Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Daily Gazette recently got the chance to speak with two cast members of IFC’s The Birthday Boys, a sketch comedy show that just returned for its second season. Executive produced by Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk, The Birthday Boys features seven comedians mocking everything from political cartoons to dude culture to hipster bands.
The Daily Gazette: You guys all met at the Upright Citizens Brigade – how did Bob Odenkirk get involved in producing the show?
Tim Kalpakis: He and his wife do this really awesome show every year in LA called the “Not Inappropriate Show.” It’s a live show that plays different venues, and the concept is that it’s a show for kids, a comedy show, but it’s not dumbed down at all. So he’s always looking for acts for that show that he thinks are funny, but could possibly play to his kids, who were 11 and 13 at the time. We were doing a lot for stuff with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and he was planning a show there, so we were recommended to him by a mutual friend, and he booked us in the show. And we just started doing that. I think a couple years passed, and every New Year’s Eve we would do that show. Eventually, we were hitting it off and he was enjoying the sketches, so we started meeting up and writing together.
DG: How did you guys go over with the 13 year olds?
Dave Ferguson: We did okay. The choice we made was to do material that we already did for general audiences. So we just picked sketches where there was maybe a joke or two that went over the heads of the kids, but hit with the parents. And then there was a joke or two that was too dumb for the parents that really hit with the kids.
TK: And even though there was an age range on the flyer, people still brought little babies to the show and stuff…
DF: We killed with the babies.
TK: Little kids will laugh randomly in a sketch, at a line that was not a joke whatsoever, and they’ll roll in the aisles. And then you’ll get to the big joke of the sketch and they’re perfectly silent, so it’s always a real crapshoot.
DF: A friend of ours had a little one-man monologue where he’s a terrifying guy, he’s like a gritty, creepy guy, but the details he gives about how you know he’s terrifying are really weak. Like he says, “you’ll know I’m an evil villain because my favorite color is black.” And the kids called him out on every beat…
TK: “Black isn’t that scary! We’re not afraid of you!”
DF: So it’s really fun, because it adds a whole other dimension.
DG: Because you guys are a sketch show on IFC, I think a lot of people compare you to Portlandia. Do you think the shows are similar?
DF: First of all, that is always a good comparison.
TK: We are huge fans of Portlandia, it’s such a great show. I think it kind of represents the two different types of sketch [comedy] you can do. We are a group, and we have no theme or hook or anything like that to our show, so we’re just coming in with whatever idea we have. Whereas that show has a very well-defined world and they’ve done a great job of exploring every side of it. But I think we’re probably playing to the same audience. I think we kind of hit the same brand of humor.
DF: It’s weird because we’re kind of two sides of a similar coin maybe, in the sense that the target demographic, the type of people that might be interested in both shows, has a lot of overlap. But the reason you enjoy each show can be very different. Fred Armisen in particular, but Fred and Carrie and the director Jonathan Krisel have a great attention to character. Fred, you just wind him up like a toy and he can probably go for an hour and never say the same line twice. Our show is probably a little more carefully scripted because, for one, there’s seven of us so we kind of have to dole things out, but also we just gravitate towards higher concept, sometimes cinematic parody kind of things. It’s an apt comparison though. I think it’s cool how you have things like The Kroll Show or Key and Peele, and that there’s different dimensions of sketch comedy on TV right now and everybody has their own niche.
DG: Is anything off limits for you guys, or do you throw it all at the wall and see what sticks?
TK: I don’t think we’ve hit a limit yet. We do throw it all at the wall and see what sticks, and I think if we’re laughing at something, then that’s a sign that we want to keep going with that idea. We did have a sketch in season one where a guy goes to the prom with his dad, and afterwards they end up having sex. I feel like once you’ve done that, you stop and look around and say “Well, hey, we laughed at that and put it in the show, so maybe we don’t really have any limit.”
DF: We’re always bummed out by our inability to shock and awe. We’re far more likely to get in trouble for being too silly than for being too offensive. We’ve done sketches that I thought would offend, but I think we’ve just reached a climate in media in general that you’re judged more on what you did with the idea than what the idea was. If it’s offensive or not offensive, no one really cares. But if it’s good or bad, and offensive, than that matters. So our goal is usually to make each other laugh, and so far we haven’t had any harsh awakenings after doing that.
