The Birthday Boys: New Episodes, New Friends
The Birthday Boys: New Episodes, New Friends
Interview by Francis Rizzo III
Sketch comedy has rarely been hotter on TV than right now, with shows airing on several major networks. One of the more recent additions has been IFC's The Birthday Boys. Executive produced by a pair of SNL alumni with their own sketch-comedy success in Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) and Ben Stiller (The Ben Stiller Show) , The Birthday Boys translated their popular Upright Citizens Brigade show to television, bringing a hard-to-define style to the TV sketch comedy universe. The first season was released in a highly-recommended DVD set in August 2014 (DVDTalk's review) and the second season kicks off Friday, October 17 at 11 p.m. EST on IFC. Following an appearance at New York ComicCon, three members of the group, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford and Tim Kalpakis, spent a little time with DVDTalk's Francis Rizzo III for a delightful little chat about adapting the stage to TV, working with Dana Carvey and combating segregation.
DVDTalk: So I when I wrote my review of the first season of The Birthday Boys, I noted that you have the feel of show like Monty Python or The State, but there's nothing that you could specifically pick out that was like that, it was more of a concept or feel than an actual homage or you taking ideas from there. Do you feel like that subconsciously you're taking some influences from that or do you feel like you're actively trying to avoid the things that you liked in order to make something original?
Mike Hanford: I think we're interested in making original content for sure. Yeah, we certainly drew from those guys when we put this group together and had the idea for the show and having a big group of guys who you feel like you're friends with and you're part of the party with, sort of.
Dave Ferguson: I think that part was a little subconsciously what we were doing, but sort of the result of what we did.
DVDTalk: Is there any difference in how you approached season two following your first go-round?
Tim Kalpakis: Yeah for sure. Season one we had a stock style of comedy we've been doing live for years so when we got into the writers room we worked with Bob [Odenkirk] and the network about adapting it for television. Starting off a show, there's a lot of work you have to do. Introducing yourself to an audience or making all these decisions about what this show is like, what the rules are, what we do, what we don't do. And a lot of that is just trying to define yourself both to the network and then to the audience.
Season two, we just got to go in there to have fun. So I felt like we had none of the obligation to anything but comedy this time, so we brought all our funniest ideas and made each other laugh with the scripts and then we also lined up sketches in a more cohesive way this year., where instead of just having a runner through an episode and then random sketches, pretty much everything that was funny and fit well together conceptually, ended up in an episode together.
DVDTalk: You all wrote on Comedy Bang! Bang!'s second season. Do you feel that was basically a warm-up for your eventual series?
Tim: Yeah, I mean, Comedy Bang! Bang! is so great for us because the show is just different enough for us to feel like a great break. That show is kind of like a joke machine for us. We go in with our friends there and goof around and Scott [Aukerman] gives us tons of freedom to go in any direction we want, but I feel like there isn't too much crossover in the actual material or sensibility. We have a real strong sense of what a Birthday Boys sketch is and then when we're in Comedy Bang! Bang!, we're coming up with stuff that we think is funny but we know it's for Scott and that Scott and his head writer Neil Campbell are the filter. We're trying to make them happy. So it feels different to us. Almost like a fun vacation.
Dave: We've had one or two sketches that we wrote on Bang Bang where Scott would say "I think that's more of a Birthday Boys idea" and we used them for our own show.
Tim: Yeah, in Season One, the helpful tips sketch, where we're playing golf and rollerblading and all that, that was supposed to be Scott and Reggie (Watts.) Scott loved the sketch, but he was like "This is a Birthday Boys sketch. What are you doing?"
DVDTalk: Speaking of the rollerblading... before I watched the show, my friend Amy, who's a big fan of your UCB show, said I needed to see Mike rollerblade. Which was absolutely true. How did you manage to stay up, yet look so out of control?
Mike: Years of clown school, my friend. [laughs] No, I grew up playing hockey and I know how to handle myself on some skates.
Tim: And when Mike did that at UCB, not that exact sketch, but lots of rollerblade humor--
Mike: It's all very funny to me.
Tim: He comes very close to killing people at the theater, because sometimes at a packed show they're Indian-style right on the stage up-close, and Hanford has almost annihilated people.
Mike: I've come very close to kicking a chair into a small kid's face. We did a kid's show and we did a sketch like that, and we avoided a lawsuit.
DVDTalk: You mentioned the runners that runs through the length of an episode. When you're writing, do you start with those ideas or do they emerge as you're creating the episode?
Dave: It's pretty organic. Usually, our main goal is to write solid sketch comedy. So we'll be around the room, kicking around ideas, and then something will kind of catch fire, and someone might split off and write it themselves or pair off with someone else, and when those sketches come back and we do a table read, we're usually just listening for "Is this concept working?", "Is this funny?", "How fertile is it?" But what was cool about this year, like Tim was saying, once you realize how rich a world it is, you can tell the difference between a sketch that's just like a single concept and a sketch that creates a whole environment and a whole bunch of "If this is true, what else is true?" kind of scenarios.
