Zach Galifianakis will never be mistaken for Barbara Walters. But the bushy-bearded comic actor will be playing her part, in a twisted tribute of sorts, Sunday when he takes his "Between Two Ferns" talk show spoof from the Internet to TV.
Walters' pre-Oscars specials were a widely watched television staple for three decades. Galifianakis’s Web show, which has notched millions of online views, will precede Comedy Central’s second annual edition of "The Comedy Awards." The program, in its inaugural outing last year, proved an entertaining forum for recognizing often-ignored comedy performances while lampooning the smarmy, self-congratulatory awards program genre. Galifianakis' "Ferns," which debuted on Funny or Die in 2008, similarly satirizes celebrity talk show pomp with the help of comedians and actors who are usually in on the joke.
Galifianakis, as host, offers another winning variation on the alternately arrogant, needy, awkward and ultimately vulnerable weirdo he played, to different degrees, in the hilarious "Hangover" movies and the late, lamented "Bored to Death."
He pelts big-name guests with obnoxious questions ("Did you know some actors turn down roles?" he asked Bruce Willis). He’s rude to them (snoring as Michael Cera talked about his start in show business; fawning over Tila Tequila while ignoring Jennifer Aniston). He grosses them out (sneezing on Jon Hamm). He outright insults them ("Do you wish that you'd ever followed your parents into comedy?" he asked Ben Stiller).
The guests almost invariably insult him back – usually targeting his weight ("F--- you, fatty!" Steve Carell declared bluntly).
The show mines laughs from comedy of the uncomfortable – both verbally and physically, with its cable access program-like production values (the title sums up the Spartan set) and cheesy product placement (usually for Speed Stick, which Galifianakis once applied mid-show).
Until now, we’ve eagerly devoured Galifianakis’ tart talk show parody in digestible three-to-five-minute bites on Funny or Die. His challenge will be to sustain the faux-nasty, irreverent battle of the wits over a half-hour – though Sunday’s guests, Jon Stewart and Tina Fey, promise to provide Galifianakis with formidable comic sparring partners.
Unlike the old Walters programs, the only one who usually ends up crying on "Between Two Ferns" is the host. The rest of us can expect some laughs. In the meantime, check out this borderline NSFW segment from Galifianakis’ “Ferns” debut, an interview with Cera:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.