With clout of “Breaking Bad” star, sketch comedy troupe launches IFC show

Sketch comedy show "The Birthday Boys" premieres Friday night on IFC. Photo courtesy of IFC.
Sketch comedy show “The Birthday Boys” premieres Friday night on IFC. Photo courtesy of IFC.

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Matt Maresca.

A sketch comedy group that originated at improv mecca Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre, “The Birthday Boys” are making a name for themselves among bigtime comedy stars. Discovered by Bob Odenkirk, otherwise known as Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad,” and Ben Stiller, the crew’s “The Birthday Boys” show premieres Oct. 18 at 10:30 p.m. on IFC.

The Hatchet spoke with actors Chris VanArtsdalen, Dave Ferguson and Jefferson Dutton about their comedic process, Steve Jobs and working with Odenkirk.

Hatchet: The show structure features an overarching storyline interwoven with shorter sketches and subplots. How do you create and structure these ideas into episodes?

Chris: We try to create a cohesive experience, we make a lot of use of runners and callbacks to try and add a sense of momentum to a sketch show and a sense of interconnectivity.  Bob (Odenkirk) has been no stranger to that on “Mr. Show” and such, so it was something that we tweaked a little for television but we were really striving to make it a rewarding half hour experience versus something you can chop up for the internet.

The show often pokes fun at cultural icons, such as Steve Jobs and Apple in the first episode. Is this a goal of the show?

Dave: There is a general desire that I think Bob helped reawaken in us, not that we were oblivious to it, to at least be relevant, and for us actually that relevancy rarely takes the form of pop culture or contemporary references. So the topicality of that skit in particular was kinda coincidental, we didn’t set out to say “What’s our Steve Jobs take?” we set out to have fun with the general era and tone and characteristics of the early inventors of the computer which happens to be relevant right now because of Steve Jobs, but is really something that is kinda timeless.

Chris:  We try to avoid things that are too pop culture, kind of like Dave was saying. We know that they’ll be irrelevant and not that funny in just a few months time so in general we try to stick to things that are timeless I would say.

When I was watching the show, I was reminded of “Monty Python.”  How did this and other sketch comedy shows influence “The Birthday Boys”?

Dave: We love everything on PBS and the History Channel (laughs). No, we love “Monty Python”. I think there’s a shared experience of being fans of “Mr. Show” and “Monty Python” and “Kids in the Hall” and “The State” that affects anybody who does sketch comedy because that’s where the torch was being passed as far as ensemble sketch comedy shows; there’s just not that many of them. But overtly, yeah, “Monty Python” specifically is a really fond reference point for us because the structure of it is still really applicable for what we do and, yeah, it’s super relevant.

Chris: And they got to do movies.

Jeff:  Definitely big fans of “Saturday Night Live” as well of course which is why it was so awesome to work with Bob Odenkirk who started at “Saturday Night Live” and then obviously made the best sketch show of all time which is “Mr. Show,” so it’s, like, freaking incredible to be able to work with him.

Talk a little bit more about working with Bob Odenkirk.

Dave:  Yeah uh, he beats the shit out of us. He’s so physically violent and he puts us through physical regiments that I’ve never experienced in my life and you know I played sports in high school. I think we’ve all lost 30 or 40 pounds; we look as good as we’re ever going to look. I’m worried about (actor Michael) Hanford — he doesn’t have 30 pounds to lose, he’s gonna start losing bone (laughs).

Jeff:  You could measure Hanford with a large ruler.

Dave:  And comedically Bob’s great too, I guess we shouldn’t leave that out. He’s generally great about protecting our voice, making sure we’re doing things for the right reasons. But he also doesn’t just sit back with a hands-off approach. He’s in the edits, he directed a bunch of the sketches, hes in every episode, he wrote a bunch of the sketches. He’s a birthday boy.

What do you each think college students will enjoy about the show?

Jeff:  I think college students will enjoy making drinking games out of the show.  Every time you see a bald guy on the screen —  which is me — that’s a shot.  Every time you see Dave you have to chug a beer.  I think that’s probably the most relevant application of the show (laughs.) I think it’s the type of show that we would have wanted to watch.  There’s a great thing happening now with sketch comedy, not just that it’s becoming more prevalent again on television but on a national stage. Whether it’s because of YouTube stuff and online videos or things like that, people already understand the format and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to go out and try to make funny ideas.  So hopefully we’re connecting with a group of people at college that share our interests.

Chris:  I think they’re going to have a lot of fun with the sketches.  We weren’t trying to satirize anything too seriously, we were just trying to make dumb stuff that made us laugh.  We have one sketch where we wipe a cow’s butt, so I think that gives an idea of the level of silliness we’re dealing with here.

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