Watching The Birthday Boys feels strangely candid. Their antics and self-described “stupidity” are immersed in a sort of all-inclusive comradery that dates back 10 years, to their time together at Ithaca College. Since moving to LA, the troupe has performed out of UCB LA alongside sketch troupe A Kiss From Daddy, produced numerous shorts for Funny or Die, and performed at the Montreal’s Just for Laughs.
In 2013, none other than Bob Odenkirk agreed to collaborate with the troupe (consisting of Mike Hanford, Matt Kowalick, Jefferson Dutton, Tim Kalpakis, Chris VanArtsdalen, Mike Mitchell, and Dave Ferguson), to produce their show for IFC, The Birthday Boys.
After a successful first season, the boys have been hard at work developing sketches for the next season, which promises to include the likes of Tony Hale, Dana Carvey, Fabio, Jack Black, Tim & Eric (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim), Scott Aukerman, Carmen Electra, Chris Elliott, Horatio Sanz, and Paul Scheer.
Coming down off the whirlwind of preparation and promotion of the next season (premiering Friday), I had the chance to chat with Tim Kalpakis, Jeff Dutton, and Mike Hanford about their thoughts on the upcoming season and the delicacies of Upstate New York.
How were you feeling going into this as opposed to the first season?
Tim Kalpakis: Great. Before the first season we were excited. It was really awesome to get a TV show and to make a sketch comedy show we always wanted to make. Now, with season two, we hit the ground running. We have the whole same crew back – the production crew. We knew how to do the job so we went right in. There wasn’t a learning process, it was just entirely creative.
Jeff Dutton: We feel like these ten episodes are the shows we’ve always, always wanted to make. We are so super proud of these episodes.
Mike Hanford: It was great to have a second season to sort of correct the mistakes in the first season. We’re like, “Oh, people don’t want to see a sketch that long. We needed to do this for 30 seconds rather than two minutes.”
Tim: I don’t know how much of season one you saw, but last year we had one sketch that was 30 minutes long. Also this year we had to leave room for commercials. We kept forgetting to do that.
Are you going to have any recurrent sketches or characters from the first season?
Mike: To answer you plainly: no we are not.
Tim: In the logic of the show, we consider all of those characters to have passed away since the last season. In the universe of The Birthday Boys, the “Goofy Roofers” have all slowly died of natural causes.
Jeff: Like, if there’s a character named Tim in season one, it’s not the same Tim in season two. It’s sort of like a multiverse scenario where there are multiple Tims.
[Laughs] Have you guys slowed down on your live performances or have you poured everything into producing sketches for the show?
Jeff: The production of the show is kind of a tidal wave. We tried last year to maintain our monthly UCB show during the writing process and we quickly learned that it was kind of a killer. So we decided to spend that time on the thing that will live forever [laughs].
Tim:Yeah, UCB LA’s been really cool to us. The artistic director, Mike Still, has kinda just kept our spot warm for us. The first Wednesday of every month a great sketch group, A Kiss From Daddy, who we always do shows with, continues doing a new half-hour every month and then, in the slot where we would usually be, there’s a rotation of three groups The Get Go, Oh, Brother!, and Up!, Up!, Up!. So whenever we are done editing we always plan to go back and continue doing those shows. But at least the night still exists.
Jeff: And we are getting out there for press. We did a show yesterday at Webster Hall and are doing one tomorrow at UCB East. So it was nice to get out and do it in real time.
Tim: You feel like a weirdo if too much time passes and you haven’t done any on-stage performing. You start to feel like a fraud as a comedian. Yesterday at Webster Hall just saying sentences and hearing people laugh was a nice reminder. We’ve been editing for two months and I feel very weird. Our hair is long and we’re pretty grimy.
Do you prefer live performance to the editing bay?
Mike: Oh yeah. Like Tim was saying, getting an immediate laugh is a lot funnier than editing it, putting it on TV, seeing it, and then wondering ten weeks later if anyone liked it.
Tim: Yeah, with television you never get to have that moment. The thing goes on TV and you’re like, “Well, I liked it.” Then slowly over the course of the year people tweet at you saying they liked the sketch and you’re like, “Oh, okay that’s where the audience participated.”
Jeff: I would rather be up on stage goofing around but having said that there is nothing more gratifying then having a completed episode of TV that you made and feeling content with the execution. So episodes from this year, when they are just out there in the world and they exist, I think that’s the most gratifying thing for us in the long term.
Do you think the show’s changed how you write?
Tim: Yeah, for sure. This year was very, very collaborative. I felt like the best thing you could do this year was come in with a funny idea or a one-page sketch and just let the room go wild with it. But I feel like there are more and more sketches – whenever I’m watching the show I’ll see a sketch I didn’t write but I’ll feel like I wrote many, many jokes in that sketch. We did that season one for sure, but we just came into season two knowing that’s the most fun for us.
So you think you’ve evolved since season one? Are we going to see different kinds of sketches in season two?
