Tonight, IFC is debuting its new comedy The Birthday Boys, the latest in a recent wave of TV sketch shows that includes Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and IFC’s own Portlandia. But while all those other programs are centered on one our two personalities, The Birthday Boys is — like a lot of classic sketch shows — made up of a larger group of comedians and one that existed before the show.
Performing comedy together since 2006, The Birthday Boys consists of seven writer-performers (Jefferson Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Matt Kowalick, Mike Mitchell, Chris VanArtsdalen), six of whom met at Ithaca College before moving to Los Angeles. In LA, the group landed a monthly show at the UCB Theatre and made a slew of web videos that caught the eye of folks like Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, and Scott Aukerman, who hired members of the group to work for Funny or Die and IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! The Birthday Boys also impressed Bob Odenkirk, who first saw them performing at an annual charity show his wife organizes at UCB. Odenkirk, a demi-god in the sketch comedy world for his work on Mr. Show (and to a lesser extent, SNL and The Ben Stiller Show), shepherded The Birthday Boys to their IFC series, which he executive produces, along with acting, writing, and directing alongside the group.
I’ve seen three episodes of The Birthday Boys so far (one of which IFC released online early), and the show finds the group continuing to nail the kind of precise genre parody they perfected years ago on the web. Because The Birthday Boys already have several years of experience together and because they share such a strong voice, the show finds its footing rather quickly in a way that sketch shows from newer groups or groups made up of more disparate voices usually don’t.
In an interview with Splitsider last month, Bob Odenkirk compared the shared sensibility The Birthday Boys have to that of Tim & Eric or himself and David Cross saying, “Even though every sketch is different, you still know it came from the same brain … It is something magical and unexplainable and not even really to be examined very closely. It’s like a good marriage. It just is, and you’re lucky to have it and it’s rare and it’s organic.”
Odenkirk, who started directing The Birthday Boys in live shows two years ago, is weaved into the TV show organically and fits in with the group nicely as an actor. He appears a lot in the first handful of episodes — about as much as each individual Birthday Boy, if not more — and even opens a lot of the shows by addressing the camera from a fancy office. Given Odenkirk’s busy acting schedule, he may not be able to appear in The Birthday Boys so much in the future if the show gets a second season, but it’s pretty fun and exciting to see him do sketch comedy on TV again for the time being.
As mentioned earlier, the show’s first few episodes consist mainly of genre parodies, something The Birthday Boys have a lot of experience with. The premiere’s opening sketch, a documentary about a bunch of guys who invented the first personal computer in the late ‘70s but care more about the garage they built it in, harkens back to The Birthday Boys’ most popular web video, “Pooljumpers,” in that it captures the feel of a documentary about the late ‘70s/early ‘80s while bending it around a silly, earnest premise. Another of the first episode’s highlights — a prank video with a twist I won’t blow — also does a fine job of looking and feeling like it’s source material in a hyper-detailed way.
Like Key & Peele (directed by Peter Atencio), The Birthday Boys’ sketches have a cinematic quality that you don’t really see on most sketch shows, and the credit for that belongs to Birthday Boys members and resident directors Jefferson Dutton and Chris VanArtsdalen, who also directed James Adomian’s web series Maron in Space, this great Comedy Bang! Bang! trailer, and the bulk of The Birthday Boys’ web videos. Given (obviously) a larger budget than they had on the web, it’s pretty impressive to see what they do with it. Future episodes find them tackling a Southern courtroom drama, a soul-searching road trip movie, a political rap video, an Animal House-esque snobs vs. slobs scene, a History Channel documentary, and a blooper show, with equal prowess.
As with most sketch shows, The Birthday Boys is hit-and-miss, but the hits outnumber the misses by a wide margin. Because existing sketch groups are rarely given their own TV shows these days, it’s pretty exciting to see a group of writers, directors, and actors so in tune with each other and so used to working together right off the bat when making a new show. The Birthday Boys is starting with the creative team as a well-oiled machine, and it’ll be pretty exciting to see where they take it from here.