Between Two Ferns: 13 Facts About The Zach Galifianakis Talk Show

Since 2008, before he became a comedy superstar with "The Hangover" and "Baskets," Zach Galifianakis has hosted "Between Two Ferns," probably the most unique talk show of the decade. In character as an abrasive, unwelcoming version of himself, Galifianakis invites big-time celebrities (Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Justin Bieber) for what can only be described as an anti-talk show. There's no fawning over celebrities, and little permission for guests to plug their projects, only Galifianakis asking them the most uncomfortable questions possible.

Reinforcing that disconnect is the "look" of "Between Two Ferns," which is literally presented as host and guest sitting between two ferns. That, along with the old-school graphics makes the whole thing feel like a terrible cable access production ... except that it's hilarious because it's hosted by Galifianakis and produced by Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, two comedy lifers who have written for "Mr. Show with Bob and David," among other things.

It's easily one of the most popular web series of all time, and probably the most well-known and beloved thing ever produced by comedy clearinghouse Funny or Die. Here's a look behind the mystery of the delightfully strange and often off-putting "Between Two Ferns."

Between Two Ferns is the only part of a failed show that lived

Long before he hosted IFC's surreal, partially scripted talk show "Comedy Bang Bang," L.A. comedy scene veteran Scott Aukerman sold a pilot for a late-night sketch comedy series to Fox called "The Right Now! Show." "I just knew I wanted to work with Zach on something," Aukerman told Splitsider. "So we had money and I just said, 'Hey, whatever you want to do, let's do.'" Zach Galifianakis came back, according to Aukerman, with a "pretty much fully formed idea" for a segment on the pilot, including a title and its look.

"It also kind of came out of this celebrity worship culture that we have somehow adopted in our American psyche, and it was just a knee-jerk reaction to that. You know, just kind of making fun of the sycophantic interviewers that kiss the Hollywood machine," Galifianakis 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."

Fox ultimately didn't pick up the potential SNL competitor "The Right Now! Show," but Funny or Die was into it — well, just the "Between Two Ferns" part.

Between Two Ferns has endured some unwelcome guests

Most episodes of "Between Two Ferns" are a delight for audience, host, and guest. Zach Galifianakis mildly insults them or their work, or alludes to some painful detail from their personal life. For example, when Brad Pitt was a guest on the show, Galifianakis asked about how he felt the first time he saw his (then) wife, Angelina Jolie. "Was it like one of those classical love stories, like when Ross met Rachel?" Then he played the theme song of "Friends," the show featuring Ross and Rachel, the latter of whom was portrayed by Pitt's pre-Jolie wife, Jennifer Aniston. It's reasonable to excuse Pitt if he reacted negatively, but he kept his cool. 

He may not even rank among the most unfortunate guest experiences in the history of "Between Two Ferns." According to producer Scott Aukerman, that honor goes to Bruce Willis and Sean Penn. Willis is an intense guy, and Aukerman told Splitsider the episode left him with "an intense fear that I was going to set Hollywood star Zach Galifianakis on fire and burn him alive. Also not a great experience: the Sean Penn episode. "That's a really uncomfortable one," Aukerman said. "When he threatens to knock Zach out, things got really tense in the studio. I haven't seen Sean Penn since then, but quite honestly, I'm afraid to ever see him again."

How'd they get President Obama on Between Two Ferns?

Some of today's biggest and brightest stars have sat with Zach Galifianakis on "Between Two Ferns," but easily the biggest "get" in show history was President Barack Obama.

Producer Scott Aukerman told Insider that he and his staff "had put it out there" that they wanted to interview Obama because they thought "it was a really stupid, funny idea." Amazingly, over the course of the next six years, Aukerman heard "here and there" that Obama was interested in doing the show, but it never came together for various reasons, mainly problems with scheduling. Finally, in 2014, things worked out and the "Ferns" guys flew to Washington D.C. and assembled their set in the White House. "Even then," Aukerman recalled, "Zach's like, 'This is not going to happen, at some point, something is going to happen with the country, some emergency, and we're going to get word that he's not going to come in.'" Finally, at 5:45 p.m. — 45 minutes late — President Obama showed up.

So why did the most powerful man in the free world agree to appear on a web show? He wanted to use the platform to promote the health care exchanges, the online arm of his "Obamacare" legislation that helped people find insurance. It worked, too — 11 million people watched the episode on the first day it went live, and traffic to "" jumped by 40%.

They were with her

More than two years after the President Barack Obama episode of "Between Two Ferns" (and two years since its last episode, period), the show welcomed another powerful guest in Secretary of State turned 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Did the show's producers aggressively pursue her? They didn't need to. "The Clinton camp reached out to us and said that there was interest," Scott Aukerman told The Daily Beast. "It was actually her idea," as she was "a big fan of the Obama one." The episode filmed within a few weeks of that proposal, with Clinton hanging out with Zach Galifianakis and the crew for about an hour, more than the 40 minutes she'd allocated.

