Funny but true: How the White House uses Will Ferrell to sell policy

President Barack Obama went on "Between Two Ferns," Zach Galifianakis' intentionally excruciating talk show, to talk Obamacare.


Source: Funny or Die

It's far from the first time comedians have helped promote his policies.

He went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon during the 2012 campaign and slow jammed the news (and talked about student debt).

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He's gone on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart six times since 2005, and the Colbert Report twice. Michelle Obama has worked with comedians to promote her pet policies too. She went on Jimmy Fallon to talk about eating healthy (and take part in a shy face-off).

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She had previously gone on Fallon to promote her Let's Move campaign (and show off her dance moves).

On the anniversary of Let's Move, she did a video with Will Ferrell to talk up the program's accomplishments.

Comedians have also been pretty outspoken about Democratic policies and priorities when the Obamas aren't in the room -- especially with health care. Amy Poehler was one of the celebrities who used the #getcovered hashtag during the warm-up to Obamacare's roll-out this fall. So did Sarah Silverman and Fran Drescher.

Last week, Obama invited YouTube stars to the White House to talk about signing up for the Affordable Care Act.

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Funny or Die, the Will Ferrell-founded website that produces "Between Two Ferns," was asked to make healthcare-centric videos in 2013. In 2012, they made a few videos about contraception during the battle over women's health.

 

If young people are the Affordable Care Act sign-ups the White House most desperately needs, than Funny or Die has probably been their most treasured ally. For Obama, a few mentions of tortured wordplay about North Ikea would be all worth it if it produced a slew of "Young Invincibles" to register.

It's not just health care, either. Comedians have become the chief way the Democratic Party acquires soft power these days, which seems a smart move given the data on humor and the media. Many people rail against the White House's reliance on late night TV and the Internet for outreach, but you know who the most trusted newscaster was in 2009, according to a poll from Time Magazine? Jon Stewart, who won in a landslide against the network news anchors. Fifteen percent of 18-29 year olds in 2012 got the majority of their election news from late-night comedy shows. For 29 percent, the Internet is their top news source. The White House would be stupid not to take advantage of this clear opening with young people. Since 7:30 Tuesday morning, the "Between Two Ferns" video has racked up over 4.2 million views. In comparison, there are 4,866 views for the "Young Adults, Get Covered" video on the White House YouTube page. The White House reported that Funny or Die was the top source for referrals to HealthCare.gov today.

It's a tired maxim that conservatives just aren't funny. The late Arlen Specter -- stand-up comedian and senator -- left the Republican Party. The one comedian with clear conservative leanings, former "Saturday Night Live" star Dennis Miller, mostly gave up telling good jokes for punditry. (Former "SNL"  stars choosing politics over punchlines isn't Miller's province alone -- Al Franken has also been notably reserved during his Senate tenure.) The "conservatives are completely devoid of humor" line is of course overstatement -- look at budding comedian Grover Norquist! -- but it's hard to see how Republicans could match Democrats in the conscripting comedians department. If both sides funny factions went to war, Republicans would lose in a battle of attrition.

(Not only are liberal-leaning comedians helping Democrats and the White House do some policy product placement, they've also donated generously to the cause. Bill Maher gave over $1 million to pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA during the 2012 campaign. Ferrell and his wife gave $133,200 to Democrats in that election cycle. Galifianakis donated to Democratic senator Kay Hagan, from North Carolina, last year. Jerry Seinfeld gave money to Democratic Senate candidate Alison Grimes, who's running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.)

The Obama administration doesn't just contract out policy promotion to comedians. He has hired a few in-house comedians over the course of his presidential career. Jon Favreau, Obama's head speechwriter during his campaigns and first term, spiked some of Obama's speeches with jokes. Another Obama speechwriter, Jon Lovett, is a stand-up comic who wrote the sitcom "1600 Penn." Kal Penn, most famous for starring in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," has had several roles in Obama's administration. There's no doubt that the White House has devoted considerable resources to this front, and that comedians have responded in kind.

The one question that remains is whether it works. The White House definitely thinks so -- or at least thinks the idea still has promise -- and whatever president follows in 2016 is likely to try to capture the magical Justin Bieber formula to YouTube stardom. Whether comedians continue to take part is unknown, but for now, they seem to agree with other members of the entertainment industry -- and every single other industry -- when it comes to politics today. The louder and more involved you are -- whether by check or viral video -- the better.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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