Tim: In season one we didn’t have too many rules in the writers’ room, but Bob [Odenkirk] really wanted it to lead with our conceptual stuff. The “mantra” from season one was that our ideas are the stars. We know that we are seven guys who look exactly the same and we aren’t trying to lead with our characters.
Jeff: And we have mixed experiences as actors.
Tim: [Laughs] So, that’s why you would watch the show. It was a choice; you don’t ever really see our names in the credits and we never really singled out too many characters. It was actively avoiding that type of stuff. And while I don’t think that we’ve turned into a character-driven sketch show, I will say that this year ideas came more from performance; if Mike Hanford is funny doing a type of thing or Mike Mitchell is funny doing a specific character he wants to play, we jumped on board with that rather than going with lofty concepts and working backwards. And then we found our way to the lofty concepts from there.
Do you guys improvise off the script or are you really strict on it?
Mike: Our production schedule is so tight that getting the lines off the page is first and foremost [laughs]. We did a few sketches this year where we could riff around and have a lot of fun with it but for the most part it’s pretty tightly scripted.
Tim: Our supervising producer, Carl Fieler, is a bit of a production genius and he had it color coded for us so that we could tell him, “Carl this sketch is a ‘Red 2’ or this sketch is a ‘Green 1’.” It was production value and the amount of time that we wanted per performance. So we literally looked at the script and went, “Hey Carl in this sketch I would love to be able to goof around and just sit in front of the green screen and give too many takes and improvise but this other sketch that’s in an expensive location and we have to get it done really fast I can see I’ll just say the lines and move on.”
Jeff: There’s a few more instances this year where we do have the time to riff and improvise, and we had a lot of fun on set and doing it, but then when it comes down to editing you just use the scripted line because it makes the most sense. “I’m glad you had some fun there on set, but we’re just going back with the scripted lines.”
Would you say that’s the hardest part about translating from stage to screen? Having to restrain yourself by time and other factors?
Tim: Yeah, for sure. I mean, with TV you’re dealing with what you have. So, when you’re first writing a sketch the possibilities are endless, and then when you’re delivering the rough cut of an episode the possibilities are… painful [laughs]. But I think our show has a funny kind of schedule. We have tons of time to write and think in pre-production, and with editing we’re all so hands-on getting in there with the editors and all seven Birthday Boys, going over every sketch a million times, but then the actual production is just complete hell.
Jeff: Yeah it’s a complete fever dream; every day feels like a week and every week feels like a month and you feel like it’s never going to end but it’s just because we care enough to want to be executing the idea with the original thing that made us laugh the most with maximum funny. We sort of are just putting the pressure on ourselves to achieve the funniest version of these ideas.
What has been the most surreal part about this all to you guys?
Tim: When you’re face to face with a guest star that you never thought would do your show. Like, a moment when the Birthday Boys get together and look at each other kind of giddy and look at each other like, “I can’t believe this just happened and is happening” was when Dana Carvey stepped out of his car and was like, “Okay guys! I can’t wait to do this sketch!” And you’re like, “Oh, man we’re doing comedy with Dana Carvey and he’s excited to do it and he’s seen our show and loves it.”
Mike: When Carvey got there he just hopped out of his car and just started doing his George Bush impression and he was so fun and happy to be there and we were all laughing. Then we walked him into his dressing room, and it had a piano in it for some reason, it was kind of an improvised dressing room, and he sits down and starts playing a Beatles song and we’re all singing The Beatles with Dana Carvey. And it was like, “What the fuck. This is so great. This guy is so funny and he feels like a friend of ours.”
Tim: Like the wardrobe people were trying to get him into his costume and all the Birthday Boys just sort of gathered around him and were like, “Hey Dana what was it like when you met Sir Paul McCartney?”
You guys also had Fabio on the first episode of the new season.
Mike: Same thing: you meet him and the next thing you know you’re singing Beatles songs and he’s doing George Bush impressions. All our guests did the same thing they walked out of their car and launched into a George Bush impression [laughs].
We’re kind of now in a revitalization of the sketch comedy scene, which I think a lot of people have pointed out. Where do you guys think that is coming from and where do you guys see yourself in it?
Tim: I think it’s a result of the Internet. Ten years ago suddenly everyone had access to making a sketch and I think that, while we’re a TV show and the boom is happening now in sketch comedy, I think it just came through revitalization of sketch as a form that people were more interested in, because it was at everybody’s fingertips. Then we kind of circled back around where now you can do it professionally again. For a while you just couldn’t make a living doing it.
Jeff: I think that the streaming culture has taken off now. Like, people had Netflix a couple of years ago but I remember when they were like still sending the discs around. And now that it’s just straight streaming I think it’s changed the way people consume TV and I think that benefits all the different sketch shows. Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think there’s just this awareness of UCB, for example. Like, when I was a kid I knew SNL, but I vaguely knew about Second City. I liked Kids in the Hall, but I wasn’t aware of institutions then the way that I think people are now aware of UCB as a Petri dish for SNL or The Groundlings and so on. There are these schools of thought that are in the public consciousness and they weren’t for a while.
