It’s a classic story, really.
Boys meet in rural college. Boys move to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune. Boys sign up for comedy classes at hippest theater in town. Boys eventually meet other boys. Boys fall in comedy love and form sketch group. Boys perform for sketch comedy legend. Mentor becomes partner. Boys get TV deal. You’ve heard this story once, you’ve heard it once, I tell you.
Such is the fast-track version story of how The Birthday Boys made their way from Ithaca College to Los Angeles and to your TV sets and mobile devices tonight with the premiere of The Birthday Boys sketch comedy series on IFC.
THE BIRTHDAY BOYS are Jefferson Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Matt Kowalick, Mike Mitchell, Chris VanArtsdalen. They spoke with The Comic’s Comic before their debut, but first, let’s look at a clip from that premiere episode, featuring the extra member, Bob Odenkirk, in “The Thing.”
All but one of The Birthday Boys attended Ithaca College. They moved to Los Angeles together but initially pursued separate interests. Hanford and Mitchell wrote screenplays. Kowalick was writing for TV. Dutton was involved in production. “We all move to L.A. loving comedy but not really having any ambitions to be a sketch group,” Dutton said. But the young comedians discovered the Upright Citizens Brigade just as the UCB’s Los Angeles theater was in its early years.
Their proximity to the UCB helped form them, and made Neil Campbell and Paul Rust early supporters. But it was their proximity to each other in Universal City that formed the bond that was The Birthday Boys.
“Since we moved out, we all basically lived in different apartments all within one block of each other,” Kalpakis said. VanArtsdalen added: “I think the easiest way to start a sketch group is to live together so you can roll out of bed and start writing comedy.”
With seven members in the group, Kalpakis said “everybody kind of fell into what they do” without needing a formal discussion of what their individual roles within the group would be. “So when you have a guy like Dave Ferguson who likes to organize files on his computer, keep a schedule of what everybody is doing. I feel like Jeff and Chris gravitate toward the video stuff…so when we did a TV show they became directors. I always focused on writing.” VanArtsdalen joked: “I just gravitated to the role of leader.”
At first, The Birthday Boys were content to put on live sketch shows at the UCB and upload videos to YouTube. How did it all come together? The Boys answered that as a group.
Since you all had come out to L.A. from Ithaca with different intentions originally, how much discussion was there when you did form a group about whether to pursue sketch shows and a sketch series — vs. pitching and making a movie together, or vs. going The Lonely Island route (or now Good Neighbor) and getting on an existing show like SNL together?
“While it’s true we arrived with different intentions (editing, writing, directing, TV, film), those intentions were close enough to compliment each other pretty seamlessly—especially in the context of making sketches. Actually, if we had all been dead-set on just writing or just acting for example, we would have had a lot of trouble shooting and editing our early videos or assembling different elements of the live shows we did at UCB. The process of becoming a sketch group of our size was partially dictated by needing everybody’s skills to pull it all off.”
“As far as pursing a movie, show, or individual opportunity (like SNL), those things definitely happened. Some of us have pitched and sold pilots and written for outlets like Funny or Die, Comedy Bang Bang, or The MTV Movie Awards. A lot of us have gone out on auditions and showcases (including SNL) and taken all kinds of freelance directing/producing jobs. And collectively we’ve outlined and pitched movies and web series concepts.”
“We were lucky that the timing and flexibility of those opportunities never pulled anybody too far away for too long. That happens a lot to great groups. Not sure if we subconsciously willed each other not to break through in a different way. Maybe it could have happened, maybe one of us could have been the President! Who knows!”
“But at the end of the day, for all of us, this group was always too much fun and too important to us to drop it—regardless of whether there was a show on the line.”
You also worked on some separate projects separately before the IFC deal came about. What did you learn from those that you put to use here?
“Right, most recently a couple of us worked on Comedy Bang Bang as writers. And all of us have appeared in the cast or worked as directors for the web content. Not to speak for everyone, but I think that helped us appreciate and understand how IFC’s team worked. We witnessed and appreciated their creative leash,” Ferguson said. “We also share a production company with Bang Bang (AbsoLutely). We got to see how they faced the insane challenges of making a show with a million ideas and places to go on a cable budget. Same thing with working at Funny or Die. You realize that no one else will be accountable if things don’t turn out great. Resources can’t be the excuse. It takes a lot of time/effort to not make average stuff.”
