It seems rather unprecedented, I suppose, for the President of the United States to shoot a funny Internet video with an absurdist comic. Could you imagine, perhaps, Ronald Reagan joking around with Andy Kaufman? So I expect President Barack Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis will cause more than a few grumbles among those who make their living as talking heads for right-leading media outlets. But at this point, when the relationship between American politics and the entertainment media has become so symbiotic, is it a surprise at all?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: President Obama delivers a performance here that rivals any of the other professional actors who have appeared on the web series before him. There’s something impressive about seeing the President of the United States at ease with the likes of Galifianakis, so quickly and adeptly trading barbs and burns and exhibiting a self-aware sense of humor the likes of which we rarely see from the executive branch. This has been part of Obama’s media strategy all along, and it has worked: by embracing the growing youth culture that flocks to the Internet to embrace funny videos and GIFs, Obama has proven himself to be a relatable, down-to-earth individual — and, most importantly, this impression seems genuine because he hasn’t needed to come right out and say it.
This isn’t groan-worthy, the kind of performance that would bring up scarring memories of a teacher or principal embarrassingly trying to “be hip” in a PTA skit. Rather, it’s a reminder of what endeared Obama to a fresh generation of voters in the first place: he’s actually cool. Sure, he’d clearly practiced for this appearance and was likely coached by a media team, but that’s to be expected at this point in the political game: politicians, as much as any one else who steps in front of a camera, are performers who must appear invulnerable at all costs. Between Two Ferns gives Obama the rare opportunity to take all of the most popular, ridiculous criticisms of his administration and identity and ridicule them, giving him, once again, the upper hand.
Of course, the whole thing is a sneaky viral attempt at getting young people to sign up for health insurance — an inevitable PSA disguised as your typical Funny or Die clip. But in an age when most young people are learning about current events from satirical cable news programs (or BuzzFeed articles explaining turbulent crises in foreign countries with GIFs from The Hills), this seems, on the grand spectrum, harmless. It may actually be a great idea! From the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama and his team have latched on to Internet culture as a way of appealing to a mass audience, incorporating the kind of viral marketing tactics that we’re used to seeing in service of movies like Anchorman 2.
And, really, isn’t it nice to see what could have been a stodgy, old-fashioned administration embrace both technology and lowbrow culture to appeal to as many people as possible? It’s still fresh and fun, while offering information about an important (not to mention sensitive) political topic. That’s fine, and we should get used to it, because it probably won’t stop here — in fact, we should be grateful that those on the frightening political fringes lack the humor and self-awareness to effectively embrace a similar strategy.