DG: I saw that later this season you guys are doing an “Are Women Funny?” show – what made your all-dude cast want to take that on?
TK: Well it feels like that has been all the discussion in comedy lately, and when we sat down to write this season it just happened to be that whenever we’d take a break and look at Twitter or Facebook, that was what all of our friends were talking about. So it was kind of an unavoidable topic in 2014.
DF: I think we also just find the whole idea that that could be a debate really funny. Literally any rational human being is hopefully of the mind that anyone can be funny, so we had a lot of fun with that. But we also had a lot of fun with the fact that, of all of the comedic voices in the world, we are the last group that should be the voice of the argument. It’s fun for us to take on things we have no place having a comment on, but then parading around as if our judgement has any value. So we had a lot of fun with being high and mighty on an issue that no one would come to us for our opinion on. So hopefully it comes through as heavy satire. That was really fun, to dive into that area. And have a little bit of relevance and maybe make a little comment on something. Which is something we did a little more this year. Lived in the world we live in just a little more.
DG: Now, besides The Birthday Boys, what are your favorite comedies on TV right now? What do you like to watch when you’re not writing?
DF: I know what you’re gonna say.
TK: Which one?
DF: Nathan for You
TK: We’re huge fans of Nathan for You on Comedy Central. That show came out last year and was just instantly our favorite show. And then season two: I can’t remember laughing that hard as a show anytime in the last five or ten years. That’s the only show that makes me laugh out loud when I’m by myself in my apartment.
DF: We are spoiled: one of the production companies on this show is Tim and Eric’s Abso Lutely Productions, and they make Nathan Fielder’s show. They also make Tim and Eric, obviously. And they make Comedy Bang! Bang! which some of us work on. And it sounds like a little bit of corporate ass-kissing, but those are all shows that I really am a huge fan of.
TK: Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories has been really great.
DF: They’re doing this anthology series of these weird, one-off, self contained pieces called bedtime stories.
DG: It’s another sketch show?
DF: Yeah, it’s really interesting though. They dive in, and each episode is totally different from the others. It’s just a quirky, weird story with its own characters, almost like a little mini movie. And then they move on to a totally different story for the next episode. Sometimes Tim and Eric aren’t even in the episodes.
DG: You guys had a well received first season — most of the reviews were very positive. Is there anything you wanted to change when you came back for this season?
DF: Yeah, I mean when you’re the first season of a TV show you just have a lot of work to do besides the jokes. You’re introducing yourselves to an audience. So we felt like we were happy how we got that work out of the way in season one, and in season two we came in with all the funniest ideas we had. And the network at this point just trusted us and let us do whatever we want. So we just went for it with the funniest stuff we had this season, and to us it was a really rewarding season of saying “what would we want to see on TV?”
TK: And I think as actors and performers, we tried to take a few more chances and chase down a few more uncertain roads and have a lot of fun with the characters we’re coming up. I’d be curious how that’ll show up on the screen. Watching the cuts, we’ve been having a lot of fun and we’re really proud of them. But for the most part, the things that we like about season one remain true. It’s just that we’ve really tried to commit to making whole episodes that are rewarding to watch, not just as a bunch of cut-up online videos but as a TV show, which I’m worried is a dying art. It’s a fun thing to really dig in on and make 30 minutes of comedy rather than a collection of four-minute laughs.
DG: And your second season can really be enjoyed as a whole?
DF: Yeah, I think so. It doesn’t have like a season long arc, we didn’t want to put ourselves in a box where you can’t do any idea you have, but within each episode we tried to build in little scenes with marks and runners and callbacks. You know, it’s a thing that obviously Portlandia also does, so it’s not totally unique, but I think for fans of Mr. Show or Portlandia, I think you’re looking for something more than just a sketch that could have been online and really funny for two days. You’re looking for a season of television. Somebody’s voice. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing we have to sell: Do you like what we find funny? And, if nothing else, I think we made a season of what we find funny.
Image courtesy of AMC