Aukerman said Clinton was game and didn't explicitly ban the discussion of any topics; nor did they object to the Donald Trump campaign ad that runs in the middle of the episode. "We've always thought about putting an ad in the middle of one of these episodes, so we were like, wouldn't it be really funny to play an ad for her opponent? That would be rudest thing to do."

When the Clinton episode of "Between Two Ferns" hit the internet in September 2016, it was popular, to say the least, racking up more than 30 million views within its first 24 hours, giving it the best first-day stats in the history of Funny or Die.

For Between Two Ferns, all you need is ferns

Despite of its simplicity — or probably because of it — "Between Two Ferns" possesses one of the most memorable talk show sets of all time. Emphasizing the idea that it's a humble, low-budget web series meant to look like an even lower budgeted public access presentation, "Between Two Ferns" employs little more than a black backdrop, a couple of chairs, a table, and, of course, exactly two ferns to flank host and guests. That gives producers some flexibility with where the show is actually taped.

When Zach Galifianakis told producer Scott Aukerman about his idea for the project, he told Entertainment Weekly that he said, "Give me two ferns and an actor, and we'll make it look like a cable access show." That's literally what they did. Galifianakis said some episodes have shot in "broom closets" and other non-glamorous locations. "The Natalie Portman one is in a shed. And the one with Jon Hamm, that was in a shed." On the very first official episode of "Between Two Ferns," Galifianakis interviewed "Arrested Development" star Michael Cera. "The great thing about that one," Galifianakis told Vulture, "is that we shot it in a basement."

Two hot for Between Two Ferns

In 2016, Zach Galifianakis was a guest on "Conan," whose host asked about the circumstances — and weirdness — of interviewing the sitting president of the United State. Galifianakis told a story about how just before the interview, he was dining in a White House restaurant and saw a dessert menu offering something called "Chocolate Freedom." To some Secret Service agents in attendance, Galifianakis quipped, "You guys call the president this, right?" The security detail thought it was so funny that they insisted he ask the president if his nickname was some variation on "Chocolate Freedom." Galifianakis declined the opportunity.

Galifianakis also talked about a bit from the Hillary Clinton episode left on the cutting room floor because it ran on for too long. "I was like, 'Oh, we have a faxed question from one of our viewers.' So Clinton had to wait for this long fax question to come through," Galifianakis told Wired. And there was just the noise of the fax machine while I was trying to make small talk with her. That was probably the happiest I've been performing in a long time."

A Zach can dream, can't he?

Terrestrially broadcast TV talk-fests like "The Tonight Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" tend to favor entertainers — actors, actresses, rock stars, and models show up five nights a week to flog their latest blockbuster movies, album releases, and signature perfumes. "Between Two Ferns," a show that exists almost entirely in the non-corporeal realm of the internet, doesn't follow those strictures and invites on guests from a variety of fields, as well as people not normally seen as guests on the late-night circuit. Sure, Zach Galifianakis has spoken with Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm, but when was the last time you saw Carrot Top sit down with James Corden, or saw Conan O'Brien share a panel with Andy Dick? 

Still, despite that breadth and variety, Galifianakis has some dream guests. He's never interviewed an athlete, for example. "I would like to do Shaquille O'Neal. I would like to do a sports figure," he told Entertainment Weekly. Loftier figures, too. "I think the Pope would be good. Some kind of British royalty would be nice." As for celebrities, he'd prefer "an older British actress like Judi Dench."

It will never be Trumped

Zach Galifianakis has hosted several extremely powerful guests on "Between Two Ferns," including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Tila Tequila. And although he'd love to talk to the pope or the queen someday, there's one influential world leader that probably won't be sitting for an awkward interview next to a houseplant any time soon: steak magnate and former American president Donald Trump. 

After his interview with Hillary Clinton became a huge a viral hit in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked Galifianakis if he would give "equal time" to then-candidate Trump. "Doing it the other way doesn't interest me," Galifianakis said. "He's the kind of guy who likes attention — bad attention or good attention. So you're dealing with a psychosis there that's a little weird. I wouldn't have anybody on that's so mentally challenged. I feel like I'd be taking advantage of him." No word on whether or not he ever had any plans to interview Jill Stein.

Guests don't know what to expect

Celebrity guests on "Between Two Ferns" almost always seem surprised by the probing or inappropriate questions asked by host Zach Galifianakis. Those reactions are genuine, and that's the result the show's creators like. Guests aren't prepared much beyond a brief chat with co-creator and producer Scott Aukerman. "I would give every person the pre-planned speech: 'Hey, so this is an interview. We're not gonna show you the questions. Zach is going to be mean to you, but that's part of the fun,'" Aukerman explained to Decider. Most celebrities are fine with that improvisational aspect and don't take the insulting questions seriously, which are actually more likely to trip up Galifianakis. "Zach breaks all the time, feels bad about asking mean questions, and apologizes," Aukerman said.

