Before exploding into the comedy stratosphere and joining the ranks of heavyweights like Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen in the wake of The Hangover (2009), Zach Galifianakis was hurling insults at Michael Cera in Between Two Ferns, Funny or Die’s biting low-budget satire of late-night television celebrity interviews. Initially conceived as a segment for a television show based on the popular podcast Comedy Death-Ray, the first episode of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis was uploaded in early 2008 after the CDR pilot was abandoned. Comedy Death-Ray would eventually go on to become Comedy Bang! Bang!, an even more popular podcast an companion IFC show of the same name. As it happens, CBB host Scott Aukerman is also the mastermind behind Between Two Ferns, responsible for both writing and directing many of entries in the short-film series. Eleven years and 12 episodes later, Between Two Ferns: The Movie -- also directed by Aukerman -- has arrived, and for better or worse, it’s everything one might expect from a Netflix Original based on a Web series long past its prime.
Taking place in an alternate reality where Zach Galifianakis never did The Hangover trilogy, never scored his TV show Baskets (2016-19) on FX, and never transitioned into Oscar-winning films like Birdman or: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), Between Two Ferns: The Movie finds Galifianakis working on fictional public access network FPATV in rural N.C. Spending his days insulting celebrities via interview and generally making a fool of himself, this Bizarro version of Galifianakis longs for the admiration bestowed on late-night titans like Jay Leno and David Letterman. His dreams are far from becoming a reality: His crew can’t stand him, his assistant Carol (Lauren Lapkus, one of many Comedy Bang! Bang! alums to appear in film) vainly attempts to please him, and the celebrities subjected to his signature brand of jabs and knife-twists can’t get away fast enough. This is especially true of Matthew McConaughey, who literally can’t escape when the studio floods, leaving Galifianakis and company indefinitely off the air.
After a scolding from Funny or Die co-creator Will Ferrell (playing an inflated, drug-addicted version of himself… presumably), Galifianakis is promised a late-night show of his own on the Lifetime Network if he can deliver ten episodes of Between Two Ferns to Funny or Die’s L.A. headquarters in two weeks’ time. Willing to do whatever it takes to get people to stop laughing at him and start laughing with him, Galifianakis agrees to the daunting task — ignoring the fact that he has a bare-bones crew, a nonexistent budget, and no formal studio space. Galifianakis, Carol, his cameraman Cam (Ryan Gaul), and sound technician Boom Boom (Jiavani Linayao) set off on a whirlwind road trip in search of celebrities to skewer.
The initial appeal of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis was that its host was essentially a nobody — in the show’s first year, high-profile guests such as Michael Cera, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Hamm, Natalie Portman, and Bradley Cooper were grilled by an unfamiliar face who had previously only appeared in bit roles in small independent films. After the massive success of The Hangover — the film that immediately put Galifianakis on the comedy map — the show continued to book major celebrities like Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, and Jennifer Aniston. The dynamic changed given Galifianakis’ own elevated profile, but the heart (or lack thereof) was still there. The show never promoted or sold anything (except for Speed Stick deodorant, of course). The sketches were purely comedic, satirizing the dynamic between interviewer and interviewee via the late aughts’ signature brand of “anti-comedy” — as an alum of the borderline-Dadaist Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007-10), Galifianakis is particularly skilled at making things uncomfortable.
This is why Between Two Ferns: The Movie feels so different from the show in its heyday. The jokes are never all that sharp, everyone seems to be in on the gag, and the B- and C-list celebrities aren’t even worthy of being mocked in the first place. Sure, the original series was obviously staged, but it felt sufficiently spontaneous and surprising that the viewer was left to wonder how much the guest had been told beforehand. This feeling is never present in the feature film, with almost every interaction between the stars and Galifianakis feeling forced instead of natural. Most hail from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Paul Rudd, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Peter Dinklage, namely, with a few others (like Awkwafina and Hailee Steinfeld) currently set to join that uber-franchise in the near future. The highlight of the bunch is Rudd, who has worked with Galifianakis in the past on Dinner for Schmucks (2010) and seems to have held onto the antagonistic energy the two exhibited in their previous collaboration.
Perhaps the film’s many blunders could be forgiven if Galifianakis was committed to delivering something memorable to fans who’ve stuck with the series since 2008. It’s something he’s certainly capable of — FX’s Baskets sees him playing two characters, resulting in some of his best work to date, so it’s not as if he’s lost his touch. His part as the Joker in The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) showed that even when working on a film-disguised-as-an-ad, Galifianakis could provide a laudable performance. Alas, the comedian is phoning it in harder here than he has since the Hangover sequels. Every joke that falls flat, every jab that misses the mark, every attempt to achieve the awkward absurdity of the show’s early days: all result in a Netflix Original that feels as rushed and half-baked as many of the streaming platform’s other offerings.
As Galifianakis’s career continued to skyrocket, Between Two Ferns took longer and longer hiatuses between episodes. A sequence of extended breaks between 2011-18 testify to a decline in the show’s quality as its host put his energy into bigger (and better) projects. As it turns out, Between Two Ferns: The Movie correlates directly with this deterioration. It’s not as dire as some of the show’s lowest points (no presidents or presidential hopefuls are in attendance here), but it’s nowhere near peak Ferns. To be fair, Galifianakis would probably be the first to admit this. Seaking during the show’s hiatus while promoting Baskets in 2016, the comedian told the Los Angeles Times that he “doesn’t know what else to do” and that he felt it had “kind of run its course a bit.” It’s clear that, in the wake of Between Two Ferns: The Movie, the comedian is still searching for a reason for this worn-out sketch to keep on living. The green thumb that was keeping Ferns alive is long gone.
Between Two Ferns: The Movie is now available to stream from Netflix.