In 2013, we saw something of a sketch comedy boom, as shows like Key & Peele, Kroll Show, Comedy Bang Bang, Nathan For You, Inside Amy Schumer, and more proved that sketch comedy is not just the purview of venerable series like SNL. IFC, in particular, has been spearheading this movement, and one of the best new shows to result from it is The Birthday Boys. Executive produced by and co-starring Bob Odenkirk, The Birthday Boys takes the eponymous sketch group’s unique sensibilities and lets them construct smart, riotously funny sketches that evoke, fittingly, forebears like Mr. Show.
It was also fitting that I caught up with three members of the group – Jefferson Dutton, Matt Kowalick, and Chris VanArtsdalen – around the corner from Los Angeles’ Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, which is where the group got their start and eventually met their IFC co-conspirator Odenkirk. Before they took the stage this weekend at the Riot LA festival, I talked with the guys about how their comedy has changed over time, how they went from UCB sketch comedy show to television, and their advice to other looking to break in to comedy.
Nerdist: So how stoked are you for Riot LA? What have you got in store?
Matt Kowalick: It’ll probably be some sort of combination of the show we were doing on the tour, and then other old sketches that we want to do.
Jefferson Dutton: Originally it was billed as a Q&A, and we weren’t comfortable charging money for a Q&A.
MK: Yeah, yeah.
JD: We’d rather do the comedy — a lot of it. I think the venue we’re in is more of a theater than, like, more of a movie theater with a screen, versus a black box theater, so we’re trying to tailor the material to that sort of venue. Not a lot of changes, a lot of more directly-addressing the audience.
JD: But still, it’s from the UCB show, and maybe some stuff from the IFC show.
Chris VanArtsdalen: We’ll probably show some of our favorite videos, too.
MK: We have some videos that aren’t online.
N: Sure, sure. I feel like that’s the best opportunity to sort of do a “best of,” because people are paying for this festival atmosphere. Obviously you want new stuff as well too.
MK and JD: Yeah.
N: But sometimes you want “Birthday Boys Sings the Hits.”
MK: Yeah, yeah.
CVA: And if people want a Q&A, we’ll be hanging out afterwards so people can come up and ask us questions.
N: $20 a question?
CVA: Sure! [laughs]
N: That’s where the big bucks are in comedy!
MK: Buy a shirt, we’ll answer a question.
JD: We have shirts, too.
MK: Do we still have shirts left?
JD: We do.
N: You heard it here first. That’s going to be our exclusive.
JD: Three different kinds of shirts. That’s a lot for, you know…
MK: When I said “tour,” I meant the Comedy Bang Bang tour, just for clarification.
N: Yeah, OK. So there was a separate Birthday Boys tour?
MK: No, no, no. We were opening up for Comedy Bang Bang on their fall tour.
N: Well, speaking of Comedy Bang Bang, another show on IFC — you guys have a show on IFC.
MK: True. [chuckles]
JD: Yes, indeed.
N: How’s the experience been so far? How’s the response been, now that you’re a little bit into it?
MK: It’s been good.
JD: There’s been a lot of good — we live tweet every episode, so we sort of have our finger on the pulse of who is watching and getting involved, and it’s been nice to see that increase. Early on, it was like, “Oh man, we’ve got to get people watching this show!”
MK and CVA: Yeah.
JD: You know, we’ve got our haters for sure.
N: On the internet? [laughter]
JD: But we’ve got converts, as well. We have had people say, “I originally didn’t like this show, and I kept watching, and now I like it.”
MK: Yep! We’ve also had people defending us online.
JD: Yeah, a lot of defenders, too.
CVA: The show has a small audience, but a loyal audience. We’ve got people that seem to be enjoying it, tweeting us, saying they love it, stuff like that.
N: Well that’s good. That’s also the kind of thing you want, especially when you’re a newer show. You want this sort of evangelizing audience, that are going to hopefully turn a lot of other people on to it. You want them going, “Check this video out.”
JD: We’re the 311 of sketch comedy.
N: So you guys are putting on a cruise?
JD: I went to a big 311 school, that was my thing. I was like, nationally, these guys are not a hit, but my high school, for whatever reason…
N: Yeah, I can relate to that. I had an inordinate amount of Juggalos in my high school.
JD: Oh! That’s even worse than 311!
CVA: I can’t say that made it to Pennsylvania.
N: Well, don’t worry. We kept them all trapped in Massachusetts.
JD: Yeah, I was in New Hampshire.
JD: That’s funny.
MK: It’s funny that 311 got to New Hampshire and was big there.
N: I don’t know where they started.
MK: When I was in middle school, I was into that album that had “Down” on it.
N: Oh, yeah.
MK: That was the album.
JD: Hell yeah, it was!
