Yesterday brought exciting news from America: there’s a spoof chatshow called Between Two Ferns. Seriously, I’d never heard of it before, though I’m more than familiar with its host, Zach Galifianakis. (Okay, I’ve seen The Hangover.) So the producers of the show at comedy web channel Funny or Die must have been over the moon when US president Barack Obama agreed to appear.
The show’s shtick is that Galifianakis is uninterested and rude to his guests, asking stupid questions and generally looking like he would rather be somewhere else, an antidote to the usual brown-nosing chatshows on US networks. By allowing themselves to be ridiculed (a little), his guests suggest they are not too full of themselves. Obama gives as good as he gets (naturally), suggesting in response to a question about being unable to run for president for a third time that it was a good idea, because running again ‘would be a bit like doing a third Hangover movie’, which ‘didn’t work out too well’. That’s Zach put in his place, huh?
The episode is moderately funny. Obama is in his element being down with the kids and Galifianakis lobs him a few balls to knock out of the park, most notably in giving Obama the chance to ask young Americans to sign up for healthcare packages at healthcare.gov. (A plug is still a plug, no matter how much you make a joke about it being a plug.) It’s a win-win: Funny or Die gets more publicity in a single day than ever before, and Obama gets to look self-effacing and human, while trying to rescue his much-criticised healthcare reforms.
What isn’t so funny is the decline of serious politics that is reflected in the rise of the politician as celebrity. Everybody’s doing it these days. Maybe the first to try to use the chatshow circuit to present a ‘regular guy’ image was Bill Clinton, who as a presidential candidate in June 1992 attracted enormous publicity by not only appearing as a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show, but playing the saxophone, too. It was a blatant pitch to younger voters for a man who was a thoroughly un-radical candidate.
But what was once unusual seems positively epidemic today. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair was a master of this kind of PR, whether it was playing head tennis with football star-turned-manager Kevin Keegan or appearing alongside comedian Catherine Tate for Comic Relief. The current mayor of London, Boris Johnson, seems only to exist as a media personality, his knowing buffoonishness and maverick image providing some modicum of humanity to his otherwise utterly mainstream, often illiberal policies.