Between Two Ferns: The Movie, as the title suggests, is a feature-length adaptation of the popular Funny or Die webseries in which Zach Galifianakis (playing a fictionalized version of himself — or, at least, another guy named Zach Galifianakis) interviews celebrities. The conceit of Between Two Ferns has always been that Galifianakis is an absolutely terrible interviewer: bad questions, a short fuse, no knowledge of the people he’s interviewing and absolutely no regard for what should and shouldn’t be asked. It seemed that getting Obama on Between Two Ferns was the logical endpoint for a series, but the show is now resurrected with a Netflix original feature directed by Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang Bang), who conceived the original show.
The film sees Galifianakis hitting the road after a plumbing mishap floods the public-access studio where he shoots the show, nearly killing Matthew McConaughey. Galifianakis strikes a deal with Funny or Die head honcho Will Ferrell (playing, of course, himself): if he can deliver 10 interviews held with celebrities on the way to Los Angeles, Ferrell will grant Galifianakis’s greatest wish: his own late-night talk show. With his unenthusiastic production crew (Lauren Lapkus, Ryan Gaul, Jiavani Linayao) in tow, Galifianakis hits the road.
Speaking with Lauren Lapkus last week, I wasn’t necessarily interested in delving into the improvised nature of the show: everyone involved is a seasoned improviser, and it’s well-established at this point that improvisation makes its way into pretty much every comedy product you can imagine. But then I heard Aukerman on the Doughboys podcast talk a little about the process of making the film, and even he presented it as a different approach to improvisation, citing This Is Spinal Tap as an inspiration.
“It’s definitely different,” says Lapkus. “Doing improv on stage or on a podcast has a certain format to it — in the podcast world, we’re just doing a stream-of-consciousness conversation for an hour or two. That’s really one muscle. But when you’re shooting a movie and there has to be a plot that’s discernable at some point (laughs), it’s important to try and keep track of everything you’re improvising. Even if we’d improvise something and then have to go and shoot the scene that we were just talking about, that would be something to figure out. There’s a lot more technical stuff involved.”
Between Two Ferns: The Movie required considerably more prep and budget than its premise may suggest. The production went as far as to build the public-access studio.
“It’s one of the coolest things about writing something, to see all the sets built and to see something that was just in your imagination become real,” she says. “That was the same as an actor for this movie, improvising things and seeing them actualized, which is very unusual in the improv medium.”
Lapkus and Aukerman have collaborated often, first on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, then the television show and subsequent live comedy tours. They also host the Threedom podcast alongside Paul F. Tompkins — who, of course, cameos here — but despite their long working relationship, her presence in Between Two Ferns (playing a character that was invented for the film) wasn’t necessarily a given.
“I don’t know how early on in the process I was approached,” she says. “I got it in my email from my agent as an audition, essentially, and had to go in and audition with Zach. I know that Scott had me in mind for the role, but Zach and I didn’t know each other well — we had only done one Comedy Bang Bang live together and had worked briefly on another movie, but he had never really improvised with me. It was a bit of a test for me to go and improvise with him, but it went really well and I got the part. On my end, it felt like a normal process.”
Though Between Two Ferns: The Movie suggests an SNL film or any number of feature-length adaptations of sketch-comedy characters, the narrative in this film functions more as a throughline to the interviews than the opposite — working a bite-sized concept into a narrative.
“I think that’s something that the fans will really enjoy, because you get the highlight reel of all of these interviews,” says Lapkus. “It’s all of these best moments put together. I think the fact that we also improvised the movie around that allows it to be a little bit different than just your formulaic comedic piece based on a previously existing character. We get to create really nuanced, strange characters in this world and build this world and go anywhere we say we want to go. I think if it was overly scripted it would really change the dynamic of the celebrity interviews, as well. You wanna feel like those questions are surprising the guests and that everything is happening on the fly — and the rest of the movie really matches that tonally.”
The show also demystifies the interview process a tiny bit, though the film doesn’t break kayfabe until the end credits, it gives us a little more of an idea of what goes into the creation of a Between Two Ferns interview.
“I think he goes over the questions a little bit, but he doesn’t really know what he’s gonna say,” she continues. “He also improvises his own questions in the moment. I know he can make himself laugh with that, too. We got to watch all those interviews as they happened. Each celebrity had about 45 minutes to be interviewed. It was really fun to watch the process and see how often they break and what questions shock them.”
Those aforementioned end credits contain bloopers — usually the mark of a comedy that was more fun to make than to watch — which are perhaps the only enlightening bloopers I’ve ever seen save for that one Jackie Chan movie where he messes up a complicated stunt with a folding ladder.
“I think it was a really smart move to show those bloopers because it really shows what goes into making those interviews, and it also shows how light-hearted they are at their heart,” she says. “The celebrities enjoy this process of being made fun of, and no one’s feelings are getting hurt. It’s really just a good time.”
For Lapkus, the process of making a big, boisterous comedy and having it released onto Netflix mirrored the way her podcasts are also received by the world.
“I got to go to a screening when they were still editing it with a bunch of comedians and stuff in the room,” she says. “I was at the premiere in Los Angeles last Monday in a big theatre where we got to watch it with a full crowd. I was feeling a bit of wistfulness about missing out on the movie theatre experience. It’s been interesting, coming from the podcast world, because we record in a studio with nobody there and no laughter. You kinda have to just trust your instincts and put it out there — and you still kind of don’t know who’s listening or if they’re enjoying it. There’s no immediate feedback unless someone decides to tweet at you.
“But going out to do the live show with the podcast has been so cool because you realize that people actually do enjoy this show,” she continues. “It’s so interesting — I think podcasts, because they’re such a solo experience of listening to someone in your own head, you develop a close relationship with the people you listen to. I have that same relationship with the shows I listen to. I feel I’m much closer with the hosts, even if they’re people that I know in real life. The podcasts make me feel like I’m so much closer to them!” ■
Between Two Ferns: The Movie is on Netflix now.