NEW YORK — Certainly, the Internet has its purposes, but there might be none greater than "Between Two Ferns."
The radically awkward, largely improvised interview show has been arguably the most beloved Web series since it debuted in early 2008. The episodes, four-minute blasts of public-access style absurdity, arrive every few months (and sometimes longer) without warning, as if dropped from the heavens.
Now, "Between Two Ferns" is making its TV debut in a 30-minute special (a veritable gluttony for fans accustomed to snippets parceled out over a year) airing Sunday at 8:30 p.m. EST/PST on Comedy Central ahead of the channel's second annual Comedy Awards.
Dubbed "Between Two Ferns: A Fairytale of New York," the special is modeled on Barbara Walters' pre-Oscars interview shows. The production is a little grander: It opens with Galifianakis in a tuxedo atop Rockefeller Center, introducing his three guests — Jon Stewart, Tina Fey and Richard Branson — while stuttering over his own name.
"We wanted to mock the celebrity obsession that is so annoyingly present in our culture," says Galifianakis. "No one worships that more than Barbara Walters."
The special is both a kind of faux-extravaganza to celebrate the humble "Between Two Ferns," and, potentially, a last hurrah.
While countless comedies have used the interview format for parody, "Between Two Ferns" has its own unique rhythm. Galifianakis may be satirizing vacant, unknowing celebrity interviewers who use the opportunity to elevate themselves. But much of its appeal is simply as an unfiltered vessel for Galifianakis' brand of comedy — a mix of gleeful antagonism, perfectly-timed pratfalls and absurdist irreverence.
"The uncomfortableness of it all, he just revels in that kind of environment," says Scott Aukerman, who co-created the series with Galifianakis.
The two have seldom talked about "Between Two Ferns" publicly, preferring to keep an air of mystery around its creation. But they granted interviews ahead of the special: Galifianakis by e-mail, Aukerman by phone.
The show was born when Aukerman and BJ Porter were making a pilot for a sketch comedy show that never made it to television.
"If I remember correctly, I basically said, 'Get me an actor to interview and two ferns and we will make it work from there,'" recalls Galifianakis.
Aukerman says they decided to put the sketch (the inaugural episode featured Michael Cera) on the then-nascent Funny Or Die "as a lark." Its immediate success surprised the comedians; most episodes have now been watched some 5-10 million times.
On a simple set of folding chairs flanked by ferns, Galifianakis interviews celebrities with deadpan insults and blatantly condescending questions. He's asked Bruce Willis if Ashton Kutcher is the favorite of his kids. He's called Jimmy Kimmel "Timmy Kimbles" and told him he has "girl lips."
Things often get physical. He's tickled Cera until it became creepy. He's sneezed violently and repeatedly into Jon Hamm's crotch. His interview of his "Hangover" co-star Bradley Cooper dissolved into slapping.
Guests frequently attempt to fight back, usually by targeting Galifianakis' weight. Charlize Theron called him a "fat garden gnome." Will Ferrell yelled for him to "get the fat out of your ears." More than once, Galifianakis's defensiveness is punctuated by his chair collapsing underneath him.
"The guests have no idea what is about to happen next — that is the one thing we can say," says Aukerman, who directed and co-produced the series, as well as Sunday's special. "The guests are not prepped on what's going to happen."
Steve Carell, who co-starred with Galifianakis in "Dinner for Schmucks," tried (unsuccessfully) to turn the tables on Galifianakis' rudeness.
"You go in and you play around," says Carell. "You just have to choose an attitude when you go into that. Mine was on guard, that I was aware of what he does to people and I'm not going to let him do it to me. And then he still does it to me! Which is so good."
Laughter can be a problem. Aukerman jokes that he doesn't allow it on set, "like James Brown fining his band members for missing a note." Says Carell: "They did some very severe editing to edit around all the break-ups."
Theron also inverted the usual dynamic by flirting with Galifianakis, disarming him.
"I show up and Zach's like, 'Yeah, it's getting a little boring so we were thinking we'd go the other way,'" says Theron. "It was so much fun. Everything's so much on the spot."
She described it as taking a leap of faith by following Galifianakis' lead: "If he's jumping, I'm jumping too."
Galifinianakis asks that his guests show up without "their people," and he says most have complied.
"Most of the earlier ones were shot in a storage shed in Hollywood," he says. "When you get big name actors to show up to film in a shed, they kind of know what we are up to. I remember moving junk to make room for the ferns."
For "A Fairytale of New York," Galifianakis and Aukerman studied an old Walters special to absorb the camera movements and gauzy soft focus. Aukerman says it was more for inspiration than parody: "Except for the flowers, we just substituted the ferns."
Galifianakis has continued to make "Between Two Ferns" while his film career has grown considerably. But there's a sense that the show is coming to a close. The special, shot over the last few weeks, is the first "Between Two Ferns" in a year.
"We kind of feel the show is at an end," says Galifiniakis. "I have an idea for another talk show that does not involve entertainment types."
More episodes may follow online, though, and a DVD release featuring outtakes is planned for later this year.
The final word on "Between Two Ferns" perhaps comes from Fey, who after suffering a number of demeaning comments about her "lady comedy," levels an analysis of Galifianakis' show.
"It's almost like you're being willfully obtuse in these questions to make some sort of vague point about the fatuous nature of celebrity interviews," she tells him. "It's almost like: 'Oh, I'll be rude to a celebrity to prove that I'm too cool to be caring about celebrity, at the same time increasing your own celebrity.'"
Asked about the accuracy of Fey's breakdown, Galifianakis replies: "Dead on."