WASHINGTON — Zach Galifianakis brought the ferns, and President Barack Obama opened a new avenue of presidential communication.
The president urged young people to sign up for the new health care plan through an appearance posted Tuesday on the comic website Funny or Die, bypassing the news media and even previous favorites like TV talk show titans Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman. Instead, he chose to be a guest on Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns,” the digital short with a laser focus on reaching people ages 18 to 34.
The video reached 1 million views within three and a half hours of posting and was adding more at a pace of 1 million per hour in the middle of the day, according to Funny or Die. The website was briefly the number one source of referrals to Healthcare.gov, the Obama administration said, with some 19,000 people navigating directly from the video to the health care website in the first few hours.
“Gone are the days when your broadcasts — or yours or yours — can reach everybody that we need to reach,” Obama press secretary Jay Carney said to broadcast journalists at the White House press briefing Tuesday.
With 4 million viewers, Obama exceeded in six hours the typical audience he would get by appearing on television shows hosted by Letterman, Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. That doesn’t count the ancillary views — clips of the interview aired repeatedly on CNN. And it was a topic on Howard Stern’s radio show.
As hip as Fallon and Kimmel may be in some circles, their audiences skew older — a median age of 52.7 for Fallon and 56.2 for Kimmel during the last week of February, the Nielsen company said.
For Web entertainment, it’s a moment that rivals Emmy or Golden Globe nominations for Netflix’s “House of Cards.” And in presidential annals, it breaks form much like Richard Nixon did with his awkward jokes on television’s “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
In the clip, Galifianakis peppered Obama with awkward questions, including whether he’d locate his presidential library in Hawaii or Kenya.
“What’s it like to be the last black president?” he asked.
“Seriously?” Obama said. “What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?”
Galifianakis feigned annoyance when Obama, about halfway through the 6-minute clip, began urging young people to sign up for health care, sighing heavily before muttering, “Here we go.”
“I think it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have something to plug,” Obama said. As he went on, the “Hangover” star asked: “Is this what they mean by drones?”
Funny or Die was launched by Will Ferrell and partners in 2007 and has gone beyond being a niche location. There have been about 20 “Between Two Ferns” episodes, drawing an average of 6 million viewers each, and the Obama appearance is expected to go well beyond that number. Funny or Die gets 19 million unique visitors a month and has 7.8 million followers on Twitter and 5.5 million likes on Facebook.
Television talk show appearances have since become an accepted part of the political circuit. The Obama administration hasn’t ignored this: First lady Michelle Obama appeared on a skit last month in Fallon’s first week at “Tonight.” Vice President Joe Biden was on Meyers’ first show. The president played along with Fallon’s “slow jam the news” skit in talking about student loans in 2012, when he was running for re-election.
He’s done interactive Web appearances with Linked In, Google and Twitter, said presidential spokesman Joshua Earnest. But it wasn’t quite like Galifianakis questioning him about whether there’s another presidential pardon for a turkey in order or showing him a rash on his arm.
“The video enabled the president to deliver his message very clearly but in a way that’s fresh and appealing to a young audience,” said Susan Etlinger, an Internet analyst for the Altimeter Group. “It’s almost cynical but in a sincere way.”
The White House began talking with Funny or Die last summer about ways to promote the health care plan, and the site has posted several comic videos about the topic, said Mike Farah, production president of the site and executive producer of “Between Two Ferns.” The interview was taped two weeks ago.
“What I really love about the video is that it’s a funny ‘Between Two Ferns’ first,” Farah said. At the end, the interview’s black backdrop collapses and it’s revealed the White House is where the appearance was taped — the joke being that’s where Galifianakis does all his shows.
In the first few hours, 96 percent of the site’s visitors judged the video funny, meaning it had reached immortal status on the site, he said.
As 2016 approaches, no doubt other politicians will be watching its impact.
Not everyone was amused, though. On Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” host Brian Kilmeade said the video was inappropriate and “pretty tragic.”
Carney was asked whether some presidential dignity was compromised.
“We obviously assess opportunities that we have and, you know, look at whether they’re going to be successful and wise,” he said. “And I think we made the right call here.”