First as funny, then as die

by Sam Kriss

There’s a lot wrong with Zach Galifianakis’s interview with Barack Obama, leader of the current American regime and undetained war criminal, on the spoof internet chatshow Between Two Ferns. Given the bleak absurdity of the situation and of all existence, here’s a listicle.

1. The title. Funny or die? Nonsense like this is why dialectics needs to be added to the primary school curriculum. Samuel Beckett wrote that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, but death gives it a run for its money – especially death as generally practised in late capitalism: death as a bureaucratic procedure, death without heroism. The family gathered at the hospital bedside, the desperate attempt to squeeze out a few last words of scrabbled-together wisdom, so full of abject seriousness that it always risks turning into a farce. The dying don’t have any more access to truth and meaning than anyone else, generally all they have is an intensity of regret. Sometimes the anal sphincter relaxes; the dead have a tendency to perform one last act of slapstick. And then a doctor arrives to cheerily tell everyone what time it is. The comedy of the grotesque is based on the continuity of bodies against prim and orderly individuation; that’s why shitting is funny, why sex is funny, and why corpses are hilarious.

2. The abrogation of comic duty. When confronting the great and the good, good comedians tend to feign deference to power while actually subverting it. Galifianakis does the opposite. He yawns in Obama’s face, identifies him as a ‘community organiser,’ accuses him of being a nerd, questions his allegiance to the nation, drops references to the conspiracy theory that he was born in Kenya, and (quite callously) to his enlargement of government surveillance and his programme of drone warfare. It’s all meaningless; in the end the interview is just a publicity stunt for the Affordable Care Act, a massive payout to insurance companies disguised as an egalitarian reform. Galifianakis’s faux-insincerity and neutered mockery isn’t even trying to mask the real content: isn’t it cool that the President is doing this? At the end of the sketch the black curtain comes down and it’s revealed that the whole thing has been taking place in the White House – in other words, within a structure of power. The comfortable remain unafflicted. It’s not just unethical, it tends to not be very funny. That’s why Stephen Colbert will always be funnier than Jon Stewart, a man who’d respond to a war crimes tribunal with a series of minutely composed funny faces. There’s a strange and awkward tension surrounding the whole Between Two Ferns interview, one that has nothing to do with the overt cringebait and everything to do with the sense of a stillborn satire.

3. The whole nerd thing. The interview is supposed to be a joke, but when Galifianakis accuses Obama of being a nerd the President’s eyes flash with a genuine fury. His denial is real. I’m not a nerd, bro! I smoked weed in high school, bro! I ordered the extrajudicial assassination of an United States citizen and his sixteen-year old son, bro! I’m fucking Michelle, bro! He has a point.

4. Obama as the straight man. Comedy duos tend to consist of one character behaving oddly and another to vent his ‘normal’ frustrations: Abbott of Abbott and Costello; John Cleese in the dead parrot sketch. Here it’s Obama. On his other shows Galifianakis sends himself up and allows his guests to do the same; on this one there’s no question of that happening. The President of the United States is transformed into some hideous Chandler-from-Friends figure, wisecracking about the Hangover films and the fantasy spider bites on his host’s arm. It’s not the show’s intention, but the ease with which Obama can enter this role demonstrates precisely that the straight man is always in fact a deluded and murderous psychopath.

5. The end of greatness. The cosmological principle states that the universe is homogeneous and isomorphic. Look at the universe on a large enough scale and it’s made of enormous walls of galaxy clusters, each billions of light years across, containing millions of galaxies that themselves contain billions of stars, forming a fragile web between vast and empty voids. Great things happen. Galaxies collide, stars are born and burn out, intelligent life stares out into the darkness and dreams stories for itself. Look at the universe on a slightly larger scale and the filaments and voids vanish. The universe is a flat grey expanse, all matter and all energy distributed evenly across its infinity, with no structure and no hidden meaning. On a large enough scale, the heat death of the universe has already happened. The world we think we inhabit, with its iridescent nebulae and heroic struggles for life and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis – it’s a translation error, a glitch between the blankness of the large-scale universe and the blankness of subatomic chaos. You exist, miraculously, in the middle of this precarious mistake of heterogeneity, and President Barack Obama has decided that he has the right to snuff out your life by missile-armed robot in the event that you might pose a threat to the future security of a national abstraction. And that’s pretty funny.