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: Baby Cakes

Brad Neely, perhaps best known for his hilarious “George Washington” and “JFK” music videos, has built an empire of off animatics (still images edited together with dialogue and sound effects). The creator of “Creased Comics” also invented a fictional town called China, Illinois, in which several strange characters reside, including a huge, baby-faced man named Mark “Baby” Cakes. In the series “Baby Cakes,” Neely explores the unique life and philosophy of this probably autistic, mostly gentle giant, and the results are very funny, always absurd, and even sort of profound and sad a surprising amount of the time.

The first six episodes of “Baby Cakes” find Baby Cakes transcribing his thoughts on a variety of subjects into his diary. The very first episode sets up a few recurring themes of the series, such as Baby Cakes’ belief that his father and his father’s professor friends are wizards, and his love of fantasy role-playing games. When one of his friends asks him if he’s a virgin, Baby Cakes’ reply is a perfect example of his strangely limited understanding of the world: “I said no, because I can’t give birth to a Jesus.” The episode also sets up Baby Cakes’ recurring songwriting, and some of the later episodes are entirely made of these songs.

The second episode introduces Baby Cakes’ grandfather and explores the relationship between the three generations, and demands a few repeat viewings in order to decipher the ridiculous bathroom graffiti Baby Cakes encounters in a gas station bathroom on the way to his grandfather’s house. The third episode is among the series’ very best, as it is the first one that really captures the sweet, oddly sad philosophy and worldview of Baby Cakes, a self-described “peaceful, sleepy giant making zero a year.” As Baby Cakes walks through the park, reflecting on the world around him, as he sees it, in a unique parlance all his own: “I have a big coat, with big pockets. Sometimes, kittens get in there. It’s cool with me as long as they keep their hook-socks curled.” The episode ends with a wonderful encapsulation of Baby Cakes’ views about life: “Even if my days don’t mean anything, I just hope that I die while hugging, and not while in a wine-drinking contest.”

The sixth episode expands on this strange but surprisingly insightful worldview, and just might be the very best episode of the entire series. It finds Baby Cakes digging up a time capsule he buried as a child, in which he placed his favorite thing and a note to his future self, in which he explains sex: “Sex is a people-spaghetti. Hairy pee-pees clash. They yell, ‘Yes! Yes!’ but their grody faces say, ‘Ouch!’” The rest of the episodes (the non-diary ones) are something of a mixed bag, but there are definitely highlights, and the whole series is only about 32 minutes long, with more brilliance scattered throughout than most full-length television series.

  

Weekly Web Series Review: Behind the Pen

Fans of the excellent satirical newspaper The Onion should be familiar with the name Stan Kelly. A fictional editorial cartoonist whose reactionary views on current events and the way things used to be in the “good old days” (he supposedly began working for the paper in 1957) are expressed with hacky, obvious writing and a crude, simplistic drawing style. I remember when I first saw his work in the pages of “America’s Finest News Source” years ago, I totally fell for it, believing it to be a real strip The Onion had picked up to display ironically, like when they used to run Cathy Guisewite‘s “Cathy” in Spanish. Eventually, though, I realized how unlikely it was that any newspaper anywhere would seriously run strips celebrating the deaths of beloved celebrities like James Brown, for example, and that Kelly’s political cartoons were a joke from the start.

The Onion recently confirmed this all over again with the new web series “Behind the Pen,” in which “Kelly” describes his artistic process and explains the thought process behind his awful, out-of-touch jokes, as if anyone who can read would have trouble understanding his points. In the first episode, “How Marriage Works,” he explains that he’s doing it “to reach the youngsters” with his message. These hypothetical young people are illustrated by archive photographs of at-risk teens, and even one African child holding an assault rifle. He then proceeds to explain his cartoon, “Holy Matri-Money,” complete with an absurdly unnecessary explication of his “last word,” in which his self-portrait alter-ego delivers the punchline. This is a feature of all Kelly’s cartoons, and each episode correspondingly features a “Last Word” segment.

The second episode, “Collective Wisdom,” features another segment entitled “Tips for Young Artists,” in which Kelly hilariously explains the subtlety of his technique: “If you wanna show somebody’s in love with somebody, you put a little heart next to ‘em.” Each subsequent episode (there are five so far, uploaded within the last two months) is better than the last, with Kelly increasingly going into angry tirades about his own family, especially his darkly comic explanation of his cartoon “Nanny State, Ninny State,” in which he skewers the Big Brother program by saying, “A kid’s heart oughta be calloused, it oughta be weathered.”

Kelly’s voice is wonderfully grizzled and mean-spirited – not unlike another brilliant Onion creation, the politician Joad Cressbeckler, who now has his own segment on the Onion News Network television series on IFC – and “Behind the Pen” shows great promise in continuing to develop this fascinating character. The more unhinged and apoplectic he becomes, the funnier he is and the more his character is revealed, so hopefully the series will continue in this direction, as it already seems to be doing.


Behind The Pen: ‘High’ Ideals

  

The Suits are coming . . .

“Suits,” the USA Network television drama series starring Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams, is back for its second season on Thursday, June 14th.

  

Interview with Champion Beardsman Jack Passion

Former rock musician and current author and entrepreneur Jack Passion has been making an admirable living off of something most men actively remove from themselves on a semi-daily basis. Author of “The Facial Hair Handbook” and multiple world champion “beardsman” in the “Full Beard, Natural” category, Passion is a star of the IFC television series “Whisker Wars” and was most recently featured in Morgan Spurlock‘s new documentary “Mansome,” executive produced by Ben Silverman, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. I recently got the chance to briefly interview Passion via email.

Ezra Stead: First of all, and I’m sure you get this all the time, how long did it take you to grow your beard to such length and fullness?

Jack Passion: I’ve had this beard for almost exactly nine years. I keep it trimmed, but this length would probably take 3-4 years to achieve. My book’s first law is “Healthy Man, Healthy Beard,” and I attribute the thickness of my beard all to my diet and health. I also take VitaBeard, the beard vitamin, which is very easy and helps quite a bit.

ES: Would you ever consider styling it in some weird, unique way, in order to compete in “Full Beard, Groomed” categories, as opposed to “Full Beard, Natural”?

JP: I have done styled categories in the past. I already look silly enough as it is, and the products required for those designs ruin the hair. When you see the German beard-styling masters with their beards un-styled, the beards don’t look great. I view the beard as a natural thing, and so I like to present it naturally and care for it naturally.

ES: My beard doesn’t seem to grow past about two inches. Are there any special techniques or products you’ve used to encourage yours, or is it pretty much all genetic?

JP: A lot of it’s genetic, but facial hair changes a great deal as you get older, so don’t give up hope! I mentioned VitaBeard, which has really changed the way I grow facial hair for the better, but I would also recommend waiting, as your beard grows in cycles. In your case, maybe it’ll plateau at two inches for several months before starting to grow again.

ES:How did you get involved with the documentary “Mansome”?

JP: I wrote a book called “The Facial Hair Handbook” and had won a few world titles in beard competitions, so when Morgan Spurlock’s team needed a beard, they came to me.

ES: Why did you decide to “quit and renounce music”?

JP: This is a long conversation, one that I absolutely love to have, but one that is outside the scope of “Mansome” and male grooming. Perhaps another time?

  

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