Two weeks ago, Funny or Die released another installment of Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns, an interview series in which the comedian eye-rolls his way through awkward celebrity Q&As. Only this video featured President Barack Obama zinging Galifianakis for The Hangover Part III, and urging viewers to sign up for the Affordable Care Act before the March 31 deadline. The video now has more than 19 million views.
It humanized the president, but it had a bigger effect: It became the top driver of traffic to Healthcare.gov. The afternoon of its release, an administration official claimed they’d received 19,000 direct referrals, and traffic went up 40 percent. For a time, Funny or Die was the number one source of referrals to the site.
The video had its detractors, but even the criticisms were hilarious. Remember when Bill O’Reilly called Obama “desperate” and said Abraham Lincoln would never have appeared on Between Two Ferns? Even before the Obama video, commenters slammed Funny or Die for "peddling socialist snake oil."
So why did a comedy website have one of the most successful attempts at getting people to sign up?
Funny or Die, founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, is known for its pop culture satire and cabal of comedic talent. It’s not necessarily known for social advocacy campaigns. However, last year the site did rally around Shezanne Cassim, a 29-year-old American living in the United Arab Emirates, who’d been imprisoned for a parody video he and his friends released. The #FreeShez campaign raised awareness about his imprisonment, using a handful of well-known comedians and actors. He was released in January.
Last summer, Funny or Die’s president of production, Mike Farah, joined artists and celebrities at the White House to brainstorm ideas for getting Obamacare out to the youth, and a loose plan was set in motion to produce F.O.D. Obamacare videos. He hoped the videos would be a call to action, something that normalized signing up for healthcare.
“It was a pretty organic process in terms of us wanting to help out and learning about some of the challenges and obstacles facing the law,” Farah says. “And it fell into what we already do a lot of at Funny or Die, which is make political, topical, hopefully funny videos about what’s going on in the world, and it definitely spoke to our younger audience. That’s who they were trying to reach. [The White House] got to know us and we got to know them, and we had a good foundation and working relationship. And when the president decided to get more actively involved in early February, we started talking about what that could look like.”
Farah explains Obama knew what Between Two Ferns was about, and got the joke. The president also indulged in a bit of improv.
“I think the whole Ferns framework of comedy worked very well for the president,” Farah says. “His deadpan and his vibe and his natural sense of humor complimented Zach very well. I think we always wanted the piece to stand on its own and be an episode of Ferns that happened to have the president in it. We didn’t want it to feel like anything different.”
On Tuesday, they released their latest star-studded Obamacare video, featuring Parks & Recreation’s Adam Scott reprising his role from Step Brothers, and bro-ing down with Mark Cuban, Jeff Probst, and Chris Daughtry. To add to the assholery, Scott wears Google Glass and attempts to tell us how "health insurance equals fear." Over the weekend, they released another anti-Obamacare rant.
Funny or Die has certainly tackled social and political issues in past videos,using big celebrity names to get the point across about Syria or gun control, but the Obama video changed the dynamic; this was the first time a sitting president became the face of a viral video for a comedy site. For all the debate it incited, it did call people to action.
“I want to say it was just last week they announced that 800,000 people signed up between March 1 and March 15,” Farah says. “So I think Fernshad a direct impact on that, but I think people are hearing [about signing up] from a lot of [places]. Deadlines have an ability to motivate people to do things, so I think the timing of the video was perfect.” (An email to the White House asking for specific figures was not returned.)
After March 31, Farah says they don’t have any explicit plans to explore specific political issues or engage politicians looking for that same virality, but assures Funny or Die will continue to spin satire like they always have.
“There will always be an effort by Funny or Die to make some comments about what’s going on in the world,” he says. “Politics, social issues, pop culture, whatever it is. I can’t say, now that the deadline’s over, we can start our campaign for X or Y, but it’s ingrained in the culture of the company to keep an eye out for those things.”