As college students, The Birthday Boys never imagined they’d have the honor of wiping a cow’s butt or swimming in a pool of beer on national television. But thanks to their new show on IFC, Jefferson Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Matt Kowalick, Mike Mitchell and Chris VanArtsdalen — all but one of whom met at Ithaca College — get to do just that.
The Birthday Boys, which premieres Friday night, is a sketch comedy series by executive producers Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Mr. Show) and Ben Stiller and written and performed by all seven boys in collaboration with Odenkirk.
The boys collective credits include Parks and Recreation, The Office, Portlandia and Funny or Die videos, but it was after moving to Los Angeles eight years ago and performing with the Upright Citizens Brigade that they really fostered their comedic talents. It was there that the boys eventually caught the eye of Odenkirk and began working on the show
“The idea of the show is essentially the sketch group identity committed to videotape and since there’s no real consistent narrative, we just kind of get to do whatever we want, which is a really awesome opportunity,” Dutton said.
The Boys agree that having their own show definitely has its perks, including a budget.
“To be able to get a real cow and actually wipe its butt is something we obviously wouldn’t have been able to afford before we got the show when we were just doing web videos,” said VanArtsdalen, who co-directs the show. “Just in case you didn’t know it cost about half a million dollars to rent a cow.”
Dutton said that having the ability to perform large coordinated stunts — such as jumping off the roof into a pool of beer — was something he appreciated, but there’s also something enjoyable about the simpler productions the group knows well.
“There are some sketches in the show that are done the way that we’ve done sketches for eight years on our own, just hanging out of cars with our own cameras self-shooting, and then there are some sketches where all hands are on deck,” Dutton said. “We have a stunt coordinator and big pads. The big expensive sketches and the totally do-it-yourself sketches are generally the most fun.”
Another change the boys faced was allowing Odenkirk — who appears in all of the season’s episodes — into the fold of the group, but similarities in their sense of humor made the process easy.
“It was such a natural fit for us and once we really started working with Bob and getting in the room with Bob, we saw that we were really laughing at a lot of the same stuff,” VanArtsdalen said.
Dutton said it helped that they all grew up big fans of Odenkirk’s Mr. Show
“We were sort of weaned on Odenkirky humor and as far as him being in a leadership role, it’s actually probably spared us a lot of upsets within the group just to have an outside arbiter who we all respect,” Dutton said. “He was a great presence and he really didn’t try to change who we are.”
Still, there were some things the boys said they had to get used to when coming to TV, including the idea of removing some theatrics which can play well on stage but not on the small screen.
“It took a lot of scrutiny for us to say, “Are we doing this because it’s out of habit, or are we doing this because there is a real TV version of execution that works for us?’” Dutton said.
The show includes bits of older skits but is 90 percent new material, and the boys say most of their ideas come from making fun of stylistic tropes seen in movies. In the first episode, the Birthday Boys poke fun at Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple fame, playing a gang of computer geeks who create a new device in their garage.
“We have a character like Steve Jobs but what we do with a lot of our ideas is start off in that familiar place then spin it off into a weird direction — basically the classic essence of sketch comedy entertainment,” VanArtsdalen said.
One thing the boys still hope to do is find a way to work their successful sketch that uses a live duck as an army lieutenant into the show.
“We’ll crack that nut. We’ll bring that duck and we’ll figure it out,” Dutton said.
“I’m hoping we can do that one in season two,” VanArtsdalen added.
For now, though, the group prides itself on its ability to work together and create comedy out of ideas and themes that people have seen before but can’t always put a finger on.
“The Birthday Boys work together in a really idiosyncratic and democratic way,” Dutton said. “I can’t imagine it would work for other groups but we work the only way we know how and in a way that only we can.”