The Week in Comedy: President Obama – it's the way he tells 'em


Comedy - it makes people laugh but can it change the world? Barack Obama thinks it can. This week the President of the United States made his debut when he agreed to be interviewed on Between Two Ferns.

Comedy aficionados have been hooked on Zach Galifianakis’ offhand, spoof internet chatshow for years now, but even by its own high standard of guests – Samuel L Jackson, Natalie Portman and Justin Bieber have all been mocked, ignored or misunderstood by The Hangover star and host since 2008 – the leader of the free world is quite a step up.

“What should we do about North Ikea?” asked Galifianakis. “What is it like to be the last black president?” “Is it going to be hard in two years when you’re no longer president and people will stop letting you win at basketball?” Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a one-sided takedown; Obama got in plenty of jabs of his own between the pot plants. He asked Galifianakis to show him his birth certificate, told him he wouldn’t let Michelle anywhere near him and when asked why he wasn’t running for a third term, jibed, “It’d be sorta like doing a third Hangover movie. That didn’t really work out very well, did it?” For a comedy rookie, it was a solid performance - straight-faced but humorous, well-timed and relaxed. Obama’s funny.

This wasn’t the POTUS’ audition for a spot on Saturday Night Live. He had a message, which Galifianakis introduced with scorn - “Okay, let’s get this out of the way, what did you come here to plug?” Obama duly talked up the Affordable Care Act, and why young people should sign up. “Is that what they mean by drones?” yawned Galifianakis. In one day, the six-minute interview had over 12 million views.  According to a senior communications adviser at the White House, Funny or Die is currently the top referral site to

So it worked. And while certain commentators and opponents have deemed it a trivial act for a world leader, this was an ideal way to engage with young voters on a web-based issue. It would not have worked for an in-depth discussion about events in Ukraine, but used wisely comedy can be excellent vehicle for politicians to get a message out and votes in. That’s why Sarah Palin agreed to rapping with her impersonator Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, why Joe Biden popped up in Parks and Recreation and why MPs continue to throw themselves into the lion’s den on Have I Got News For You week after week. Rarely do they manage to come out the other side as slickly as Obama did.

Comedians make natural interviewers, too, well versed in holding power to account, ribbing guests and reacting on the hoof. In the UK the schedules are full of people who have swapped stand-up for the sofa – Alan Carr, Graham Norton, Sarah Millican, as well as characters like Mrs Merton and Dame Edna. On Monday Michael McIntyre joined their ranks with his new BBC chatshow. Presented by a man in a dark suit on a shiny set, with Terry Wogan, Lily Allen and Alan Sugar in the green room, there was nothing to scare the horses here. The best bits came when McIntyre appeared to go off piste – complaining about producers talking to him in his earpiece (“I just want to say, ‘I’ll call you back’ to them…”) and reading out the texts received by a hapless audience member. It was fine – nothing more.    

The fact is, the really fun interviews are happening online. Brief, irreverent spots which strip out the sycophancy and studio audiences and ask as many rude questions as they can before the subject calls cut. Bret Easton Ellis’ website interviews and Marc Maron’s WTF podcasts are consistently witty and illuminating. Between Two Ferns started as a segment on Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter’s The Right Now! Show but when the pilot for it was not picked up, it went online to Funny or Die where it has the freedom to be as irregular, surreal and naughty as it likes. It only pops up when it has a guest worth interviewing. It is cool and it confers cool on its guests, even as it makes them look stupid. Expect David Cameron to pop up on a YouTube channel in the dispiritingly near future.

Dying on stage

The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society (ACMS) started a run in London this week. I love this night, not only for its excellent line-up – Bridget Christie and Josie Long are among the regulars –but also for its pantomime heckling. After each turn hosts Thom Tuck and John-Luke Roberts leap on stage and shout “A failure!”, to which the audience responds, “A noble failure!” It’s a warm acceptance of experimentation, a celebration of stand-ups pushing at boundaries and sometimes falling down.

Talking of dying on stage, Robin Ince wrote a compelling blog about a disastrous gig in Caterham this week. “I have just performed a gig to some of the largest amount of silence for some time, I would not be surprised if the estate of John Cage sue me for plagiarism”, he said. “I felt like Mogwai accidentally booked as a wedding band.” It’s a brutal, witty read: unlike Caterham, I laughed a lot.

What I Watched…


At The O2. A likeable, entertaining live outing for the TV star but funny? Not so much. Too little material and some of the jokes are more old-fashioned than her jolly hockey sticks fictional mum. Touring to October.

People Just Do Nothing

One of a raft of new iPlayer comedies announced in the wake of the BBC3 closure, this lo-fi mockumentary follows MC Sniper and his mates at London pirate radio station Kurupt FM. Spotted on YouTube, their BBC pilot was produced by The Office’s Ash Atalla. Check out their early webisodes here.

The Wolf of Wall Street: the remix

Matthew McConaughey’s hilarious, chest-thumping lunchtime speech kicks off an astonishing two-minute remix of Martin Scorsese’s epic.