Back in 2008, Scott Aukerman co-created Between Two Ferns, the rare short-form series that has maintained popularity over more than a decade.
Hosted by Zach Galifianakis, the Funny or Die comedy plays with the ideas of celebrity image and the celebrity talk show appearance, watching as the comedian makes jokes at his A-list guests’ expense, and gets his fair share of barbs back.
Earning two Emmys to date for the series, Aukerman elected last year to expand its world with the Netflix film, Between Two Ferns: The Movie. Following Galifianakis and his ragtag camera crew as they embark on a road trip to complete a series of interviews, the film features improvised interviews with Awkwafina, Brie Larson, Keanu Reeves, David Letterman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Rudd, Matthew McConaughey, and Hailee Steinfeld.
Ultimately, these segments would appear in the movie only in pieces, becoming their own short-form series, known as Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis: The Movie, Sorta Uncut Interviews, which brought Aukerman and Galifianakis back into the Emmys race.
Below, Aukerman discusses the genesis of the film and the series it spurred, and the process by which its interviews were crafted. Additionally, he teases a possible future incarnation of BTF—“like The Office meets 30 Rock”—which was inspired by his experience with the film.
DEADLINE: How did Between Two Ferns: The Movie come about? And what was it that excited you about directing it?
SCOTT AUKERMAN: We did a Comedy Central special a few years back in New York, which was a half hour, and to pad out the time, we did a lot of shooting on the streets of New York, where we were just running around, and we would see something and get an idea. Like at one point, Zach saw a mailbox and said, “Okay, turn the camera on. I’m going to go run into it and make my pants fall around my ankles.”
We just shot all this stuff and improvised the whole thing, and it was so fun that we said, “Instead of doing a movie the way a comedy movie normally is done, where it’s really scripted and you have barely enough time to ever shoot anything, what if we did a completely improvised movie with this spirit, and then it would be an actual fun thing to do?” So, that’s what we did. We shot it like a documentary, where we just had an outline or a vague idea of what was going to happen in the scene, and then set up a camera and did long improve takes.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to turn the film’s interviews into their own separate series?
AUKERMAN: The interesting thing about the movie is I really based it, structurally, on This Is Spinal Tap. I listened to the DVD commentary, where they talked about how they shot it like an actual documentary, and then I watched all of the deleted scenes, and there’s just hours of footage that they didn’t use. So, that’s what I wanted to do with this movie.
But then, when I watched the movie, I noticed how little of the movie is actual performances by Spinal Tap. You really will only hear 30 seconds of a song here and there, and I realized that when people are watching a movie, people want to see plot. They don’t want everything to just stop down for a stationary interview. So, going into it, I really realized, we have an opportunity here. We were going to be filming 15 to 20 new Between Two Ferns episodes. Some of them, like the Adam Scott one, none of it is in the movie. And for the most part, most of the stuff that you see on the internet version is not in the movie. So, we really wanted to do two things, which is make a movie that had these brief glimpses of the interviews, and then make these episodes for the internet, specifically.
DEADLINE: What have you enjoyed about working within the format presented by Between Two Ferns?
AUKERMAN: I loved talk shows growing up. David Letterman was one of my biggest influences. His show just hit me like a thunderbolt when I was in high school. The bad part about talk shows is, they’ve become so scripted, and so any time you do a talk show, you have a producer calling you three times before your appearance, to go over what you’re going to say, and to make sure that there’s no deviation from the script, as to not have anything controversial or boring in them.
The thing about these is, they’re totally improvised. The celebrities come in, not knowing anything. We don’t tell them any of the jokes, and there’s just a certain sense of fun and spontaneity in them that I really like. Plus, we’re putting the celebrities into a position that they’re not normally in. You know, I’m not telling you any secrets, but there’s a publicist listening to us right now, to make sure nothing controversial gets said, so it’s like, we don’t allow publicists in. The only rule that we have is we say, “If anything happens during this that you leave just saying, ‘Ugh, I really hope that doesn’t end up in the interview,’ just let us know and we’ll take it out.” So, there’s a real sense of spontaneity to these that you don’t get a sense of in real talk shows.
DEADLINE: Has your approach to making these shorts changed much since the show’s inception?
AUKERMAN: When we first started, we were a little more conscious of trying new things with it. We were too precious with it, I think. In fact, we were never even going to do a second episode. After the first one we said, “Oh okay, we already did it.” Then, Jimmy Kimmel reached out and said, “I really would like to do one of these,” and we were like, “A second one. What do you mean?”
