When people think back on the attempts of presidents and presidential candidates to engage directly with pop culture, they usually date the modern era to Bill Clinton donning shades and playing sax on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. There were a few awkward attempts prior to that, like Richard Nixon participating in the "sock it to me" gag on Laugh-In in 1968. But Barack Obama has probably done more of these appearances than anybody else, not just going on shows like The Tonight Show and The View to be interviewed, but actually becoming part of the entertainment.
He slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, but in that case he was essentially the straight man, which is the safe place for a president to be. After all, he needs to be in on the fun, but not sacrifice his dignity. Nixon may have said "Sock it to me," but his advisers were smart enough not to let him get hit in the head with a giant club. This morning, however, we get a look at what may be a new high in presidential pop-culture performance. Believe it or not, Barack Obama sat down with Zach Galifianakis for an episode of "Between Two Ferns."
If you haven't seen these online segments, they involve Galifianakis asking his guests, usually big Hollywood stars, a series of ridiculous and vaguely hostile questions on a public-access-type set, with two ferns. The star, in most cases, returns the hostility. It's a little reminiscent of Sasha Baron Cohen's "The Ali G Show" interviews, in that much of the humor comes from the fact that the host is clueless, but what makes it different is not only that the interviewee is in on the joke (which wasn't the case with Ali G), but that it has that edge of anger that characterizes much of Galifianakis' humor. Unlike on the late-night talk shows it satirizes, nobody laughs.
Having a president do "Between Two Ferns" could have been a real disaster, precisely because this isn't broad, silly humor, so it takes a little subtlety—not something politicians are known for. Considering that, it turned out incredibly well. Obama gets the tone exactly right. I assume his lines are scripted, but he delivers them adeptly, and the result is pretty funny. Take a look:
When you think about it, this is actually a good forum for Obama, because his own humor is usually deadpan, often sarcastic and with a little bite (remember "You're likeable enough, Hillary"?). So he probably felt right at home glaring at Galifianakis and delivering somewhat cruel lines. Part of what makes "Between Two Ferns" compelling is seeing some friendly Hollywood star look like he or she is struggling with a desire to punch Zach Galifianakis in the face. If you got someone who is naturally a little bit goofier, like Mitt Romney, to do this, it would probably have been even funnier.
So where does he go from here? Well, there's a new season of Game of Thrones coming up. Who knows?