The year was 2014, and the Obama administration was desperate — desperate! — to drum up support for the Affordable Care Act, its attempt to bring health care to the masses. (You’d think that initiative was a no-brainer, but that’s a subject for another story.) How best to convince America that signing up for Obamacare was in its best interests? After initial technical fumbles made an impossible task even harder, Obama and his team needed to throw an unlikely Hail Mary. And that’s how the President of the United States ended up with Zach Galifianakis on his fake talk show, Between Two Ferns.
The problem was bigger than convincing people they needed access to a doctor if they got sick. When Healthcare.gov launched in September 2013, it plain didn’t work. Obama’s marketing team got tons of celebs to promote the site on its launch — healthy younger people were the target — but it doesn’t do any good for Lady Gaga to tweet out sign-up info if Healthcare.gov was down when you got there. It was a debacle that would take two months to fix.
“All of these celebrities were rip-shit pissed,” Brad Jenkins, Obama’s associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, says in a Jacobin history of the Affordable Care Act. “Maybe they weren’t angry, but their publicists and managers were emailing me: ‘What the fuck?’ So we burned that bridge.”
What could Obama do to restart the momentum? Sign-ups were needed to keep the whole thing from collapsing. There was no obvious solution, like appearing with Johnny Carson in the 1970s might have been. Between Two Ferns made no sense on the surface, lo-fi comedy deliberately built on awkwardness and discomfort. When Natalie Portman appeared, for example, Galifianakis posed this question: “You shaved your head for V for Vendetta. Did you also shave your V for Vagina?”
Not exactly presidential stuff. And the Between Two Ferns crew made it clear to Obama’s team that Galifianakis wouldn’t tone it down out of respect. (He didn’t either — “What is it like to be the last Black president?” is a representative question.) Obama understood that this wouldn’t be a commercial. Galifianakis would be rude and dismissive. “I heard about that,” the comic said about the Affordable Care Act. “That’s the thing that doesn’t work. Why would you get the guy that created the Zune to make your website?”
But here’s the funny thing: Unlike the initial website, Obama’s Between Two Ferns appearance worked. The show debuted in March 2014, racking up 30 million views. As for sign-ups? Healthcare.gov saw a 40-percent increase in traffic after the Between Two Ferns episode, and nearly all of those users had never been to the site before. “It was the exact healthy demographic who would never think to go to Healthcare.gov or who had never heard of it,” says Jenkins.
And that, my friends, is how Between Two Ferns saved Obamacare. Which is a good thing, considering that the itchy Galifianakis “got attacked by spiders.”
“You need to get on Healthcare.gov,” the president replied, “because that’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen.”