How 'Between Two Ferns' Went from Sketch Series to Road Trip Movie

The long-running Funny or Die segment is being translated into a Netflix original film.

Between Two Ferns Movie

What has Chrissy Teigen, a road trip, and a near-drowning accident involving Matthew McConnaughey? That would be the Netflix Original Between Two Ferns: The Movie, which is based on the popular Funny or Die web series of the same name starring Zach Galifianakis.

Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis debuted in 2008 and can only be defined as an anti-talk talk show. Playing a much more abrasive version of himself, Galifianakis as host spends each episode asking his celebrity guest — whether it’s Natalie Portman or Cardi B — uncomfortably inappropriate questions. The awkwardness is heightened by old-school graphics and a set that positions him and the interviewee…that’s right, between two ferns.

Galifianakis came up with the idea when comedian Scott Aukerman asked him to create a segment for a sketch comedy pilot he’d recently sold to Fox. Soon, he imagined a satire of the unctuous way American media often treats celebrities. “[It was] just kind of making fun of the sycophantic interviewers that kiss the Hollywood machine,” the actor told Entertainment Weekly. “But I didn’t want to prank anyone. I didn’t want it to be mean-spirited. I wanted the people I was interviewing to be in on the joke.”

While Fox didn’t ultimately pick up the series, the concept caught the attention of the comedy website Funny or Die (co-created by his fellow comedic actor and future The Campaign co-star Will Ferrell and two of that movie’s writers, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy). Filmed on makeshift sets in broom closets and sheds, Between Two Ferns had Galifianakis knowingly jab at sore spots in his guests’ careers and personal lives over the course of five-minute episodes.

Take the 2014 episode where he asks Brad Pitt how he felt when he first saw his (then) wife, Angelina Jolie, for example: “Was it like one of those classical love stories, like when Ross met Rachel?” And if that’s not enough, the theme song to Friends plays, in case you don’t get that Galifianakis is making reference to Pitt’s ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, who played Rachel on the show.

Some of the most successful episodes of Between Two Ferns have Galifianakis and his guests facing off in a volley of barbs, knocking each other down and spoofing typical celebrity interviews. One of the best showcases of that dynamic is a 2010 episode featuring a very combative Steve Carrell. The actor — co-starring with Galifianakis in Dinner for Schmucks in theaters at the time — is ready for the questions right away, putting a spin on the show’s usual shtick of the eccentric interviewer and ”normal” interviewee shtick.

The series also took on American press junkets, tackling an infamously melodramatic part of the Hollywood zeitgeist: awards season. Two 2013 “Oscar Buzz” specials brought on nominees Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Naomi Watts, with music unceremoniously playing them off between insults. Adams steals the segment with her own award-worthy line-reading of a Galifianakis joke involving very inopportune farting.

No matter how cutting the joke, the show’s mix of script, improvisation, and genuinely (?) flabbergasted celebrities clicked with viewers. Each installment boasts over a million views on the Funny or Die website alone. And in 2014 and 2015, Between Two Ferns took home successive Emmys for Outstanding Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program, recognizing its quality in addition to its popularity.

Prominent politicians have even used the series as a platform. Then-President Barack Obama appeared on Between Two Ferns in 2014 to promote Obamacare, and on the day that the episode premiered, traffic to the HealthCare.gov website jumped by 40 percent. Two years later, in what the show itself dubbed “her most memorable interview yet,” Hillary Clinton sat down with Galifianakis as part of her 2016 presidential campaign.

Although Between Two Ferns has become a cultural phenomenon, what’s particularly remarkable is its ability to captivate a decade of fans with only 21 episodes to date. Apart from the 30-minute special Between the Ferns: A Fairytale of New York, which aired in 2012, a long-form version of the show has never been attempted until now.

The trailer for Between the Ferns: The Movie promises part talk show, part road comedy. The plot has Galifianakis temporarily drowning McConnaughey during an interview, which makes his bosses at Funny or Die understandably upset. Will Ferrell then sends the host cross-country to redeem himself by conducting 10 celebrity interviews. If all goes well, Galifianakis might even get a network talk show of his own. While not every actor will get to sit between the storied ferns, the movie has drawn an all-star cast that includes Keanu Reeves, Brie Larson, Tiffany Haddish, Peter Dinklage, and many more.

Will the web series’ offbeat appeal work within a three-act Netflix feature film? With original writers Galifianakis and Aukerman on board, Between the Ferns: The Movie is definitely in good hands.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie will NOT be in theaters on September 20th.

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Culture journalist and Vox Magazine writer who hasn't been adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph (yet).