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The American President, The American Celebrity

I’ve already commented on French presidents in another post. This post, however, is going to be about my reaction to a video I saw of President Obama.

Here’s a link :

In a short recap, the video is part of a series called Between Two Ferns that the actor/comedian Zack Galifianakis hosts, usually with celebrities, where he literally sits between two ferns and conducts ridiculous interviews, making fun of himself and his guest/s.

The website’s major demographic is 18-34 year-old males[1] and it functions on a system of votes : once a video is posted, viewers vote whether a video is funny or not.

I was shocked to see a short clip from the series with President Obama as a guest. It was shocking I suppose because I’ve been in France for a while where I’m used to seeing the president solely as a political figure. But also because the video blurs the line, in my opinion, between president and celebrity.

On Galifianakis’ show, Obama is promoting his Affordable Care Act, just in the way celebrities go on any show to promote their newest movie, album or TV series. Other guests on the show have included Justin Beiber, Samuel L. Jackson, and late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel.

Just like in any other episode, most of the video consists of Galifianakis making jabs at the president through his ‘idiot persona,’ saying things like “What should we do about North Ikea…Korea” or “In 2013 you pardoned a turkey, what do you have planned for 2014?” [2]

In response to Galifianakis’ politically uninformed and insulting questions, Obama responds with similar jabs. After Galifianakis commenting that it must be hard not being allowed to run a third time for president, Obama retorts “If I ran a third time it would kind of be like doing a third Hangover movie, it didn’t really work out, did it ?” referring to Galifianakis’ recent unsuccessful movie as part of the Hangover series.

Assumingly, the president is attempting several things in making this video. First of all, he’s showing a ‘cool’ persona, someone knows about pop culture. In simply appearing on the show and referencing the Hangover movies, he’s demonstrating an awareness of pop and youth culture.

We also see the leader of our country being harassed and jabbed at using references that we know have been contested about him (birth certificate, ethnicity, etc.). “So which country were you rooting for in the winter Olympics?” Galifianakis asks. This shows a down-to-earth side of the president.

And, most importantly, he’s trying to pitch the Affordable Care Act to the demographic that most likely watches the show: 18-34 year olds. While the president is pitching the Act, Galifianakis looks bored, “Is this what they mean by drones?” he asks and acts as if he was forced to have the president on as a guest.

Apparently this video was quite successful, with more than 2 million views after 3 hours online. [3]

To me the Between Two Ferns video shows us the president as a celebrity. Just like a musician or an actor, he’s on this show to promote his latest release, in this case, the Affordable Care Act. The video also demonstrates that in the United States, celebrity is not discriminating. In other words, whether you’re known for writing a book, playing in movies, singing, or leading the country, you’re more or less all together in the same category of ‘famous’. The public’s expectations will be different for different roles of course (writing a TV show versus serving on the Supreme Court), but for me it’s part of the same vision of public figures.

In contrast with the US, in France political figures are strictly political figures. My sense is that a video like the one I’m writing about here in France would never happen. It would place the president in a role of ridicule that isn’t possible in French society, one that would be both humiliating and harmful for his career. This doesn’t mean that politicians aren’t criticized. A French politician or president may appear on television in an interview, but it is with the sole purpose of defending or explaining policy. 

We don’t revere hierarchy, tradition and history like in Europe. We don’t expect as much distance and ceremony around the president because we just don’t have as much tradition and ceremony to go on. And this is why I think it’s possible for US political figures to play with their images and ‘become’ celebrities, whereas in France, they remain simply political figures.

Who knows, things aren’t too bright right now for François Hollande with the instability of the French government and the recent explosion of his personal life. Maybe a self-promotion tactic like Obama’s is just what he needs.



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