The Key to Comedy With The Birthday Boys
If you’re a fan of Funny or Die, have been to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater or listened to the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast lately, you’ve likely come across a group of affable, hilarious guys named The Birthday Boys. From their days at Ithaca College to their monthly UCB show ushered in by friend Paul Rust, the Boys have risen through the ranks of comedy quickly, catching the eye Bob Odenkirk. Currently they are on tour with Scott Aukerman and Comedy Bang! Bang!, and their show, executive produced by Odenkirk, premieres on IFC on October 18. I recently sat down with the Birthday Boys to talk about their unique point of view on comedy.
Karen Geier: Let’s go back to when you caught the eye of Bob Odenkirk. How did that happen?
Tim Kalpakis: Bob’s wife Naomi produces a charity show called the Not Inappropriate Show, and when she did it at UCB, we were on the bill. Bob was directing, and we met him there. One time we did it at the Groundlings theater and I was backstage, sitting next to Bob and he said, “I really like your sketch. On Mr. Show, we would have done it differently.” That blew my mind, because I’m such a huge Mr. Show fan. I asked him, “What would you have done differently?” and just as he was about to answer, somebody came and whisked him away because he had to go do a bit. I was sitting there thinking the key to comedy was about to be given to me, and I missed out on it. I told the guys about it, and we all really wanted to find out what he was going to say, so I eventually emailed him and said, “I can’t sleep, I gotta hear what you were going to say.” It was a fanboy email that I felt weird sending, but he did respond by saying, “Why don’t you come over to the office, and we’ll talk about it?” Me and Mike Hanford went over to Bob’s office and we showed him some videos. We talked, and then we actually just started writing sketches together. The rest of the guys eventually came in and we discussed doing a live show. That’s really how it happened. We kept writing live sketches until we felt like there was a TV show there.
KG: When you get someone like Bob on board, is there a fear that your work might change or be tonally shifted under his guidance?
TK: It was a collaboration, and we approached it as a collaboration. We had figured out a style of comedy that we loved to do, and being big fans of Bob, we trusted where he wanted to take us. From Bob’s point of view, he never really wanted to shape us into something we’re not. That’s what he did so well with Tim and Eric. We’re huge Tim and Eric fans. When Awesome Show came out, we thought it was great how Bob took their voice and translated it to TV.
Chris VanArtsdalen: Bob never tried to shape us in anything we weren’t, and I think we found that we were just naturally laughing at the same stuff. We were huge Mr. Show fans and SNL fans going way back, so I think we share a sensibility with Bob and we laugh at the same stuff.
KG: Is it kind of like doing drugs when you’re in the room and you make Bob laugh?
Jeff Dutton: You get a nice Bob laugh, and it’ll satisfy you for many weeks. You never know when it’s coming because sometimes, he’ll do a silent reading of a sketch, and he’ll say, “It’s great, let’s do it.” Other times, he’ll laugh and say, “That’s so, so stupid.” But, it’s a blast.
KG: One of comedy’s best apocryphal tales is about the Bob Odenkirk “Goddammit!” moment. Were you ever on the receiving end of one?
TK: I was never the subject of a “Goddammit!” moment.
JD: In our experience, Bob Odenkirk is asked to say “Goddammit!” more often than he actually says it. It probably comes out more if he’s fussing with a computer or a cell phone.
CVA: I think we’re his happy outlet. A distraction.
KG: You seem to be a part of the resurgence of sketch comedy on TV. What’s responsible for that?
JD: As far as our show, luckily there were two things going on when we were pitching to IFC. One was that Bob was a recent phenomenon on Breaking Bad. [IFC executive] Debbie DeMontreux and her husband were big Mr. Show fans, but they had gotten off a huge tear of watching Breaking Bad. Also, Key and Peele had debuted to critical acclaim and great ratings. The confluence of those two things ushered us into getting a pilot.
TK: IFC has Portlandia, which is a really cool sketch comedy show which hangs together with a theme, and with our show, we try to make each episode hang together in a way that is cohesive and satisfying for the audience. We try to make the half our build to something big and make that half hour a whole experience.
KG: Your comedy could be considered silly in the purest sense of the word. Do you worry that in a world of comedy based on anger and disillusionment that people have forgotten to be straight up silly?
TK: I think we write the kind of comedy we’d want to see. We approach things like a fun show. If you were to dissect a lot of the same things that your jaded stand-up comics might be, but it’s more fun to approach a big, sad topic from a stupidity angle.
JD: This is something that’s only occurred to me late on, but to Bob really encouraged us in the writing and the editing of our show to be relevant, and not in a way that’s topical, but playing off real moments for human beings. Not shying away from a character being sad, or robbed of something important to them. It feels like we’re tackling the bitterness of life in a silly way.
CVA: We deal with it as seven idiots.
KG: To that point, one of the funniest sketches you have on Funny Or Die is a fake PSA for Drunk Driving. It takes the very unique perspective of showing all the funny things a drunk driver might do.
TK: We had some trepidation putting that out there. We tried to approach it as, “What if we were so far in the opposite direction on this topic?” But you’re laughing at our ignorance.
JD: A lot of the time, we try to make ourselves the butt of the joke.
CVA: It works on stage really well. It’s been interesting to try and translate for TV is that we have to try to get the audience to be the straight man. We won’t provide the audience with an in-sketch straight man. When we do it live, the people at UCB watch sketch a lot and know what is expected of them. We were never huge on YouTube. If you look at some of the comments, you’ll see why. We did a video called, “Where are they now: Tom Hanks” and the whole joke is that Tom Hanks is still very famous. A lot of the comments were, “I don’t get it. Tom Hanks is still famous.”
KG: Is there anything you wouldn’t joke about?
TK: I don’t think so. Later in our season, we have a storyline about a guy who takes his dad to the prom. It takes a sexual turn. There was some discussion about “Is this the wrong thing to do?” The rule is, the more taboo a topic, the funnier it has to be to justify it. As a comedy fan, I roll my eyes when someone makes an easy joke about a controversial topic.
CVA: There’s nothing we won’t joke about, but we won’t joke about it just because it’s controversial.
KG: Is one of the great luxuries of having a TV show that you can edit your performances, which you can’t do onstage?
TK: Absolutely. We have time to sit around in an editing bay and talk about this stuff for hours. We love that part of the process. We stay up all night with our editors, and that kind of shaping is one of our favorite parts of the process.
JD: I think that is how our show comes alive. We don’t see ourselves as performers to the bone. We’re more the kind of people who work ourselves to the bone and have something to show for it.
CVA: If the sketch isn’t working, you put a fart sound on it.
The Birthday Boys premieres on IFC on October 18th.
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