Since 2008, stand-up comedian/actor/writer Zach Galifianakis has had his own talk show series on Funny or Die, Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. As the title suggests, the series takes place on a set—and yes, it is a sparse set—where Zach and his guest(s) sit and talk, between two ferns, for three to six minutes. Despite how awesome it would be for these very awkward interviews to be real, the series, created by Scott Aukerman and B.J. Porter, is a mostly improvised satire of talk show segments, celebrity interviews, and public access series.
There have only been 21 episodes—plus a couple of specials—and guests have ranged from the somewhat obvious (Will Ferrell, Bradley Cooper, Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter) to the unexpected (Tila Tequila, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis) to the extremely unbelievable (President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton). And now, a series who’s defining characteristic has been two ferns, a black backdrop, and Zach Galifianakis being amazingly antagonistic toward his guests (and vice versa) has birthed a Netflix feature film (directed by Aukerman). In honor of the movie (which is out today, Sept. 20, 2019) and perhaps even the entire life of the series—as Aukerman and Galifianakis have intimated that there’s nowhere else to go with the series—I’ve assembled a Top 10 episode list of Between Two Ferns.
But first, the honorable mentions:
If this were an actual episode and not a Comedy Central special, “A Fairytale of New York” would be at the very top of this list. In fact, it’s the one episode that provided evidence for how a Between Two Ferns movie could even exist, as this longer form Between Two Ferns is the most Scott Aukerman, Comedy Bang! Bang!-esque “episode” of the entire series. Especially the mid-show political ads (promotional tools for the Zach Galifianakis/Will Ferrell film The Campaign), the glaringly inaccurate voiceover guest introductions, and the “completely unstaged bloops” at the end. And “A Fairytale of New York” also has stellar moments like Zach’s name getting the misspelled graphic treatment, Tina Fey explaining the entire premise of the series (for those who still didn’t “get” what the point was), and Jon Stewart’s approach to the typical combative guest, which features the reminder of everyone’s favorite version of Jon Stewart: “Actor Who Starred in (or Was Cut From) Major Motion Pictures” Jon Stewart.
Also, Richard Branson is there.
While this dropped on Funny or Die, “Happy Holidays Edition” doesn’t actually count as an episode either. If it did, it would be episode 18, but it’s not, so it doesn’t. Unlike “Oscar Buzz Edition,” there are only two celebrities here—unless you also want to count Arcade Fire, singing “Little Drummer Boy” as asbestos falls from the ceiling—and both Samuel L. Jackson and Tobey Maguire share the set with Zach, without ever quite being a partnership. While Maguire is definitely playing along, it’s so glaringly obvious that he’s doing a bit, and it’s honestly not as funny Samuel L. Jackson seemingly addressing all of this as himself. Because “Tobey Maguire” and “funny” have never meshed. But that doesn’t change how good Zach is during the episode, with the combination of his Cider House Rules joke (“Have you ever been to an English pub where they’re serving hard cider and yelled out, ‘This cider house rules!’?”) and the callback to accidental friend of the show Emmanuel Lewis (as they both played a couple of “Web-sters”).
As much as the President Obama and Hillary Clinton episodes brought many, many eyes to Between Two Ferns, and were huge “How the hell did they pull that off?” gets, let’s just be clear: They were never the best of the series. There was certainly a higher surrealist factor (again, based off the “How the hell did they pull that off?” question), but they were ultimately a means to a political platform. Plus, the Hillary episode is especially depressing in retrospect. (“Are you excited to be the first girl president? … When he’s elected president and Kid Rock becomes Secretary of State, are you gonna move to Canada? Or one of the arctics?”)
The Obama episode, however, is the better one of the two. Part of that is because Hillary Clinton really is not a comedian or actor or funny person at all (and that’s okay), and hopefully we’ve finally all got the attempt to make her so (in this, Broad City, Saturday Night Live, and even the Murphy Brown continuation) out of our systems. The other part of that is the fact that the Barack Obama episode even follows up on one of the series’ running bits, specifically Zach’s issues with his progressively more famous friend (and more handsome and likable), Bradley Cooper.
