World and Nation

Obama’s new approach takes a humorous turn

WASHINGTON — In “Between Two Ferns,” an off-color online parody of celebrity interview shows, comedian Zach Galifianakis has spanked Justin Bieber with his belt, discussed Charlize Theron’s thighs, and asked Natalie Portman for her phone number.

On Tuesday, Galifianakis will welcome President Barack Obama to the comedy show that he has turned into an Internet cult favorite by making his guests feel awkward and uncomfortable.

The interview with the president, which was recorded two weeks ago, is to debut online at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday. The show’s creators at the website, Funny or Die, are keeping its contents secret until then. White House aides who have seen the conversation with Obama say it is in keeping with the show’s spirit.

If so, the pop-culture appearance represents the latest public relations gamble Obama and his aides have taken in their pursuit of new ways to deliver their message to the connected-but-distracted generation. “Between Two Ferns,” which satirizes the low-budget look of public access television, has had episodes that have been viewed as many as 30 million times, often because of their outrageous content.

“We have to find ways to break through,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser and chief communications strategist. “This is essentially an extension of the code we have been trying to crack for seven years now.”

Although Obama has hardly abandoned traditional set pieces like interviews with network anchors, he has been more willing than his predecessors to ditch the oh-so-serious playbook that dominated White House communications strategy for decades.

Aides said Obama’s immediate reason for subjecting himself to Galifianakis is to urge young people to sign up for health insurance on the government’s website, As a March 31 deadline for enrolling for 2014 approaches, the White House is doing one final push to try to increase the numbers.

Nicolle Wallace, who was President George W. Bush’s communications director, said she suspects there are some lines even Pfeiffer and his current team will not cross.

“You can’t put a president on ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians,’” she said.

But Wallace praised the current White House team for understanding the importance of letting Obama display something other than just his official demeanor.

“It’s almost negligent to not allow a president to let that side show through,” she said. “There’s nothing we see in the political media that depicts anyone as a well-rounded human being. All of these endeavors are noble and worthwhile.”

Galifianakis is unlikely to have treated Obama seriously, although Pfeiffer said even comedians tend to “behave” when they are interviewing the leader of the free world. Either way, clips of the interview are certain to be shared broadly on social media.

Wallace said she thinks the decision to go on the show will turn out to be politically smart.

“No risk, no reward,” she said.