“As far as all the other opportunities (writing pilots, consulting on our friends’ shows, acting in sitcoms), we mostly learned the make-up of the perfect crafty spread. It’s mostly brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts and La Croix water varieties.”
What would you say are the biggest lessons you’ve already learned from Bob Odenkirk, from Ben Stiller and Red Hour, and from the gang at Abso Lutely?
“We’re all such Mr. Show fans that there’s a sensibility,” Dutton said. “We have a little bit of a group aesthetic that has come out over the years. It really resonates with Bob. In the writing process, he never made us something that we weren’t. He valued what we discovered organically. But he also encouraged us to write for television and not write for the stage. Be relatable. That’s one thing that he really tried to impart on us.”
“I think it makes a lot of sense that Bob could point out how we were different from Mr. Show,” Kalpakis said.
“With a bad sketch, Bob would hit us with a ruler. And that taught us to write better sketches,” VanArtsdalen said.
Ferguson: “Bob is an amazing comedy brain. He never quits on an idea that catches his ear. But I think one of the less obvious things we are learning from him is the power of being clear and direct. On set, when pitching in the writers room, when working with the network… He acknowledged the rarity of making a low-concept sketch comedy show, and helped us speak up for what excited us early and often.”
“Red Hour and Ben have been great enablers for the project. Ben blew us away with his preparedness and professionalism when he came in to act in a few sketches. Our production schedule was insanely tight (it ain’t no Night at the Museum I’m sure). We did a lot on every day. But he committed hard. Every line, every character, without warm-up or tons of time to feel things out. Ben was sprinting on “go.” He shares an unlikely scene with Frank Caliendo believe it or not. And watching them go back and forth was this other-worldly demonstration of nailing it. Surreal.”
“Hopefully a few comedy nerds are starting to figure this out, but AbsoLutely is creating a pretty enviable comedy empire. Tim and Eric, Nathan for You, an upcoming Andy Daly project that will blow you away, and tons of other unique projects that couldn’t be done anywhere else. Our producer Carl Fieler truly made our show possible with his willingness to say yes to insane asks (Can we wipe a cow’s but? Can we jump in vats of beer? Can we put Bob Odenkirk on top of a suburban roof for a day?).”
The first two episodes of The Birthday Boys on IFC feature a cold opening sketch that recurs for at least two more beats throughout the remainder of the 22-minute episode. They also feature some meta commentary about who gets on TV and how. After tonight’s first sketch, a delightfully different origin story for the Boys, imagining them as computer programmers in 1977’s pre-Silicon Valley, Odenkirk addresses the camera (and with it, us, the audience), declaring: “We’re going to do some comedy sketches for you, you’re going to laugh. Pretty simple!”
The structure wasn’t that planned out, and doesn’t play out quite like that over the course of the season.
“I think our mission was no rules, just right. Just like Outback Steakhouse,” Kalpakis said. “As soon as we feel like we had a model, we broke from it. I think a lot of that comes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus which was such a free-flowing awesome show. So no, not really.”
“We also have considered…recurring themes so it’s rewarding for you to watch the whole half-hour,” VanArtsdalen said.
Dutton: “We discussed the show linking or not, and I think we found just for our show, we loved having callbacks and a sense of momentum…but preserving the true sense of variety and doing whatever you want.”
And any meta feeling you’re getting from the subtext is coincidental. “We were so happy getting a TV show that we spent our first two episodes dealing with it,” Dutton said.
Is there any sketch in the first season that you’re beyond amazed actually is making it onto TV?
Ferguson: “YES. Most of them. A scene featuring an unlikely father-son relationship and a prom jumps to mind. As does a bizarre depiction of Hell as only mildly scary (that one features Matt Besser!). Also, see “wiping a cow’s butt.”
VanArtsdalen concurred: “Cow butt! Watch the show!”
OK. Speaking of which, you can watch a full episode online already. Episode 107 of The Birthday Boys: “Skewered.”
The Birthday Boys debuts at 10:30 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) tonight, Oct. 18, 2013, on IFC.