Outside of podcasting circles and the Los Angeles branch of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, The Birthday Boys isn’t a name that carries a lot of weight. Beginning October 18, however, it will be the name attached to an IFC show and the sketch group that produces and stars in it—with help from the likes of Bob Odenkirk and Ben Stiller. Some seven years after the core of the group relocated to L.A. from New York’s Ithaca College—where they channeled their energies into projects like College-Bound Pimp, a broad comedy Mike “Mitch” Mitchell screened alongside his classmates’ artier fare—The Birthday Boys bring a cinematic, playfully absurd style of sketch to the home of Portlandia and Comedy Bang! Bang! Prior to the show’s debut, The A.V. Club spoke to six of the group’s seven members—Mitchell, Jefferson Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Michael Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, and Chris VanArtsdalen—about finding its comedic voice, working with icons of TV sketch, and the existence (or non-existence) of life after death.
The A.V. Club: By way of introduction, could you each give yourselves a short, boy-band-esque descriptor?
Tim Kalpakis: I’m the one with the broad shoulders and dark hair and the wide face.
Dave Ferguson: And Dave is the blond one who’s not Jeff.
Jefferson Dutton: And Jeff is the blond one—not as blond as Dave.
Chris VanArtsdalen: I’m the bald one with glasses.
Michael Hanford: I’m the one with the brown hair—and I’m thin, but I’m not Dave.
DF: And Matt [Kowalick] isn’t here, but he’s Caucasian, which is how we usually distinguish him.
Mike Mitchell: I’m Mitch—I’m the fat guy. [Laughs.]
AVC: There are so many outlets for sketch comedy today. What does it mean to be doing it on TV, as opposed to onstage or on the Internet?
JD: It started off as the thing nobody wanted to say: “What if we got to do this on TV?” Like most sketch comedy groups, we uploaded a lot of Internet videos, and we found that the stuff we wanted to make didn’t succeed virally or on YouTube—compared to meme-driven videos or Miley Cyrus-driven videos.
MM: We weren’t as big as Miley Cyrus.
JD: We still aren’t. But we always wanted to the sort of stuff that Mr. Show or Kids In The Hall did. TV was the place to do the stuff we wanted to do.
TK: A sketch show on TV today means you get to do a half-hour of sketch comedy. That makes a big difference. Over the course of 30 minutes, you can do a lot of things—it’s not as much pressure as there is on a 90-second video. You can relax and actually be a sketch group.
MM: I don’t know if it was our goal, just starting off, to get a TV show. We were just doing sketches at Not Too Shabby—this open-mic sketch show at UCB—and then we got a monthly show. Eventually we got to a place, like, “Oh, maybe something like this could happen.” Especially when Bob started working with us.
DF: Also, I remember Mitch’s reasons for being in the group: He said he was just looking to make his first friend. Luckily for him he achieved it within weeks.
MM: The real reason I started hanging out with The Birthday Boys was I was staying at this house that was haunted. This is not at all a joke. It was my boss’ house that he thought was haunted by Marilyn Monroe’s ghost or Charlie Chaplin’s mom. I was afraid to stay at the house, so I would go over to The Birthday Boys’ house a lot and sleep on the couch. When we first met, Tim was like, “Who’s this weird guy who’s always at the house?”
MH: The good news is it turns out that house wasn’t haunted—nor has any house ever been haunted. [All laugh.]
MM: There’s differing opinion on the existence of specters.
MH: We share a common sensibility—but on that issue, there is a real divide.
AVC: What did you want to include in The Birthday Boys that you haven’t seen from other sketch shows?
DF: We talk a lot about how hard it is to market a sketch show or talk about a sketch show, because it can be really hard to put your finger on the unique thing. At the end of the day, it’s just our voice. The best thing we can lead with is that. Why is Kids In The Hall great? Why is Mr. Show great? Why isMonty Python great? Because they knew what they found funny, and they stuck with it, and they proved that if you gave them the time and you checked out their stuff, it got better and better because you were rewarded in what they were setting up.
JD: People would ask us what we were doing to differentiate ourselves from other sketch shows—or other sketch shows on the same network. And we never really made a point to be different. It was just, “How do we do exactly what we find funny in our way?” We just trusted that we would be distinctive as a result.