CVA: Well, speaking of Comedy Bang Bang, the reason that the other dudes couldn’t make it today is that they were writing for Comedy Bang Bang.
N: Oh, nice!
MK: And then Mitch is stuck at an airport.
CVA: Yeah, Mitch is on the East Coast and the other 3 dudes are writing for Bang Bang. You got stuck with what I would say are the alphas.
N: I got stuck with the varsity team!
CVA: You’ll be fine.
N: Now that you’ve been doing the show for a little bit, do you approach your live show any different?
MK: We’re just getting back into doing the live show.
JD: We’ve done it twice.
MK: Yeah. But I think we’re just doing sketches how we’ve always done sketches. If we get make it for TV one day, then we’ll deal with it then, but we’re doing what we’ve always done.
CVA: We still use the live show to test new stuff, see what works, see what doesn’t. Basically just have fun with it. It seems like it’s there’s less pressure in the live show now.
JD: Thank god.
MK: Because we have videos at the ready! [chuckles] Usually, the problem was not having videos.
N: So you have to try to generate enough content every time?
CVA: Yeah, for, like, five years the live show was like…
JD: The thing.
CVA: This was going to be our shot: “What if the agent is here who’s going to change our lives?”
N: Of course.
CVA: But now it’s just more of a fun thing. We still approach it the same way.
N: Yeah, yeah. But that’s nice, though, now that the pressure is lifted off. I feel like you might be able to have more fun with it.
CVA: Yeah. Well, we’re actually doing a live show on Wednesday.
N: Over at UCB?
CVA: That’s probably going to be our monthly show.
JD: We’re probably doing some warming up some stuff for Riot…
N: Oh, nice. I can imagine that would be a good testing ground for…
JD: …that sort of thing.
MK: And San Fran, because we’re doing the San Francisco Sketchfest…
N: Oh, nice!
MK: …at the beginning of February. The first weekend of February.
CVA: February 1st.
N: Oh, yeah?
JD: At the Brava Theater. That’s bigger than the other theater that we used to play at. The other theater was pretty big, so I’m excited to see about that.
CVA: We’re MOST excited about Riot.
N: Yes, yes—of course, of course.
JD: Let’s double underline.
N: I will bold that in the interview. So I want to go back into a little bit of history here. How did you guys first form the group? How did you come together?
MK: Some of the guys—most of the guys knew each other in college, then they all moved out here and I met them all at an Improv 101 class.
N: At UCB?
CVA: Yeah. Six of us, other than Matt went to college together, all moved out together in 2006, so, fuckin’ 8 years ago now or something like that. A long time.
JD: We were rudderless for a good year, at least, before we started doing stuff — started seeing stuff in the theater, and then we took up the classes. But UCB was sort of the petri dish for many years.
CVA: We started doing the live—the open mic sketch show at UCB, Not Too Shabby, on Friday nights, which at the time was hosted by Neil Campbell and Paul Rust–great guys, they kind of showed us the ropes, eventually gave us a monthly show there. From there, we met Bob Odenkirk years later, did a couple of live shows with him around town that we wrote with him, eventually pitched the show to IFC, and they bought it. That’s that.
N: Awesome! How did Bob get involved in the process originally? Was it a chance meeting?
CVA: Yeah, it was. His wife, Naomi, was a manager. She had seen a couple of our shows, was familiar with us. She does a show called the Not Inappropriate Show every year, which is like a…
N: Gotcha, yeah, it’s like a…
CVA: Yeah. We did a sketch in that one year, which Bob was also doing a sketch in. So Tim, the guy who wrote the sketch — Tim Kalpakis was actually talking to Bob backstage, and Bob was saying, “Great sketch! We would have done it a little differently on Mr. Show.” And right as he was about to say what he would have done differently, he got pulled away to do something else. So Tim was back there saying, “I wish I had known what he was going to say!” Ended up e-mailing Bob, and asking him, “What would you have done with the sketch?” That ignited this conversation, which eventually led to Tim and Mike Hanford doing some live stuff with Bob in another group he had, called Gentleman’s Club.
CVA: And then from there that went well, so we all ended up doing a live show called Heroic Man with Bob and The Birthday Boys, and then another one called Seven Man Sweater.
JD: Those were at the Steve Allen Theater.
N: Oh, cool.
JD: Bob wanted to make our collaboration be something distinctly different from our monthly slot at UCB. They were also bigger shows—they were hour longs—but that was fantastic to do live stuff with Bob.
N: Yeah, I can imagine!
JD: For a packed house.
MK: With specific videos for that show with Bob, which was a lot of fun.
JD: It was like the germ of our IFC show.
N: How would you say how collaborating with him has impacted how you approach your writing?
