Weekly Web Series Review: Between Two Ferns

Hosted by Zach Galifianakis at his most awkward, “Between Two Ferns” represents what television talk shows might actually be like in a much more interesting world. Filmed to look like a low-budget public access show, but with big-name celebrity guests, the series mines uncomfortable humor to the fullest. Galifianakis frequently mispronounces the names of his guests and openly insults them, creating an environment of hostility that often feels almost too real. When not blatantly mispronouncing names, he is prone to making intentionally terrible puns out of them, like when he asks Jon Hamm if his middle name is “Honey-Baked,” or if he has considered changing his name to something like “Stewart Turkey-Link.”

The discomfort starts strong right out of the gate in the first episode, in which Galifianakis basically molests Michael Cera. There is a common thread of one-sided sexual tension in many of the episodes, and certainly not just with the female guests, though it may be strongest in the episode featuring Natalie Portman. It is a testament to her skill as an “acteress” that this episode is one of the most authentic, as if she were actually just in the midst of a nightmarish interview set up by the most incompetent agent imaginable. Other episodes are more clearly staged, and perhaps the weakest is the one with Will Ferrell, if only because the two are generally too chummy with each other, at least until the end.

The series is at its best when Galifianakis is openly hostile to his guests, like the episodes featuring Ben Stiller and “Brad Lee Cooper.” Though this hostility is common throughout the series, only “Conan O. Brien” gets an explanation, which is that Galifianakis thought he had a shot at “The Tonight Show.” Another especially convincing episode features Galifianakis’ “twin brother,” Seth, interviewing a wooden-faced Sean Penn, who really seems like he might haul off and punch Galifianakis at any moment. As with Portman, it is Penn’s acting skill that pulls off the joke so well.

A pitch-perfect spoof of bad, desperate public access talk shows, “Between Two Ferns” is easily one of the best offerings from the always enjoyable Funny or Die. Even the opening and closing theme music feels authentic, though it is actually lifted from Bernard Herrmann‘s “Taxi Driver” score, which adds to Galifianakis’ creepy, angry vibe. I’m not sure how well it would work as a full-length show on television, but in the small segments available online, it is hilarious.

  

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Weekly Web Series Review: Drunk History

Derek Waters’ “Drunk History” is one of the strangest, funniest, most absurd concepts in web series history. Playing on the inherent comedy of drunken incompetence and memory loss, each of the series’ six episodes takes a different comedic actor or writer, puts way too much booze in them, and then follows their muddled, profane accounts of important historical events. The episodes then cut between these slurred, rambling monologues and dramatic reenactments of the events, featuring famous actors such as Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel. The genius of these reenactments is how closely the actors follow the exact words of the inebriated nonsense that forms the basis of their script, lip-syncing the dialogue perfectly right down to the inadvertent sniffles and hiccups of the actual speaker.

The first episode features Mark Gagliardi recounting the story of Alexander Hamilton’s famous duel with Aaron Burr after drinking a bottle of Scotch. Though it is unclear how large the bottle was, it was clearly quite a bit of liquor, as he spends most of his segment reclined on a couch with a bucket nearby, just in case. Hamilton is played by a suitably innocent-looking Michael Cera in the reenactment, but the real show-stealer is Jake Johnson in a brilliantly shifty-eyed performance as the loathsome Aaron Burr. In episode 2, Eric Falconer takes on the famous story of Benjamin Franklin‘s discovery of electricity, expounding upon his theory that it was actually Franklin’s “bastard son,” William (Clark Duke), who actually flew the legendary kite with the key tied to it. This is also the series’ first instance of vomiting in the midst of the storytelling, but not its last, so be warned that the series is not for the weak-stomached. Jack Black portrays Franklin again in a special volume 2.5 episode, in which Falconer tells a hilarious tale of Franklin’s sexual deviance.

Episode 3 features Jen Kirkman‘s account of Oney Judge (Tymberlee Hill), a female slave of George Washington (Danny McBride) that is especially funny because of the way the actors incorporate Kirkman’s frequent hiccups into their performances. The fourth episode features J.D. Ryznar‘s unwise decision to drink vodka and beer together, which obviously leads to more vomiting, and his account of the U.S. president William Henry Harrison (Paul Schneider), who died after only 32 days in office. Jen Kirkman returns for episode 5, in which Don Cheadle gives a hilarious performance as Frederick Douglass; there is something especially funny about Kirkman’s slurred words coming out of this revered actor’s mouth. Finally, in episode 6, Duncan Trussell follows six beers with a half-bottle of absinthe, and more vomiting ensues. He also tells the story of Nikola Tesla (John C. Reilly) and his contentious relationship with Thomas Edison (the always intensely weird Crispin Glover).

These are the only official episodes of the series (plus a very special Christmas episode included below), so beware of the unofficial knockoffs, most of which are pretty terrible. In fact, the one I linked to there is pretty much the only one that’s watchable, and it’s still nowhere near as good as the real thing. In addition to the recognizable stars, look for Waters’ name and also that of series director Jeremy Konner to avoid being duped.

  

“Arrested Development” returning to small screen, debuting on big screen?

Ever since “Arrested Development” was yanked off the air in 2006, rumors that a big-screen version of the quirky Fox sitcom have refused to die. Fans have long been skeptical, and for good reason, but even the most optimistic “AD” fan never could have predicted what series creator Mitchell Hurwitz has in mind: an abbreviated fourth season with nine or 10 episodes airing on either Netflix or Showtime, leading up to the release of the much-anticipated “Arrested Development” movie.

Said Hurwitz, while addressing the audience at the New Yorker Festival on Sunday:

“I have been working on the screenplay for a long time and found that as time went by there was so much more to the story. In fact, where everyone’s been for five years became a big part of the story. So, in working on the screenplay I found that even if I just gave five minutes per character to that backstory, we were halfway through the movie before the characters got together. And that kinda gave birth to this thing we’ve not been pursuing for a while and we’re kinda going public with a little bit. We’re trying to do kind of limited run series into the movie.”

Too good to be true? Hurwitz doesn’t seem to think so, judging by his candor and optimism on the subject. Jason Bateman, who plays Michael Bluth on the beloved show, further stirred the pot when he tweeted, “It’s true. We will do 10 episodes and the movie. Probably shoot them all together next summer for a release in early ’13. VERY excited!”

“Arrested Development” fans have been waiting five years for good news, and while it’s wise and natural to remain somewhat skeptical until production on the movie and/or episodes has actually started, there’s enough smoke here to at least suggest the existence of a real fire.

To be safe, we thought it wise to prepare for an “Arrested Development” return. We’ve got reviews of Season 1, Season 2 and Season 3, and our 2009 interview with David Cross. You can also see where “Arrested Development” placed in past editions of our TV Power Rankings, and don’t miss scenes from the show below, including an awesome Chicken Dance mash-up.

  

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