Barack vs Hillary: Who Was Better on Between Two Ferns?

As we discussed last week, Barack Obama becoming the first sitting president to appear on The Tonight Show in 2009 may have accelerated the current cycle of politicians, especially presidential candidates, making themselves accessible to the more "fun" corners of the mass media. Obama himself can be seen as a measure of how much the media landscape has changed during his presidency: just five years after his Tonight Show spot, Obama turned up on a far less storied talk show, appearing on Zach Galifianakis's Funny or Die project Between Two Ferns. This week Hillary Clinton followed suit and appeared on the show, prompting an unfair comparison point: who did Between Two Ferns better?

Clinton is a whip-smart, dedicated, tenacious leader, so naturally plenty of people have judged negatively on her ineffable, borderline meaningless cool factor — an area where she, as an establishment baby boomer in the 2000s, is at a near-constant disadvantage. Back in 2008, it was easy to see why Barack Obama inspired more passion and even affection, becoming the de facto "cool" choice. In the 2016 election cycle, that title surprisingly fell to Bernie Sanders, an elderly white man who may have been born in Brooklyn but lives in Vermont. People are so eager to see Hillary Clinton as a nasty piece of work that they would happily equate an old dude with mussed hair to Barack Obama, coolness-wise.

This is especially galling because Obama, forays into dad jeans and professorial flourishes notwithstanding, does come across as cool, both in temperament and in hipness, at least compared to a lot of past presidents and candidates (then again, who doesn't come across as a paragon of hipness compared to Mitt Romney?). Obama has legitimately good comic timing, which is on display in his foray into what you might call the Dumb Interview format. The Dumb Interview can be hilarious, but it's also limited; the game in these episodes is really just in reacting to inappropriate or silly questions from Galifianakis (or, on the frequently funny Sound Advice show starring Vanessa Bayer's clueless publicist character). Conveying "that's inappropriate" over and over is the material of a thousand bad SNL sketches, and is more about appearing a good sport and getting out of the way of the laughs.

Obama's appearance (embedding has been disabled, but watch here) has some of that, but he affects a more combative, vaguely disgusted tone opposite Galifianakis that both matches and mocks his professorial reputation. It's funny enough to see him jabbing his host over the Hangover movies and the handsomeness of his co-star Bradley Cooper, but the biggest laugh comes from his rejoinder to a dumb question about the annual pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey, where he asks if it was sad for Galifianakis to see a single turkey "taken out of circulation" and becoming "a turkey you couldn't eat." Presumably some or all of this stuff is scripted, moreso when the president turns up than, say, Natalie Portman or whoever, but Obama's delivery is really what sells the joke. He's got a great deadpan, a confident way of not zinging out his punchline right away, just conversationally rolling into it. I had seen this interview before and I still laughed out loud watching it again. On the other hand, Obama gets points off for repeatedly resorting to the go-to non-joke of rhetorically asking "seriously?"

Clinton uses more of a steely deadpan in her appearance, with mixed if generally amusing results. A lot of her reactions to Galifianakis are a silent, unamused stare that plays into her image as a powerful taskmaster, but her biggest laughs are when she really activates her disdain, at one point admonishing her host: "Don't tell me what to say." She also employs the driest Trump impression possible when Galifianakis asks about the vows at Trump's wedding. She downplays her attendance, saying she couldn't see or hear much that was going on, but she coolly imitates Trumpese when she speculates with sarcasm: "I'm sure they were great, and huge, and wonderful." Eventually, though, it's mostly silence in the face of jokes. Obama had the advantage of pivoting to a plug for the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the stated reason for his agreeing to subject himself to Galifianakis in the first place. This is just one more campaign stop for Clinton, and she recognizes there are only a few moments to get in words about her actual agenda; she's there to look funny, to look cool.

Clinton, of course, is not running against Obama, and it's nearly impossible to imagine Trump submitting to actual comedy where he might not be the one making the "jokes" (which he interprets as nasty, bullying remarks). When he hosted Saturday Night Live last season, the most Trump-centric jokes were calibrated to read just as easily as endorsements; it was like an alien's bizarre misinterpretation of self-deprecation. That's arguably where all of these "funny" campaign stops have been headed — self-deprecation that becomes almost (or in Trump's case, entirely) self-aggrandizing. Right now, Between Two Ferns is about as far as a president or prospective president can go to still look goofy, and even those moments are a few moments stolen from their slow burns. It's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton continuing the escalation, though; if (when, please; when) she's elected, I can't see her upping the ante by turning up on The Eric Andre Show. Maybe that means she did better on Between Two Ferns, because she kept her deadpan even knowing that this was just one stop of many more between her and a hard-won White House.