Mike: Like we got in at UCB LA the last month you could start there before it really kind of blew up. We weren’t the first people around when the theatre opened but we were in the first year taking classes and if we were just starting up now we could have never gotten the stage time we were able to get.
Jeff: It was just before the thousand-person Harold auditions started in LA.
Tim: Then as far as our place in the sketch comedy boom, we feel really happy and lucky to be a sketch group on TV that is a pre-formed group like Monty Python or The Kids in the Hall, where we got to be a group like that. Portlandia did a really cool thing where they chose their world where they’re going to do their characters in, or the Kroll Show where it’s different facets of mixed-personality performances. I think, for us, we’re doing the group thing where I think people who watched season one will watch season two and be like, “Oh this is what this specific group of guys thinks is funny.” And because there are so many sketch shows on TV, you don’t have to adhere to any rules of sketch comedy as a whole. We could just write more sketches that are more and more Birthday Boys-ish, and not worry about how they fit into the world because the world has plenty of sketch in it.
And you’ve really developed a great voice over the course of the first season.
Tim: Yeah, we tend to enjoy making very grand statements about very stupid things, and creating something small and giving it the biggest cinematic value or production value we can. I think that’s a big part of our thing: it’s funny for us to waste people’s time.
Mike: That’s the thing that makes us laugh the most. Whether it’s – we’ve just done stupid jokes to keep it going where it’s literally time being wasted but I think also this season what got us really excited was to have sort of a thesis statement that comes out and by the end of an episode you learn the moral and it’s an awful moral and you’re like, “Why did these guys choose to do that?” The moral of episode one in season two is to stay with your own kind.
Jeff: Don’t aspire to be anything…
Mike: Yeah don’t aspire to be anything in mixed groups of people and we slowly, slowly ease into that, and you leave the episode almost as if we thought that was a sweet thought.
Tim: And the joke tends to be to that the people making the show, us, are dumb. So the show maker is being so stupid that he has made a whole episode and this is his big, dumb thesis at the end.
What do you want to get most out of in season two?
Tim: I think the episodes as a whole I think that was fun for us in season one and we went crazy with it this year where we feel that each one of these episodes is like a movie. It’s not just sketch comedy with a bunch of different concepts in it; they feel so complete to us. Our secret hope is that our viewers at home notice the completeness of these episodes. We’ve put in so many hours over things that most people would not care about but to us we feel that certain episodes this season are very whole.
Jeff: I think I can speak for the group when I say that it’s totally creatively fulfilling this season, like even more so than last season. I think that what we’re looking for is our audience to find it. The first season being on Netflix was really encouraging and reassuring and got people to be aware of the show.
What are the strangest reactions you’ve had to your first season?
Tim: If you look on Netflix in the user reviews, the top user review that comes up and has the most likes was a person who started watching the show because they thought it was going to be a show about birthdays and brotherhood and at first they were disappointed but then they liked the show. That is it: there was somebody who started watching our show because they wanted to see birthdays and then ended up liking our content.
Mike: A really funny response on Twitter was “This show is great and it’s because you guys are such great actors.” I don’t think you’re seeing the same show.
Tim: They couldn’t believe how many voices we could do and I think I maybe did one voice for two whole seasons.
Jeff: There are YouTube videos where people do an astounding amount of voices. You can be impressed by that sort of thing, that’s just not our show.
So, last point: you guys are from Ithaca and I thought it would be worth mentioning that I myself am from Binghamton. It’s great to see people from upstate New York out in the world.
Tim: [Laughs] You know what’s funny? I’ve never met somebody from Binghamton; do you know what spiedies are? Is that like a food thing?
Spiedies! Yeah. They’re little chunks of marinated meat on skewers wrapped in bread.
Tim: Do you know why that would be a Binghamton thing? Because I ate it one time and I thought it tasted like Greek food and I wondered why it’s a central New York thing.
It’s a Southern Italian food, there were a lot of immigrants from Southern Italy in central New York.
Tim: Was it just some guy from Binghamton named “Speedy?”
Spiedini are the original Italian version. We’ve learned so much in this interview.
Tim: Thanks for clearing that up; I’ve been having a really hard time with that.
Mike: It’s been a great interview thanks bye [laughs].
Have the rest of you guys ever had spiedies?
Tim: I had one at a fair or something in Ithaca. I tasted it once and I’ve just heard about it since then. If you have any recommendations of where in Binghamton I should to get spiedies, I’m there.
Mike: So, wait spiedies isn’t a brand, it’s a thing? Like a hamburger?
Yeah, it’s a just a general food. They’re called spiedies, but Lupo’s has some of the best.
Tim:Well I’m going to go there. Personally I haven’t been back to Ithaca since we graduated, but some of these guys got to go and do a panel there and I’m from the Woodstock area, so if we’re ever back in the area I’m going to swing by Binghamton and go to Lupo’s.
Unofficial plug for Lupo’s.
Tim: No, let’s make it official: this is an official plug for Lupo’s.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.