Talking to The Birthday Boys About Their New IFC Sketch Show
This Friday, IFC is set to launch its newest comedy show, The Birthday Boys. Written by and starring LA-based sketch group of the same name, The Birthday Boys is the first TV show in several years to come from a pre-existing sketch group.
Made up of seven members (Jefferson Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Matt Kowalick, Mike Mitchell, and Chris VanArtsdalen), The Birthday Boys formed in 2007. The group began making popular web videos together and performing a monthly show at LA’s UCB Theatre. Joining The Birthday Boys for their TV show is Bob Odenkirk, who is serving as a producer in addition to acting, writing, and directing sketches alongside them.
I went to the set of The Birthday Boys’ show this summer and talked to a handful of them about the series, working with Bob Odenkirk, and why The Beatles’ name stinks.
When you were naming the group The Birthday Boys, did you have other names you were throwing around?
Tim Kalpakis: Yeah, The Motorists is what I was pushing hard for.
Dave Ferguson: And some really inclusive things like The Pangeans. And some things that were just hard to say, like Fastest Artists. The Performing Artists’ Theater Company.
Kalpakis: Yeah, a lot of ideas, the joke was how — The Performing Artists’ Theater Company is so generic and no one would remember all of it. We thought that was funny.
Jefferson Dutton: Actually, though, we wanted to end up with something that we didn’t think was funny ’cause you see improv groups and bands where they think the name is funny, and then, a day and a half goes by and it’s like, “Ah, we’re still named this.”
Ferguson: I feel like that’s inevitable about any name. The Beatles probably felt that about their name after a few months. Any time you hear it more than five times to identify yourself…
Kalpakis: It is weird. The Beatles, think of how lame that name is.
Ferguson: It’s a pun! Let it be said that The Birthday Boys find The Beatles’ name lame.
Kalpakis: The Beatles suck.
“The Birthday Boys say the Beatles suck.”
Ferguson: There’s your headline, buddy!
You guys met in college. How did the group get started?
Kalpakis: We were friends at Ithaca, but we weren’t a comedy group. Me and Dave did college television together, and some of these guys made films together. So we came out here, just all wanting to work but not as a comedy group…
Ferguson: Seeking fame and fortune.
Dutton: I knew Chris from various filmmaking classes, and we were into a lot of the same stuff.
Ferguson: Ithaca College, which is where six of the seven of us went to school, has this Los Angeles program. You can come out, you can intern, then maybe transition into a job. These guys all lived together.
Dutton: That’s where I met Tim and Hanford, pretty much. Hanford and I had classes together, but we didn’t hang until Ithaca in LA.
Ferguson: And we met Matt a few years later at UCB Theatre, taking classes.
Mike Hanford: Improv 101.
Ferguson: We just started to perform together more and more, and [we’d] go and see more shows at UCB and around town. Eventually, you just had to put a name on it, so that when we signed up for a “Not Too Shabby” open mic kind of show, you had an identity.
Dutton: For a while, it was “Ithaca Pals.”
Ferguson: We had to kill that quickly.
Kalpakis: Yeah, we didn’t come up with that. The host of the show, Neil [Campbell], wrote “Ithaca Pals.” We were like, “Oh! We’ve got to pick a name! That’s the worst!”
How have your sketches evolved since your earliest stuff?
Ferguson: Our first sketch is a memorable one.
Kalpakis: Yeah, we should put that on the show. The first sketch ever was “Briefcase Switcheroo,” where two guys confuse their briefcases on a subway and then they go home and unpack their briefcases and they both have the exact same things in there, which is totally a sketch we would still do. I think our sense of humor and the ideas behind the sketches are still very similar, but I feel like we used to do like a hundred jokes in a sketch. It would just keep going. There was no ending.
Hanford: I think our sketches now can be a little more scenic, where at first, it was just huge props or costumes. It was like, “This is funny. We don’t really have to perform.”
[Birthday Boy Mike Mitchell enters the room].
Mike Mitchell: Hey, what’s up? [notices the tape recorder] Oh.
Ferguson: The voice you’re now adding to the conversation is Mike Mitchell. Mike, let’s hear your voice.
Mitchell: Hey, hello, everybody.
Ferguson: It’s broadcasting live.
Mitchell: Okay. This is good that I walked in on your conversation. I’m Mike Mitchell; I’m the thin Birthday Boy.
Ferguson: Would you describe yourself for the record?
Mitchell: Bearded, six foot-two, and devilishly handsome in a Louie Anderson sort of way.
Hanford: [Louie Anderson]’s not gonna hear this, is he?
