If you haven’t seen President Barack Obama’s appearance on a spoof video interview with Zach Galifianakis, stop what you’re doing and spend the next 6 minutes and 30 seconds to watch the presidential communication norms evolve. The president appeared on the comedian’s web show, “Between Two Ferns,” in an effort to reach a target audience to generate health care enrollments.
If the White House is to be believed, the move did just what it intended. For one thing, I think most people believe the interview is genuinely funny. Obama plays a good straight man to Galifianakis’ ridiculous character, but he gets in some obviously prepared jabs, too. He’s funny. More importantly to the White House is that hits on healthcare.gov spiked after the skit was published. According to Politico, hits on the site coming directly from Funnyordie.com were around 32,000 by 6 p.m. EDT Tuesday. That’s not enrollments, but that’s where enrollments start. And it’s very likely coming from just the market health care reform supporters want.
While this does show the president venturing into new territory, it’s an evolution, not a revolution. Television itself was a revolution when John F. Kennedy bested Richard Nixon in the first televised debate in 1960. Of course, they were candidates and the tone was serious. But Nixon wasn’t so serious in September 1968 when he asked, “Sock it to me?” on Laugh In. In the Nixon video linked here George Schlatter says Nixon was trying to reach a new audience. Here’s the real clip of Nixon’s foray into comedy.
Different presidents have tried different tacks to woo new audiences or to offer a message. Jimmy Carter wore sweaters and carried suitcases. Reagan, I’m not the first to point out, was a master performer. One of my liberal friends in college used to say that Reagan, as president, was a great actor. Clinton went on MTV, which was groundbreaking at the time. He was just cool enough to do it. I can’t tell you what the Bushes did, but one of them got elected twice so he did something right. I don’t think George W. or Laura Bush would do the kind of appearances Barack and Michelle Obama have done. Their styles are different, but the Obamas are fairly well suited to take advantage of the way the media is changing. Michelle Obama had what I thought was a funny appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, because she could play within the strength of Fallon’s style. He is not the best interviewer, but he is noted for his skits, which then go viral. Again, this wasn’t just about being funny, Michelle Obama was there to pitch exercise.
In an age when many Americans get their news from The Daily Show, it’s not a bad approach to getting out the message. It may not be the ideal reality that more viewers are getting their news from a comedian than any other source, but it is the reality we have. So if a president has what it takes to enter this arena, then more power to him, and someday her.