So what we would do then, if an idea came in and was super fertile, maybe it was long or it had a lot of different places it could go, we would start to talk about it in more of a story sense, as a whole-episode runner.
Tim: I think an example of a story runner this year is the "women are funny" episode, and that started as a one-page script and then everyone just said "There's more here." There have been times I've come into the writers room with an 18-page runner, and then we read it and nobody's into it because it's too thought out and there's no work left to do, so it's boring. For the most part, it's been just a seed of an idea that gets everyone thinking in different directions.
Dave: And it can go the other way too. That long idea...Tim had a really funny idea that got boiled down into a little one-off sketch. The network and we had tried to give something new to this season by bringing in guest stars. We're totally on-board for it and we're really excited for the guest stars we have, but we also think the show is more than just a series of cameos. We were initially kind of nervous about "Oh, will that define us, or the sensibility to have a non-Bob guest comedian come in for every episode," or "Will it feel too stunty?" Will people just see it as a promotional thing. So we decided to write at that, and Time brought in a character--
Tim: Nicole Tompkins.
Dave: The whole concept about Nicole Tompkins, our big celebrity guest. Nicole Tompkins. We can't wait for Nicole Tompkins. Well, Nicole Tompkins was a name that was made up and turns out to be a real person, as you'll find out, but that was an idea we thought we could build a whole high-concept episode around; the celebrity guest you're not sure if you're supposed to know who they are. It got boiled down just to a monologue that was really funny as well. So it could really go either way. The most organic way to approach the process is you explore the idea until it's complete, and you don't overstay its welcome, and you don't undersell it.
DVDTalk: Now, you mentioned the simpler sketches. One that really stands out is the Hope Floats sketch, which was such a one-joke idea, but which works so well. Is there any concern putting a joke like that up against your more complex segments?
Mike: Yeah, exactly. In our live show, we never had any sort of theme or story or anything, but what we got really used to doing was just managing the momentum of the half-hour shows. So, our background comes a lot from thinking, start out a show with something fast and big and stupid, and then settle into something that brings the audience in and is welcoming, and then you can do a big beefy, almost SNL-style sketch once you've done those other things. So that's almost instinctual for us. If we do something too thinky, then the next sketch will probably be the stupidest thing in the episode. Or if we do something really simple, then we kind of start working really hard right after that.
Dave: Yeah, we've developed a bit of a shorthand now, mostly from our years doing live shows, of how to create an arc that's not a story arc. To build connective tissue and momentum and comedic high-conceptness to a point where it kind of reaches a pinnacle, and then the episode rewards you for picking up all the details and putting pieces together. And that was kind of something we see as our calling card, but which is also really hard to articulate to a casual viewer.
Tim: And very hard to pitch. That was something...it took Bob's presence to really assure people that that is a thing. Mr. Show gathers steam that way, you could even say Monty Python does too, especially in episodes where they had a bit more of a call-back structure, where it gets deeper and deeper and deeper. It's not just a collection of variety sketches or stand-up jokes that get fleshed out into concepts.
Mike: Also this momentum Dave is talking about is taking something simple and really stupid up top and treating it so big. For instance, we have an episode this year, a town of people who work at a wood mill, a lumber yard, and a beaver attacks the town and that's the first sketch. Oh, this puppet beaver is attacking and that's not a real threat, but we take it so seriously and play the runner throughout the whole episode, that by the end you really care about these people and this beaver that's upsetting the town. The joke sort of becomes how much we did with such a stupid idea.
Dave: The beaver kind of becomes the arch villain of an episode that represents economic downturn and evil corporations. We kind of do that a lot in taking a small, silly, insignificant thing and then projecting a ton of heavy, heavy stuff upon it. Like Cary in season one. We want you to sympathize with an inanimate object, we want you to see the working-man's hero in the paparazzi, TMZ-type guy.
Tim: And then there are other times where we take very important concepts. people the world cares a lot about, and then do our dumbest sketch possible.
DVDTalk: Are you going to continue to adapt sketches from your stage show to the screen?
Mike: We have almost infinite material from the stage show, because we've been doing it so long, but when we got into the writers room for the TV show, we realized it's kind of more fun to write new stuff a lot of the time, just because creatively, it's more fun to come in with a joke and have your friends build on it than it is to start with something you've done before and then just do it on TV.
We will always be continuing to go through our old stuff and see if there are ideas we like, but there's definitely never been an obligation to just do an old idea the way that it was. And anytime we do put something from the stage show on to TV, we put it through a pretty big filter of--
Tim: Is it a TV concept?
