Is IFC’s The Birthday Boys hilarious and weird and wonderful, or do I just miss HBO’s great, long-ago-canceled sketch classic Mr. Show With Bob and David?
Probably the latter. But I’ll take it anyway.
Bob Odenkirk, who co-created Mr. Show with David Cross (and more recently played Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad), executive-produces the half-hour Birthday Boys along with one-time sketch-comedy whiz Ben Stiller, among others. Like the fitfully brilliant nineties sketch programs Odenkirk and Stiller helped shape, the troupe takes its structural cues from Monty Python’s Flying Circus rather than Saturday Night Live — by which I mean the sketches aren’t neat and self-contained, with easily delineated beginnings, middles, and ends. One bit will just sort of bleed into another, and you’re not always entirely sure where one ended and another picked up.
The Birthday Boys also borrows Monty Python’s sketch-as-running-gag gag, where they’ll keep returning again and again to a particular bit — such as a “WTF, why am I watching this, this isn’t even that funny” documentary in tonight’s premiere about a bunch of late-seventies computer geeks working on stuff in their garage. As it turns out, the technology is meaningless; what really excites them and their unseen documentarians are the marginal, lifestyle-related touches, such as hanging a tennis ball from the ceiling near the back of the garage so that people know how far they can pull a car in. To hear the documentary subjects discuss this, you’d think they’d invented the microprocessor.
The more frequently Birthday Boys returns to seemingly unfunny or barely funny bits, the funnier they eventually become — another Python borrowing, and a good one. The show also has a knack for little Easter-egg-type bits, buried within other bits. Next week’s episode starts with the first in a long-running, twisty-turning thing about “goofy roofers,” but there’s a marvelous little moment in the opening that cuts from the roofers, who are surreally clowning atop a house, to the homeowner (Odenkirk) downstairs watching TV. The show is an apparently dreadful sitcom titled Moms With Kids. “I can’t be pregnant!” the main character screams into a phone. “I’m a big-time marketing executive in New York City!” The laugh track goes wild.
The Birthday Boys are Mike Hanford, Matt Kowalick, Jefferson Dutton, Tim Kalpakis, Chris VanArtsdalen, Mike Mitchell, and Dave Ferguson, all protégés of Odenkirk who have performed with him in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I was ready to make a bunch of jokes about how, despite their solid comic timing and fearlessness about nudity, they’re not easy to distinguish from each other — but then I clicked on IFC’s bio page and saw they’d beaten wiseacres like me to the punch. Castmember Jefferson Davis’s entry says, “Jeff has blond hair, but not as blonde as Dave’s.” Dave Ferguson’s bio directly beneath says. “Dave is not Mike.” Well played, Birthday Boys, well played.