MK: I think it just makes us better, stronger writers. I think we’re coming in with stronger ideas, because we have to present them to Bob! There’s a little pressure there. I want this to at least be good or something. Also he really stresses character motivation, even in sketch, and I think that’s something that we’ve kind of… like, “OK, what makes this guy tick?” We lean on that some in a sketch, to another level.
CVA: A lot of times he’ll also take a sketch idea and twist it into crazy new directions you wouldn’t have thought of, like a lot of the way that on Mr. Show, they took a sketch that would ramble into a new scene and then another scene, you know how things would connect.
CVA: He showed us how to do that a bit in our show, where one idea would sort of spiral into different scenes and different arenas, which is great.
JD: Yeah, the mutating…
JD: …aspect of it, is something that we didn’t really do before.
N: Making one sketch bleed into another?
JD: And let’s be honest: if we had done that without Bob Odenkirk, people would have been calling us a Mr. Show ripoff!
MK [unison with JD]: “Mr. Show Ripoff!” [laughter]
JD: That’s something legit that we can — we have license to do now that he’s…
N: [chuckles] Gotcha! As long as there’s one member of Mr. Show, it’s OK!
CVA: He’s also such a great actor. I mean, he comes up with a lot of good acting direction that we never would have thought of.
MK: Yeah, shooting there’s a lot of different angles and ideas coming from him, too, like writing on the spot.
JD: He’ll encourage improv — he’ll push it out of you a little bit and stuff. Our show isn’t very improvised. Bob does, because he’s Bob. A lot of times we punish ourselves over these scripts. We don’t wing it when we get on the set.
N: Yeah, especially if you’ve spent enough time on it, then it’s like, “Listen, we wrote this bloody script, let’s just do our funny script.”
JD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
N: I mean, I know there’s a time and place, because a sometimes stuff isn’t landing.
CVA: Of course. I’d say probably 5% of the show is improvised.
JD: Yeah, truly.
CVA: A little bit. A line here or there.
N: Well, a big section of our audience is aspiring creative types, so having been able to transform a group of friends who met in an improv class into a sketch comedy TV show — was there something you learned along the way? A piece of advice, anything you would impart to someone looking to embark down the same path?
JD: Yeah. I would say A, it takes longer than you think, and B, live together if you can. [chuckles]
CVA: Yeah. [chuckles] A lot of us used to live in a big house together in Studio City, and that was great, to just be able to roll out of bed and be able to start working on ideas.
MK: And also just make it and do it, don’t talk about it. You know, that’s the big thing, have something to show, actually do what you say you want to do.
N: Don’t just have a notebook full of joke ideas?
MK: Right. Yeah. See if it works. It doesn’t hurt anything.
CVA: Don’t get discouraged by ideas that fail, because part of doing live comedy is just the failure aspect, so you’ve got to get out there and try.
MK: It’s live, fellas!! [chuckles] And ladies!
N: I just assumed it was like the royal “fellas,” so it was all gender-inclusive.
N: There you go!
MK: Now you make it seem masculine.
N: I’ve just got one last question for you guys, and it’s a bit of an oddball, so bear with me: What would be inside your ideal burrito?
CVA: Oh, baby!
MK: I like French fries, like the California burrito.
CVA: I’d have to start probably with carne asada. Is that the best?
JD: I think so.
N: Only you know the answer.
JD: I think I have the right answer to this question: A bar of 24K gold.
N: You are not the first person to say that! I always love that response. [laughter] It’s a pretty soft metal. You’d probably have to ask them to heat it up a little.
JD: You don’t have to eat it. You just ask.
N: I could see someone unwrapping a little tortilla present.
JD: It’s about the size. I’ve never seen a real bar of gold, but I can assume, from cartoons, that they’re the size of burritos.
MK: Yeah, Fort Knox is just a bunch of burrito-sized gold bricks. I guess it determines what our dollar is worth.
N: We’ve been off the gold standard for a minute now.
JD: It’s the internet now.
N: Now we’re pegged to Bitcoin and retweets.
MK: Retweets are worth their weight in gold!
CVA: I would still rather have pork belly in my burrito, if I have to answer the question.
N: You could have some gold flake on top. Tasteless, odorless gold.
CVA: That’s true.
N: The restaurant that I used to work at would put that on top of one of their sushi rolls.
MK: Gold flake?
JD: Wait — is gold flake also what’s in Goldschlager?
JD: And you can drink it?
N: You can eat it and drink it. It is gold.
MK: And it’s a metal and it doesn’t cut up your insides?
N: It’s thin enough. It’s malleable enough.
MK: Malleable metal!
N: Yeah, exactly.
JD: It’s a little too high falutin’ for me. It’s a waste.
N: I prefer old fashioned cubic zirconia.
JD: Yeah, really. Just give me a fake diamond.
You can catch The Birthday Boys at Riot LA this Sunday at 5 p.m. PST, and check out The Birthday Boys on IFC.