Mike: And why should it be on TV? If we can find a genre for it that makes sense, and can we not make you feel like...that feeling when you watch a movie that was a play and you're like "Everyone's just in this room talking." We never want to have that feeling so we're always trying to look at it from a different perspective.
Tim: I think it's interesting for us, but one of the things that can be frustrating right now about being in sketch comedy, despite there being such a great plethora of amazing things going on, is that we aren't making web videos. We are not intending to make web videos for this show. That doesn't mean we don't occasionally try to make a self-contained idea that hopefully catches hold with an online audience, but what I mean is that we want to have a thing that maybe has a cinematic value or maybe has a layered, nuanced value that you have to take in context of other things.
That's been the hardest experience for us promotionally I think. Yeah, alot of people walk up to us and say yeah, it's great you do a sketch show, so you've got these three-minute things you can pass around online. It's true for some things, but it's also really frustrating the same way if you watch a movie trailer and somebody spoils the big reveal of the third act. It bums you out. We kind of have that feeling somethings, when we're like "How do you convince the network and find within ourselves the pieces that are perfect for sharing but save something special for the TV audience.
DVDTalk: You have Dana Carvey on the show this year. How did that come about?
Mike: We have no personal connection to him. That was just normal show business. We wanted him on the show, we had our casting director reach out to him. I think it was just a great thing where he knew it was a show that Bob Odenkirk was on and was executive producing, and Dana worked on SNL with Bob 25 years ago and loves Bob. Tim: And The Dana Carvey Show.
Mike: Yeah, and The Dana Carvey Show. I think Bob like faxed in jokes for that. I think Bob's involvement was appealing enough to Dana to come out to L.A. and shoot with us. It was just that he read the script and thought it was funny and that knew that Bob had co-written it, and he just trusted Bob.
DVDTalk: What was going through your heads watching him roll around on the ground for your show?
Mike: Oh my God, that was the best.
Dave: The amount of commitment he had to that stupid character was so great. He was so excited to do stuff with a sketch group.
Tim: He is an idol to us. An all-time favorite. So when you give him the direction of "OK, now get down on the ground and give yourself a wedgie," we would have been totally ready if he said "I don't want to do that." We would have been 'Of course, Dana." But he got right down in the leaves and started rolling.
Mike: I was honestly kind of nervous, because those shorts he's wearing in that scene are so short, and that area we were in...I swore I saw poison oak. I was so nervous he was going to call us two weeks later and complain about an inner-thigh rash.
DVDTalk: Besides Carvey you have guest stars as varied as Fabio and Paul Scheer on this year. Who in particular are you excited for viewers to see on the show?
Tim: Chris Elliott we have in the later half of the season. He's been a guy, for the bits he used to do on the NBC [David] Letterman show in the '80s, he's been such an icon of weird stuff. We brought him in for a very weird runner in a sketch and that was really cool to have him on.
Dave: In the "women are funny" episode, there's literally a cavalcade of cool guest cameos that did this big thing at the end. Horatio Sanz was really funny as an on-set performer. He was probably the one that was the loosest on script. We gave him a ton of material in a short amount of pages. There was a lot of monologuey type stuff and he just ripped into it, and went goofy with it. It was really cool to see.
Tim: We had Fred Willard, and he was so cool, because he knew the show, he's a fan of the show, and he quoted sketches to us. he was so Fred Willardy and such a pro. I can into the set that day and he was just reading a newspaper and eating an egg sandwich and was so laid back, and we start the scene and he knows all his lines way better than you would expect a guest star to. he was on-board for anything.
Mike: The best piece of casting is probably Jack Black. We basically cast him as a weird version of himself within this movie concept called the Shwarvils, which is a take on The Smurfs or Muppets kind of reboots that have been happening in the past few years and our commentary on it. But it was really interesting, because that was another example, much like Dana, where I was a little reticent, like is he going to think this is a jab at his career, which it wasn't in any way. But he just leaned into any proximity to his own life and it was really funny.
Dave: That episode also has a little Tenacious D reunion.
Mike: Oh yeah.
Dave: They're not in the same shot together, but same episode. Good enough.
DVDTalk: In your first episode, Bob Odenkirk didn't appear in any sketches. Will we see less of him this season?
Dave: Yeah, a little bit less. He has his whole own episode, episode two, which is completely dedicated to a Bob storyline runner, where he plays our Polish father who has aspirations of becoming a DJ. It was really funny, a classic Mr. Show old-worldy Bob character. But then he pops up in little ways throughout the season. His biggest influence though, both last year and this year, is as a writer. He's in the room every day as a writer, and then as an executive producer, just kind of ushering the voice of the show. But yeah, he's shooting Better Call Saul. Part of the thinking was to both use Bob in every way we can, and really have him shape our comedy, but also to have these guest stars so that there's always that value-added presence in our show that kind of mixes up our sensibility. And it really did. It helped up write for new voices and different angles.
