two ferns. Literally. And the most popular episode was when Galifianakis belt-whipped Justin Bieber.
So imagine the surprise when the Internet world woke up Tuesday morning to a new episode, this time with Galifianakis grilling President Barack Obama. (Scroll to the bottom of this article to watch the video.)
“What is it like to be the last black president?” the actor asked a little more than a minute into the interview.
“Seriously, what’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?” Obama shot back.
By Tuesday afternoon, the video had more than 6.5 million views.
The 6.5 minute interview covered a range of topics, including same-sex marriage.
“You know what I would do if I were president, Mr. President, I would make same-sex divorce illegal. Then see how bad they want it,” Galifianakis said.
But the main point of the segment was to give Obama a chance to plug the federal health care law to a younger audience.
Started in 2008, Funny or Die is a comedic video website where users can vote on a video’s funniness. Both celebrities and users produce content for the site.
Mike Farah, president of production at the company and executive producer of “Between Two Ferns,” told CNN he’d always wanted to do something with Obama since he started working at the company.
That opportunity came knocking when the White House invited celebrities last July to discuss ways to promote Obamacare, as the open enrollment launch date of October 1 was approaching and the law’s success depends on having at least 40% of its enrollees comprised of people between the ages of 18 and 34.
A couple months later, singer and actress Jennifer Hudson teamed up with Funny or Die to release a video on the eve of the Obamacare website rollout, parodying the popular ABC program “Scandal.”
Keeping in touch with the White House, Farah said Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett flew out to Los Angeles in September for a meeting with Funny or Die, where they floated the idea of doing an episode of “Between Two Ferns” with the President.
Fast forward to late February: a Funny or Die team came to Washington to film the segment. With the March 31 deadline to enroll in Obamacare fast approaching, Farah said the President wanted to get “more personally involved.”
The President was “familiar” with the Galifianakis segment, Farah said.
“He kinda got it,” he added. “He knew Zach’s persona. He knew what it would be like.”
When the crew showed up at the White House, Farah said they had no rehearsals and “handled it like every other episode.” The filming didn’t take much longer than the edited 6.5 minute video, he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday they knew “loosely” what the interview would look like, but “there was a lot of ad-libbing in there.”
Galifianakis and Obama had to stop the interview at points because the President would break out in laughter, one White House official told CNN.
Farah confirmed that the two “broke a few times.”
“It was fun, because then everyone can laugh and it was a huge relief,” he continued.
White House officials say knew some of the questions were going to be “edgy,” but the President was ready for it. An official said Galifianakis expressed some concern about his questions, but they assured the actor that Obama would be just fine, they said.
The questions were “obviously not done in a way that was mean spirited,” Farah added, but he acknowledged “we shoot it and edit in a way that feels awkward.”
Asked how they kept it a secret for two weeks, Farah said “we all just like the idea of surprising everyone.”
Funny or Die edited the video and waited to make it public on a day that didn’t conflict with the White House’s schedule.
“The White House has tons of things going on, and we wanted to make sure it was on a day that they were comfortable with,” he said.
Carney said in the daily press briefing that Funny or Die was the No. 1 referrer to HealthCare.gov on Tuesday, but he didn’t give specific numbers.
Carney also took issue with a question from a reporter asking whether the interview may have damaged the dignity of the presidency.
“We made the right call here,” Carney said.
CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta and CNN White House Producer Matthew Hoye contributed to this report.
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