Serious question: Has Sean Penn ever laughed in his entire life? Outside of a film role, I mean? Probably not, right? I’m terrified to think what he might consider a joke, if he even believes in jokes at all. But it’s because of that very fact that the Sean Penn episode of Between Two Ferns is one of the best of the entire series, even if Scott Aukerman is still afraid of the man to this day. It’s amazing that it’s followed up by the other “so intense it might actually be amazing” episode of the series (Bruce Willis), but it gets the leg up because: 1. Zach does it in character as his “country boy” twin brother Seth, which seemed to have only made Penn more frustrated, and 2. It doesn’t have the unnerving tangent that Bruce Willis goes on where he says, “The ‘80s, man. You could get away with anything. … Women were much cleaner.” It’s definitely unnerving when Sean threatens to knock “Seth” out in his chair but in a different way. Plus, the episode is the introduction of the Speed Stick (by Menin!) sponsorship, which was the gift that kept on giving.
One word: Whiz. “What is he, a German Shepherd?” (Also: R.I.P. Whiz) Natalie Portman’s dog is 100% the MVP of this episode, even though it was apparently difficult to film this episode because of it. But that’s not apparent, as Whiz looks like he’s cringing his way through this interview just like Natalie is. And Zach finds a way for his masculinity to be challenged by this little dog, when he’s not failing to play it cool near a pretty lady who won’t give him her phone number. This episode also has the all-time classic Between Two Ferns question: “You shaved your head for V for Vendetta. Did you also shave your V for vagina?” A question that is rivaled only by the nonsensical, “Do the drapes match the pubes?” to Tina Fey in “A Fairytale of New York.”
‘The Mad Men’”
Hey, did you hear? Jon Hamm’s, like, really funny. In 2008, that still wasn’t quite common knowledge, as he hadn’t shown up on 30 Rock yet but he had just hosted Saturday Night Live. But it’s true, and this episode of Between Two Ferns was one of the first mainstream—as “mainstream” as you consider this anti-comedy gem of a series—examples of said funniness, again, after SNL. Of course, Zach spends his time checking his watch, misunderstanding the premise of Mad Men, and then repeatedly sneezing in Jon’s lap, so he misses how funny Jon is. But this is also Zach’s first time going to the well of questioning a guest about an easy-to-pun name, as he asks Jon early on if his middle name is “Honey-Baked.” (He went the “Ballpoint” route with Sean Penn.) Really, with this episode, it’s all about the later pay-off…
“Conan O. Brien”
“I didn’t know you were here.” “You don’t own me.” Conan tanking with every bit he tries to do here could have just worked on its own, but what’s better than Zach being antagonistic toward a guest? Zach and another guest being antagonistic toward a guest. Again, the first time is arguably the best time when it comes to Between Two Ferns. Even the Andy Dick appearance as the next guest at the very end works (as much as an Andy Dick appearance can work), because it’s in service of the anti-Conan agenda from the very beginning. The team-up of Zach and Andy Richter as “pals” (with the same trainer!) who talk mad shit behind Conan’s back is actually the icing on the cake of an episode that was created and aired during the small pocket of time in which Conan was the host of The Tonight Show. Which makes this entire episode even funnier than it originally was, because they just had absolutely no clue how little that time was going to exist. It’s amazingly prescient.
Carell’s episode is the first time anyone actually plays with the idea that they know what to expect out of this interview and they won’t stand for it. In fact, he actually fires off zings before Zach can really do anything but introduce the show. Of course, he still gets insulted by Zach—a lot of nose jokes—but he’s locked and loaded with fat jokes to retort. Yes, it’s grown men throwing nose and fat jokes at each other… which is honestly a lot funnier than it sounds. (This is also the first episode where Zach declares he’s not that fat, only for the chair to break. Again, funnier than it sounds, because it’s a joke that Zach himself leaned into—along with the chairs and toilets he broke—especially when it came to pointing out the double standards for a comedic actor his size vs. a comedic actress the same size..) Especially as Zach starts things off pretending that he actually wants to do a straight interview and that Carell has just made up in his mind that he came into this with an agenda. In fact, his name displayed correctly and as “Guest” even suggests as much.