Mike: The idea was to have Bob in every episode, but we got a phone call from [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan, the nicest guy in the world. He's like "Guys, I really need Bob for this show I'm doing. He's the star of it," and we talked and he had a good point, he needed Bob to star in his show, so we let him go.
Dave: We said, Vince, we'll do it for you this one time. But if you need some paralegals, we're there.
Mike: If you get a season two, which they did, the lawyers come in.
Dave: They get a season two without making an episode.
DVDTalk: On the DVDs for the first season of your show, unlike many shows, you had a nice complement of bonus content, including a host of commentaries. Do you enjoy doing those things?
Mike: Jeff, one of our directors, and you've seen him on the show, was adamant that our DVD would not be a no-frills DVD. Because for us, we really wanted to have value added, and we nerdily used to tape every live show we ever did. So we shoot...if we were just testing at an open-mic night, we would just record it on a shitty camera so we could hear where the laughs were. It was really good way to gauge how things were working. So Jeff said, let's superimpose those, put existing material we had shot behind the scenes, goof-around stuff, do a compilation. And the commentary was super, super fun, but we had to do it in one sitting session, so we watched all 10 episodes without a break, back to back, in room together at Earwolf, Scott Aukerman's studios, and their tech recorded the whole thing, so honestly, by episode eight, I was in such a daze that... I've only gone back and listened to the first six. I'm kind of terrified by what might have come out of my mouth.
Tim: We're the kind of guys who watch commentaries on DVDs, because we're dorks, but I think we went into those commentaries thinking let's try to actually talk about these shows, because sometimes if you do an entirely tongue-in-cheek comedy commentary, it gets old. So we started being sincere, talking about the process, and by episode eight, Mitch was talking like Lorne Michaels.
Dave: But there's also the tendency there, you know, by making a show...it's really corny, but it's true...you build a community or a family of crew and staff on the show, and we were namechecking everybody from the fourth assistant director to the most junior assistant editor. So at some point we had to keep that in check, because there was so much fun in the process that we were trying to convey, but I don't know if it had as much value to the viewers.
Mike: Maybe it came across, but our show is way more hand-made than you would expect a TV show to be, so the 100 people who worked on our show, we know them very, very, very well, and we'd stay up all night working on every aspect of the show. So it's hard to not mention every single person.
DVDTalk: So one last question, an easy one. One of the issues that's dogged SNL in recent years is the question of diversity. And now here's a sketch show starring seven white guys, a point you play upon with your bios. Do you think the diversity situation can be "fixed" in sketch comedy?
Dave: For me, it's such an easy answer. No. [laughs] It really is, and this isn't a defense of a homogeneous sketch group, but we just formed out of Ithaca College, a very white school mind you, where we all met and moved to Los Angeles, so there was never a casting process for our show. We didn't even have the opportunity to think about it. I can assure you, if I was given a moment's notice to recast our sketch group, I would not cast these guys on paper. [Mike laughs]
It's born 1000 percent out of an existing thing we never thought would necessarily become a TV show. So that's not a defense of not exploring new avenues, and that's one of the things we were hoping to achieve this season, not only with our celebrity guest stars, but our guest casting. Our years at UCB have given us the opportunity to work with amazing, amazing people that people don't know about. And that's something that I think that's never been commented on in our show, which blows my mind, but we get these awesome up-and-coming guests, like female stars and the Cool Machine episode from last season, with awesome guests from Slow Children Crossing. It's more of an opportunity to bring people in in guest roles. Beyond that, I don't know what we'd really do. To redefine our group would be to redefine 10 years of shared sensibility.
Tim: Sketch comedy as a whole, when you look at the landscape, there are more sketch comedy shows on TV right now than there have been for a long time. It's awesome. Out of this group of seven white guys, which is an embarrassing thing for us, it's nice to know there's not a lot of shows like that. Key & Peele are on the cover of Time magazine. They are more of the face of sketch comedy. We're like this teeny little show.
Mike: I feel like, not only if the ground shifting, but I will hopefully reassure America by saying that in this one very specific instance, I do occasionally feel like a stupid privileged minority, where it's not like we feel as if we have the grip-hold on comedy, especially sketch comedy. And we feel good about that. It's exciting to see what's happening and who's rising up and see who's becoming the different faces and voices of the scene. I already think we're making huge steps on that front. As far as our little show goes, our goal is to really either comment on that trend or bring people in from the outside world and help it influence and rub-off on our comedy and concepts that aren't always taken on by seven white dudes.
We had a similar question at ComicCon and Scott Aukerman was on the panel, and he pointed out that we were just racist in our friend choices, not our sketch group choices. I don't know if that's better or less defensible. But it is a funny thing, and we'll continue to shift, as one little part of it.
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The Birthday Boys: New Episodes, New Friends