Guests are allowed to nix questions mid-interview. "Usually what we'll say is, 'If, in the moment, it strikes you as being too off-color or something that you don't want to talk about, then just call it out to us in the moment," Aukerman said. "We'll honor that and not put it into the edit.' That's happened to us several times over the years." Once such instance: Galifanakis planned to ask Jennifer Aniston about her ex-husband, Brad Pitt, and then bring a Pitt lookalike onto the stage — but Aniston politely declined to proceed with the bit.

It's not Zach's first strange talk show

As odd and original as "Between Two Ferns" can be, it's somehow not the first time Zach Galifianakis has hosted a bizarre talk show that sets out to deconstruct and satirize TV talk shows and at the same time make its guests uncomfortable. Way back in 2002 Galifianakis was not yet a household comedy name. He was known primarily for his work on the "alternative comedy" circuit and for roles in box-office bombs like "Bubble Boy," "Out Cold," and "Corky Romano." Because he had a beard, he usually played loners and weirdos. But someone at VH1 liked what they saw, because the cable network built a strange and innovative nightly talk show around him called "Late World with Zach."

Like "Between Two Ferns," "Late Worldattempted to poke some holes in the facade that is the Hollywood entertainment/celebrity worship complex. For example, he'd talk to celebrities from "the red carpet," but "Late World" would cut real footage of stars with shots of Galifianakis standing by a garbage bin in an alley — so, clearly not in the same place. On another occasion, he interviews up-and-coming actor Bradley Cooper (his future "Hangover" cohort) with some rote questions, but the audience is privy to the host's inner voice, which expresses how bored he is. "Late World" lasted just nine weeks on VH1. Can't win 'em all, Zach.

How is Between Two Ferns even a movie?

"Between Two Ferns: The Movie" debuted on Netflix in 2019. How does one take a low-budget sketch that imitates and emulates an even lower-budget cable access production and turn it into a full-length feature film? Well, writer/star Zach Galifianakis and writer/director Scott Aukerman knew they wanted to do a movie, but it took years for them to figure out how. It was while filming the 2012 Comedy Central special "Between Two Ferns: A Fairytale of New York" that Aukerman told the Los Angeles Times they got the idea: "It was the first time we'd done something with Ferns that wasn't just the five-minute video and we had so much fun, we said, 'If we can ever think of an idea that is that low-concept enough that we could just set up on the fly and make something really quickly, we would take the opportunity.'

Now all they needed was a story ... which proved tough. "We wanted to do just a fun improv movie, and then I think we got a little bit in our heads about what it could be and started thinking too much about it, and the plot got very complicated." Aukerman told The Hollywood Reporter. So he left the project for some time and re-absorbed similarly sketch-based and improv-heavy movies, such as "Wayne's World," "Borat," and "This Is Spinal Tap." Then, he said, "It just came to me very quickly of 'let's throw away all the plot and do something super simple.'" 

Roll tape and see what happens

Scott Aukerman wasn't lying: The plot of "Between Two Ferns: The Movie" is simple and straightforward. Will Ferrell, evil president of Funny or Die, demands that Zach Galifianakis produce 10 episodes of his celebrity interview show and hand in the tapes in Los Angeles in two weeks. Galifianakis hits the road with his assistant (Lauren Lapkus) and a skeleton crew (Ryan Gaul, Jivani Linayao) and grab hastily planned interviews with celebrities in different cities along the way. 

That "find somebody and film them fast" also describes the film's production process. "We started shooting with no one on board," Aukerman told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a crazy way to do a movie, to not know what you're shooting. The crew thought we were insane." Beyond that, large portions of the film were improvised. The shooting script consistent primarily of outlines of scenes that Aukerman would fill in with lines the performers made up on the spot. "The script really looks like a serial killer's manifesto," Aukerman told The Hollywood Reporter. "It just was like a lunatic wrote it or something, because it was super long with just half-sentences written on it sometimes." Somehow, this is just not that surprising.

Between Two Ferns could well be over

But the chance for Zach Galifianakis to passive-aggressively verbally assault the Duchess of Cambridge, or silently stare at Pope Francis until he feels so uncomfortable he has to get up and leave has probably passed. Between 2014 and 2019, Galifianakis and company turned out just two episodes — Hillary Clinton, and a special segment with Jerry Seinfeld and Cardi B for an episode of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." And while it's been a cultural sensation, a surprisingly small number of episodes exist — only 23, including TV specials.

The reason for the show's quiet and indefinite demise: Galifianakis wants to quit while he's ahead. While promoting his TV series "Baskets" in 2016, Galifianakis told the Los Angeles Times that "Between Two Fern"s had "kind of run its course a bit." He and collaborator Scott Aukerman still had the juice in them for the 2019 Netflix feature "Between Two Ferns: The Movie," which probably represents end of the franchise. "There's a shelf life for something like this. We live in meaner times now," Galifianakis told USA Today. "I don't know if there's an appetite for something like this out there." He added that he thinks he and Aukerman will put the show "to bed after" the movie.