CV: For a lot of shots for this show, we went out on the road and filmed stuff in the real world. To some extent, that’s unique about our show: It’s a little rough around the edges. We shot a lot of it the way we shot web videos: Grab a camera, go down to Santa Monica Beach, and just start shooting stuff.
AVC: So how do you define that voice?
TK: I can’t speak for all of us, but I always think of our style as silly and fun and big—but a lot of times about the most depressing of topics. Both ends of it are represented. It’s the dedication to an idea: Coming from UCB, we take a sketch premise that hits us hard. There isn’t a lot of character riffing or pushing one personality to the front of the show. Each piece is a labor of getting an idea on the screen as clearly as we can.
AVC: What about the dynamic in the group changed once Bob came aboard? Or did nothing change?
DF: The room that we met in had become about two feet smaller—we had to make more room for one more person. But other than that, the workflow’s pretty similar.
TK: Everyone just drifts to what it is they like to do—writing, directing, acting—and we just fell into our roles faster because there was so much more to produce. We’re used to making a sketch here and there, and suddenly we’re doing 10 half-hours. What Bob did was find the material where we could intersect with an audience. It’s a Venn diagram of the stuff [the group] likes and thinks is funny and what an audience would like to watch on their television. Bob found some stuff that we could meet in the middle on.
CV: It’s funny how well and how quickly we meshed with Bob, and a lot of that is because we were all raised on Mr. Show and we love his work and we have a similar sensibility. Once we got in the room with him, we tended to find ourselves laughing at similar things.
MM: Bob pitched a ton of Saul Goodman sketches. [All laugh.] And we put ’em all on!
AVC: In the first few episodes of The Birthday Boys, there’s a cameo from Laraine Newman, Mr. Show’s John Ennis appears alongside Bob—if the show gets a second season, what other faces from past sketch shows and other comedy heroes would you like to include?
TK: It’s funny—our show isn’t really a cameo fest, because there’s so many of us to begin with, and those ones were very carefully chosen. They fit in places where it’s like, “We’re all represented in this one sketch, and we need an outside voice.” It does help that Bob is friends with everybody in comedy. The only time I’ve ever seen Bob get excited about a person is Bill Murray, so if we could pull Bill Murray in…
DF: Those choices were always made for the most organic reasons. “Who would be the perfect this?” And when you’re pulling from our friends at UCB or these great up-and-coming voices in comedy and you’re pulling from Bob’s pals, you can’t go wrong.
AVC: Did it feel like the first season was a bridging of gaps between two comedy generations?
DF: That’d be really cool if it comes through that way. It wasn’t anything we were seeking out, but I guess you do feel that. In general right now, there’s a bit of a hand-off: There’s some great comedy coming up right now on TV—both sketch and variety-formatted stuff. We’ve had a lot of fun working on Comedy Bang! Bang!, and I do think you see those examples of swimming in the same circles rather than trying to establish this new voice without regarding what came before.
TK: It happens naturally. When you start doing comedy, you’re just imitating your idols, so when we started, lots of our sketches that we wrote early on were trying to be Mr. Show. After a while your failures to be Mr. Show become what your voice is. So it was funny to have Bob come into the mix, identify where we’re different from Mr. Show, and highlight that. And then we followed that even more—that became the tone of the new show.
CV: Also, Mike Hanford is 54 years old.
MH: It gives Bob and I a lot to talk about. [Laughs.]
TK: Mostly they just talk about prunes. [All laugh.]
AVC: A 2010 Los Angeles Times profile of the troupe refers to its members as “desk-bound subordinates to folks higher up the Hollywood food chain”—if you go back in time and talk to those versions of yourself, what would you tell them?
DF: I believe shortly after that, she says something like, “This is what the comedy totem looks like.”
MM: In all honesty I quit that job a year and a half ago. And then I went and sat in my apartment and stared at the wall until we got a show.
It’s that weird thing of like, I would say, “Quit that job”—but the sad thing is you can’t really do that. Quitting a job is such a big moment in this world out here, but there’s nothing really you can do. I would say don’t take it as seriously and have more fun.
DF: And why did you take so long to seek out Bob? And meet six women instead of six other white guys!