Sean P. Means: Will Ferrell's funnies make a political point

Published March 20, 2014 4:41 pm

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As a political junkie and a great fan of ironic humor — and I mean that sincerely — it's been fascinating to see my two interests combine in interesting ways in the past couple of weeks.

In both cases, at one level or another, Will Ferrell has been involved.

The better-known example was when Ferrell's humor website Funny or Die released the latest edition of Zach Galifianakis' talk-show spoof "Between Two Ferns."

http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/18e820ec3f/between-two-ferns-with-zach-galifianakis-president-barack-obama" title="from President Barack Obama, Zach Galifianakis, Scott Aukerman, BJPorter, Funny Or Die, Between Two Ferns, rachelgoldenberg, Brian Lane, Aaron Ulrich, and BoTown Sound">Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis: President Barack Obama from http://www.funnyordie.com/president_barack_obama">President Barack Obama

This one, as was widely reported, featured President Barack Obama, who fended off Galifianakis' idiotic questions long enough to get in a plug for the Affordable Care Act — and to encourage young people to sign up for health insurance at the healthcare.gov website.

Predictably, the howls of protest were sounded from the anti-Obama right. For example, Fox News' presidential "historian" Bill O'Reilly said, "Abe Lincoln wouldn't have done it" — prompting replies from actual historians testifying to Lincoln's love of off-color humor, and montages of Republican presidents in less-than-dignified TV appearances (e.g., Richard Nixon on "Laugh-In," George W. Bush on "Deal or No Deal").

Can we stipulate, from now until he's out of office in 2017, that Fox News and the right-wing media will robotically disagree with even the most benign thing President Obama does? If Obama walked across the Potomac tomorrow, Sean Hannity would complain that the president can't swim.

Dignified or not, the "Between Two Ferns" stunt worked in terms of drumming up interest in the Affordable Care Act. The video got 19 million views on Funny or Die and another 3 million on YouTube. On the day the video was released, traffic to healthcare.gov went up 40 percent above the previous day's clicks — and the Funny or Die website was the source of more clicks than any other site that day.

Ferrell, by the way, has not been silent about his support of the Affordable Care Act. In 2009, as the bill was being debated in Congress, he and a host of other comics starred in another Funny or Die video that sarcastically urged people "to remember who the real victims are: health-insurance executives."

Last week, Ferrell was front-and-center in another issue-oriented campaign, in a humorous fake "fight" with Robert Redford over the Colorado River.

On another Funny or Die video, Redford narrates a straightforward 30-second public-service announcement for the group Raise the River — which is raising $10 million for reclamation efforts and to buy water rights so water can flow all the way to the Colorado River delta.

At the end of the spot, Ferrell cuts in with an idiotic alternative plan: "Move the Ocean." This sets off a hilarious back-and-forth, with Ferrell taking digs at "Old Sundance" and Redford calmly trying to stay on topic — though not before telling Ferrell to "seek help. … You need it."

The fake celebrity dust-up served its purpose, too: generating media interest and grabbing young people's eyeballs on a topic that would otherwise make both groups snooze. (The fact that Ferrell's performance also satirized anti-science blowhards was just a serendipitous bonus.)

As Greg Stern, CEO of the advertising agency BSSP, which cooked up the dueling PSAs, told The Huffington Post, "Both Redford and Ferrell seek to restore the Colorado River, but Ferrell's 'Move the Ocean' adds a layer of comedy and further engagement. This is a new approach in getting people to notice and care about an important cause."

Most important, as with the Obama "Between Two Ferns" appearance, satirical bits like this engage young people who are likely to ignore traditional media but will click on something viral.

Obviously, this approach won't work on every issue, as trying to be funny about, say, massacres in Syria or Russia's annexation of Crimea could land someone in a morass of bad taste.

But, in the right circumstances, a dose of humor is just the thing to get more viewers to tune in to a dry political issue.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.