0 Dark 30”
“Brad Lee Cooper
Silver Lining Cookbook”
I considered putting both parts together, for this one, but Part 1 alone doesn’t belong in the Top 10. “Drunk Anne Hathaway” is far and away the MVP of Part 1, while Part 2 has so much more to offer from every guest and bit, including noted penny-hater Sally Field. (Part 1 does, however, introduce the entire Oscar Buzz concept where, as soon as Zach hits the buzzer, the guest is played off, just like at the actual Oscars.) Part 2 also continues the greatest, non-weight-related running gag of the series, which is Zach Galifianakis’ desire to throw his friend Bradley Cooper under the bus in the name of all things Between Two Ferns. Cooper’s basically about to cry over the fact that all Zach cares about is his show—bringing up Zach’s family issues and the fact that he always supports him by going to his stand-up shows, and Zach can’t even support him in the fact that he’s been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for the first time ever—and gets so emotional that he throws a fern, before bashing the planter against Zach’s head and then smashing the other ferns and planter on the ground. Plus, there’s the post-closing title card tag of Jessica Chastain pushing the fallen Zach’s face back in the ground as he’s started to regain consciousness, after the way he treated her in the first interview (“It’s done?” “Yeah, you have to leave.”).
“Michael Cera ‘Actor’”
“Have I told you that I enjoyed the movie Superbad?” “No.” “Good.” Between Two Ferns came in hot right out the gate with its first episode, by making Michael Cera—seemingly the world’s most uncomfortable actor—even more uncomfortable than he has ever been before. You would think the height of discomfort would be a flustered Cera trying to explain why people shouldn’t see Superbad, but then comes Zach’s tickle attack and forcing Cera to tickle him. This episode aired January 2008, and it wouldn’t be until that December (Jon Hamm) that the next proper episode aired—as that April’s Jimmy Kimmel episode was a disappointing follow-up that was literally only made for Jimmy Kimmel’s actual late-night talk show—but even if there hadn’t been any follow-up Between Two Ferns, this would still be a special episode.
“Charlize Theron” (pronounced “CharLIES TheRUN”)
It took six episodes for Between Two Ferns to play with the aspect of the series that pretty much became integral to the series, which is the poor guest getting the chance to dump on Zach, as well. Here, it’s a stealth negging too, as Charlize plays the entire episode—subtly, as first—clearly flirting with Zach, only to wrap it all up by revealing (though playing coy) that she was screwing with him the whole time, because he’s “a fat garden gnome” and she’s Charlize Theron. It’s Zach’s first taste of the guest giving him a hard time, and he reacts accordingly: “I hope your dog dies.”
Lucky episode #13. Why, exactly, is Will Ferrell dressed the way he is during this interview? That’s far from the most bizarre part of the episode, but I’d like to think I could explain the other things. Like the “clip” from Everything Must Go (a YouTube clip of a monkey with a frog on its genitals) or the fruit eating/makeout bit or both Zach and Will having sponsors or Will going hard left and snapping at Zach. But I can’t explain the outfit Will chose to wear in this episode, and it’s something I’ve had in my brain since this episode dropped. Also, this episode happened in 2011, so people had already caught on to the fact that Jon Hamm is very funny. But he really hammered that home here by returning three years after his Between Two Ferns episode to look for (and find) his keys.
It’s easy to forget these days, but Bradley Cooper actually excels at comedy. Two of his earliest projects were Wet Hot American Summer and the Stella shorts, after all. Even though he’s a talented dramatic actor, he’s always been at his best when he’s allowed even a little bit of levity. (Which is also why his television work is overall better than his film work, but that is a whole other conversation.) So it should be no surprise that his episode of Between Two Ferns is as great as it is, especially as it goes the opposite direction of what his comedic persona at the time was—due to Wedding Crashers and his and Galifianakis’ roles in The Hangover—and just has him as a nice guy thinking he’s supposed to be going through a standard interview (he literally starts describing his past role in Failure to Launch, as straight as humanly possible), not comprehending why his good friend is being such a dick all of a sudden on camera. Or why Carrot Top is around. As one of the earliest episodes, it exists before the bit of celebrities trying to get Zach before he gets them exists, and the issues between the two of them never devolve into Cooper calling him fat (which ultimately becomes a rarity for the series). And then it all pushes him to start a slap fight with Zach, before reminding him, “water your fucking fern,” which is wilting. The episode cuts off with Zach lunging at him.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.