No, he doesn’t listen to our live streams.
Ferguson: He could read it.
Mitchell: Is this really live streaming?
Hanford: No, no.
Mitchell: Aw, Jesus Christ.
Hanford: You said all that thinking it was live streaming? Yikes!
Do you guys have a favorite sketch you’ve made? Maybe a video one for people who aren’t familiar with your stuff to check out?
Hanford: Yeah, “Ham Hat” and “Pooljumpers” have kind of been our Birthday Boys staples.
Ferguson: Yeah, definitely.
Dutton: Yeah, those would be the two probably.
Ferguson: You weren’t expecting that much consensus, were you?
I thought we were gonna go around the room. I thought I was good on asking another question for a few minutes.
Kalpakis: Time to check out!
So what’d you guys do to get ready once you found out you had your own sketch show?
Mitchell: I worked out for like three months.
Ferguson: Pretty rigorous physical training.
Mitchell: I think we heard about the show. It was like, “Oh, it’s a possibility. It might happen.” We didn’t hear until the new year, 2013. We heard it.
Dutton: It was like, “You start in 30 days.”
Mitchell: So it was kinda like, “All right, let’s get our lives in order to be ready to spend a good nine months to a year on this show.” Writing and shooting and post and all that stuff too.
Dutton: We all sold off our side businesses.
Hanford: It’s been kind of nonstop. Production’s been every day.
Mitchell: I pretty much worked down to my last dollar. I think when we started, I had like a hundred dollars in my bank account.
Hanford: Now you have a hundred-thousand!
Mitchell: Now, it’s back up to a hundred.
What was the writing process like? Bob Odenkirk was writing with you guys, right?
Hanford: Yeah. He was there like every day too.
Mitchell: He’s a genius. He knows what he’s doing. We had a few narrative sketches, and he helped us figure some of those out. He’s just one of the funniest dudes around.
Hanford: His experience was big with what to keep in the show, what to leave out of the show. A few sketches, we had done live before. We were a little bit married to some jokes, and his advice on what to cut from live to video [was helpful].
Mitchell: He told us, “You can’t put a frog in every sketch. That can’t be the punchline.” It was good to hear because that’s was most of our sketches at first, right?
Dutton: It’s nice to have an outside voice and an outside arbiter too.
Ferguson: We can usually reach a group consensus slowly but surely, but everyone once in a while, you get that nudge from a fresh voice. He’s been writing and directing some too for the show, so that’s a fun element. It’s really exciting.
Mitchell: I think all of us are Mr. Show fans. It’s great to have him be a part of it.
Ferguson: It’s really fun because we cast him in a bunch of the sketches or he just casts himself, depending on the nature of the sketches. It’s just fun when he starts ripping into Bob mode and nailing punchlines.
Hanford: He’s so funny. He’s a real pro.
Besides Mr. Show, what are some of you guys’ favorite sketch shows or some things you’d like to model this after?
Ferguson: Definitely Monty Python.
Mitchell: Saturday Night Live.
Ferguson: Sure. Laraine Newman’s here today, and that’s exciting because the lineage of sketch comedy is something that we care a lot about. And I think that impacts a lot of choices that we make on the show. It’s a desire to be current and relevant and fun, but also just a desire to be another group in the lineage of good sketch comedy, which is a pretty cool lineage.
Mitchell: I love those Phil Hartman years.
Ferguson: Yeah. The Kids in the Hall.
Mitchell: The State.
Ferguson: We’ve worked with the Human Giant guys a lot on various things. These are all people that we get influenced by and are also just fans of.
Mitchell: Nick Kroll is awesome.
Ferguson: And A Kiss From Daddy, to not name just things that are well-known TV shows. These guys that we’ve performed monthly with at UCB for the last few years are our best friends and favorite sketch counterparts, for sure.
Mitchell: They’re so funny. We got to see some of The State guys out here. Like, some of us have worked with Tom Lennon and Ben Garant and Joe [Lo Truglio] and a few other people. We’ve seen Kids in the Hall guys. We grew up on that kind of stuff.
Ferguson: Totally. And working with Scott [Aukerman] on Comedy Bang! Bang! stuff too was another thing. Not just comedically, but learning how to put a show together — specifically for IFC and getting the most out of it.
Mitchell: Snoop Dizzle Televizzle.
Ferguson: Snoop Dogg, yeah, of course. Did we say Nick Cannon already? I wasn’t in the room.
Mitchell: Punk’d. Just every MTV show was an influence.
Was it hard to keep the group together? I feel like with a lot of sketch groups, one of the members will land a TV job before the whole group gets a show.