So, I think in the beginning, we were a little more trying to deviate the formula, and after a while, we really figured out, the core of these is just Zach saying really horrible things to these celebrities. We always try to find a new wrinkle on it here and there. But coming into the movie, we were like, “We’re doing 15 to 20 of these. We can’t reinvent the wheel for every single one.”
DEADLINE: You mentioned that the interviews are improvised. But surely, some of the jokes must have been written in advance.
AUKERMAN: It’s half and half. What we do is, we give Zach a list of jokes that we put together. Usually, in the morning on set, we would give him probably 10 pages of jokes. Then, he and I, and our producer, Corinne Eckart, would read through them, and he would cross out ones, and circle ones he really liked. So, we would get maybe three pages that we really liked, which then, we would put into his hands before the interview. But he’s going off the page and editing in his head, and then improvising in his head off of those. So sometimes, I would have to give him a direction like, “Zach, go back to the page,” because he’s very in the moment, and can lose himself in the improv. I would have to say, “We really do need to cover all these jokes, because there’s some really great jokes on the page.”
DEADLINE: Is it difficult to get through takes on these interviews without someone breaking?
AUKERMAN: Yeah. We’ve never wanted to ruin the illusion that these were really uncomfortable interviews, but during the movie, over the closing credits, we put a blooper reel of everyone breaking in them.
I mean, Zach is the worst offender. He cannot get through a question without breaking. Before the movie, I had a talk with him. I was saying, “We don’t have unlimited time on this movie. When we do these interviews, we need to do them as quickly as possible, because we’re just burning hours. So, can you try to be in character as much as possible?” He would always say, “Yes, definitely,” and then the first question would come out, and he would just laugh really hard, and I’d be saying, “Zach, stay in it. Stay in it.”
As far as the celebrities go, you never really know what you’re going to get. So, I had a speech prepared, where in case they’ve never even seen Between Two Ferns, which has happened to us a few times, I let them know what it is, and what the normal reaction to these would be. Then, you have people like Keanu Reeves. I came up to Keanu trepidatiously, preparing to go through my speech saying, “Well, Zach is playing a rude interviewer,” and he just looks at me and goes, “Yeah. I know. That’s why I’m here,” and laughs. So, for the most part, people have a great sense of humor about it, and they really like how uncomfortable the interviews can be.
DEADLINE: Were certain interviews done for the movie particularly memorable?
AUKERMAN: Going into the movie, we knew that part of Zach’s emotional arc was him learning that his dream of having a late-night talk show wasn’t going to make him happy. So to illustrate that, we knew that we needed to have a late-night talk show host on. As far as I was concerned, David Letterman was really the only choice, because he’s famously the person who was not made happy by his talk show, so I really, really pushed to have him. Funny or Die bent over backwards to get him, and that was really one of the highlights, especially for my part, starting comedy because of him. I didn’t want to tell him any of that. I just hung around, and I asked the set photographer, “Hey, if I’m ever standing next to him, will you snap pictures, please? Because I don’t want to ask him for a picture.” But I did end up making him laugh once, which was a coup for me.
So, that was a really great one, and then what I love is when you get a celebrity on like Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, that you’ve never met before, that you don’t know how they’re going to react to it, and they just take to the format really, really well, and they come in and they just have so much fun doing it. Those are the times when you just are sitting there enjoying yourself. We would have to clear the set of non-essential people whenever we would do these interviews, because people are just laughing too hard. So, we tried to keep them as small as possible so that when you’re in the moment, nothing ruins the illusion of that. But it’s always fun when you’re doing something like Paul Rudd, or Keanu Reeves, or Brie Larson, and several rooms away, you hear muffled laughing.
DEADLINE: Are there plans for future installments of Between Two Ferns?
AUKERMAN: We had so much fun doing the first act of the movie when they’re in the television studio, and we shot probably a 90-minute first act, because we just kept having fun with these improv scenes. We built the studio, so there would be time in the day where we would say, “Let’s just set up an improv scene and shoot it.”
Every one of those, the public access shows, we shot for 45 minutes, and shot an actual show. None of them ended up in the movie as well, so we had so much fun doing the first act, that we had to cut down so much, that Zach and I talked a little bit about doing more like a television version of this, where it’s set in the public access station, and Zach has a show there, and it’s like The Office meets 30 Rock, in a way, but it’s a totally improvised show. That’s one thing that we’ve talked about.