Hillary Clinton has met a fair amount of belligerence on the campaign trail this year, and she’s just days away from facing down Donald Trump at the first presidential debate on Monday—an occasion that will probably require steely serenity in the face of angry lunacy. So what better preparation for her than chatting with Zach Galifianakis on Between Two Ferns, the comedy world’s most intense test of a celebrity’s patience for asinine questions?
In a new segment from Galifianakis’s intermittent Funny or Die series, released Thursday morning, the comedian’s typical brand of maddening, hilariously rude repartee met Clinton at her most deadpan—and, not coincidentally, her funniest. The candidate has done plenty of comic appearances in her long career, but like so many politicians, she can often feel stilted when doing scripted comedy bits. The semi-improvised Between Two Ferns is designed to provoke awkwardness, strange pauses, and annoyed glares from its guests. Clinton leaned into that perfectly, responding to Galifianakis with the kind of polite indifference that made it feel like she wasn’t trying too hard to be in on the joke.
Clinton made a softball appearance on The Tonight Show recently, and it was the kind of unmemorable, uneventful celebrity cameo that show seems to aim for, beginning with Fallon jokingly donning a surgical mask to poke at her recent pneumonia diagnosis. Between Two Ferns also tipped its hat to recent news: The interview started with Galifianakis approaching the candidate dressed as the Grim Reaper, before being tackled by her security detail. “Not a good idea around the Secret Service,” Clinton noted, giving the bedraggled comedian a slow, considered blink, with just the hint of a smile. (You can guess which TV appearance was funnier.)
Between Two Ferns was created to lance the self-serious bubble around the celebrity interview on the talk show, with Galifianakis’s rude, insensitive line of questioning subverting the scripted patter of, say, a Jay Leno interview. Now, it’s evolved into a strange test of coolness, often primed for Democratic politicians looking to appeal to a younger audience. Barack Obama appeared in 2014 to plug the launch of healthcare.gov. He was happy to throw a few barbs at his host, while Clinton mostly relied on an inscrutable stare as Galifianakis asked questions like, “As Secretary, how many words could you type? And how does President Obama like his coffee? Like himself? Weak?”
Galifianakis, who cooks up his questions with the show’s director, Scott Aukerman (the host of the great podcast and IFC talk show Comedy Bang Bang), naturally made several digs at Trump—the kind of candidate you could never imagine appearing on a series like this. “When you went to Trump’s wedding, did he write his own vows?” Galifianakis asked. “And did Michelle Obama write Melania’s?” Even though there was a hint of scriptedness to some of Clinton’s comebacks (like the exchange that led to a joke about Trump’s “white power tie”), it was a far cry from the safe chitchat of so many other talk shows.
There’s a certain vulnerability that comes with appearing on a program so steeped in irony—one that Clinton seems better primed to respond to than her opponent. Indeed, one of the funniest moments of the whole sketch saw Galifianakis press a giant red button to play a clip of one of Trump’s typically bullish, self-aggrandizing campaign ads. “He paid me in steaks,” the host murmured, looking at his shoes. “I’d be afraid to eat those, if I were you,” Clinton fired back. How better to convey her message to Galifianakis’s young audience? She gets it, he’s hard not to laugh at—but she’s not laughing. Don’t eat the steaks.