Ferguson: Luckily, we were very unemployable.
Hanford: I mean, we were all pretty much gunning for this for a while, not that we were turning down stuff that we were offered.
Dutton: I think a lot of groups break up because they were formed by individuals who were ambitious and found themselves doing a bunch of sketch, doing a bunch of improv, and then were like, “Oh, I’ll do something with these guys.” And it doesn’t gel as much as when you — we were literally like a comedy group when we found UCB. We were just friends, but the group was definitely at the fore for our whole run.
Ferguson: I think we established our voices kind of the same time collectively, rather than a standup or somebody who maybe turns to sketch comedy later, finds their voice themselves and brings it to a group. I think we found it simultaneously, so we have this collective thing we share and you also feel out your niche within the group. A friend dynamic is a big part of it and finding our comedy voice together.
Everybody had some kind of opportunity, whether it be through Funny Or Die or Comedy Bang! Bang! or directing Marc Maron’s web series stuff or branded things that we did to cut our teeth as a production entity. There’s a ton of things that we did.
Dutton: For the first two years, it was this weird adolescent quality.
Ferguson: That’s another thing too. Almost all of us lived together in a house for quite a few years, so that kind of forces you to stick together, I think, more than when you’re meeting at a spot or renting space every week.
Hanford: We would shoot and edit all in the same house.
Dutton: A lot of that work got done accidentally. You would just joke around with your housemates and then those jokes would turn into — not that stuff would always turn into sketches, but weird things happen when you’re not planning to meet and you’re at rest, neutral position, and you’re surrounded by other people you think are funny. As opposed to “I’m gonna go to my place where I meet with my guys who I do comedy with.” Like, two hours a week or four hours a week. Living in it is definitely a leg up, for sure.
How do you define each of your roles in the group? Do different people have different specialties?
Hanford: Me? I’m the lone wolf.
Ferguson: I think it’s pretty pluralistic. I mean, people have tendencies. Everybody does a little bit of everything. But people do main course things. Chris and Jeff directed a lot of the stuff we did going into this, so they’re listed as the directors for a lot of our content for our show. But it also counts on all us to do a little bit of everything and a little bit of performance coaching and supporting of everybody with writing and performing.
Mitchell: Whenever they need a big, dumb weirdo to walk on, I usually play that role.
Ferguson: Mitch had the unfortunate duty of cross-dressing for a lot of sketches for our live stuff. You didn’t have to do that as much for the show.
Mitchell: No. But early on, I was the lady in almost every single sketch. I jumped on it because I was like, “I don’t care.”
Hanford: IFC early on was like, “Be careful with wigs. Be careful with crossdressing.” We heard them out on the crossdressing, but there are so many wigs in the show. There’s like a hundred wigs so far. Beautiful wigs.
Ferguson: Beautiful, luxurious, hairy wigs.
Mitchell: We all wear a lot of different hats in the group.
Ferguson: Baseball hats, construction hats.
Mitchell: Dave is kind of like the Leonardo, Jeff is like a Donatello.
Dutton: I’ll take it.
Mitchell: I’m like Michelangelo. Matt’s Splinter. Hanford’s Crang. Tim’s Raphael. Chris is Be-Bop and Rocksteady.
Do you guys have favorite sketches you’ve filmed for the show?
Mitchell: This one is great. The one we’re shooting today. “Goofy Roofers.”
Dutton: Across the board, we’ve been able to pull of jokes and premises that we never would have been able to do without this budget and support, and a lot of that has to do with [production company] Abso Lutely being super scrappy, being really cool, and knowing how to produce really high-end stuff and knowing how to let us do our own thing and help us cut corners so we’re making the most out of our pursuits. It’s been a unique thing. We never really hear “No.” We just hear –
Ferguson: “How we gonna do it?” IFC, Red Hour, Abso Lutely, all the people that we’re working with are enabling. The sketches that we get excited about are the ensembly-driven things. The other stuff’s great, but the sketches where we’re all in play kind of define our sensibility. There’s big, high-energy concepts, like “Goofy Roofers.” A group of suburban roofers that get their own TV show. What’s another sketch with all seven?
Hanford: “Seven Brothers Brewery.”
Ferguson: A group of brewers who get a little too close to their wares and end up jumping in their beer and swimming in their beer and showering in their beer. It’s big fun stuff. Big ideas.
Mitchell: It all looks really great. It looks better than anything we’ve made. Some stuff is really cinematic.
The Birthday Boys premieres this Friday at 10:30 on IFC after Comedy Bang! Bang!