An Interview with The Birthday Boys‘ Mike Hanford, Dave Ferguson, and Chris VanArtsdalen
In case you don’t already know the Birthday Boys, let’s introduce you! That is them in the picture (minus Bob Odenkirk). The Birthday Boys are a seven-person sketch comedy group that have been making web videos and performing live together for years. Their new original sketch series, produced with and also starring Odenkirk, premieres on IFC on October 18th at 10:30 EST, after Comedy Bang Bang. You don’t have to wait, though — the show’s eighth episode, “Skewered” is streaming on IFC’s website right now. Go watch it! But first, an interview: We recently got the chance to talk with Mike Hanford, David Ferguson, and Chris VanArtsdalen, three of the seven Birthday Boys, about Abraham Lincoln, cows’ butts, and sketch comedy.
VIDEOGUM: How did The Birthday Boys meet?
DAVE: Six of the seven members went to Ithaca College in upstate New York, and we knew each other just as friends in various pairings. We never hung together as a group until we moved to Los Angeles. When we graduated we ended up living in a house together in North Hollywood.
MIKE: Some of us knew each other from film classes, some from TV classes at Ithaca College, and we moved out here all at the same time, got into performing comedy together, and formed a group.
CHRIS: The only member that didn’t go to Ithaca is Matt Kowalick, and we met him in Improv 101 at UCB Theater.
VIDEOGUM: When did you guys decide to start writing and performing sketch together?
DAVE: I think it was around 2006, we started doing this show at UCB Theater called Not Too Shabby, which is an open mic/sketch show. At the time it was hosted by Paul Rust and Neil Campbell. We started doing sketches there, one thing led to another, and we eventually got a monthly show at UCB.
MIKE: We would do new sketches each month, a brand new 30-minute show.
VIDEOGUM: What characteristics are most important to you when it comes to working as a team?
DAVE: I’m a proponent for stupidity.
MIKE: And willingness to sit around and tell the same jokes for a long time until it’s right.
DAVE: Yeah, I think we have a long tradition of, whenever there’s a conflict in the group, we just talk and talk and talk until it’s resolved. We try resisting the urge to walk out of the room, and try to discuss until it’s settled. Our general sense of collaboration started from finding the same types of things funny. I think that’s something we couldn’t learn or discover any other way than just through the organic process of spending a lot of time together. I think it helps a lot that we knew each other before we were trying to create comedy together, being friends and roommates first. We like to say that we are former friends turned sketch comedy group.
VIDEOGUM: Who are your biggest inspirations in terms of sketch and comedy in general?
DAVE: Abraham Lincoln.
MIKE: We all thought his hat was so funny that we wanted to do something funny like that.
DAVE: It’s so tall.
MIKE: It’s obnoxiously tall.
CHRIS: We go for disproportion, which is a big part of comedy, as you know from watching a lot of great online videos. And then…
DAVE: Then pretty much any of the four fathers.
MIKE: More recently, Oogieloves has made us laugh a lot…
DAVE: And then Bob [Odenkirk], and that’s it. The weird thing about our group is we only have three influences: the four fathers, Oogieloves, and Bob Odenkirk. And we got to work with one of them, which is all you can ask for.
CHRIS: I will say, completely unrelated to our influences, we do watch a lot of Monty Python, and we probably watched the same Saturday morning cartoons, but I refuse to acknowledge that those had influences on our comedy show.
MIKE: We watched them, but we–
CHRIS: –We were never influenced by them.
VIDEOGUM: How did you guys get involved with Bob?
CHRIS: We started working with Bob out here in Los Angeles after a couple years of doing live comedy at Upright Citizen’s Brigade and around town. His wife Naomi is a manger herself, and he and Naomi are always looking for talents for this show they do every New Year’s called the Not Inappropriate Show, which is an all ages show at Second City, UCB, and around the country. They had seen some of our material and responded well to it, so the first time we ever performed with him was for that show. The connection just grew upon that. We started talking to him about sketch comedy, he started making little appearances in our shows, we started writing with him, we started putting a show together with him for the stage, and finally, we started talking to him about what a sketch show might be like for our group combined with him.
DAVE: That was a couple of years back already, so it has been a really fun, organic process. It’s not like all of a sudden The Birthday Boys woke up and had an IFC show with Bob Odenkirk and had to figure out how to work together. He was already attuned to our sensibility and we had collaborated on some fun stuff around town.
VIDEOGUM: So it wasn’t challenging at all to add him to the group for the show?
DAVE: Man, I wonder what he would say. I think one of the things about the group is that we do have a common voice and we tend to agree on what we find funny, so instead of having to have fights with seven individual actors, he just has to have occasional conversations with a unified group, which I think lessens the back and forth and the hemming and hawing. We have a shared sensibility with him comedically, too.
CHRIS: I think we all grew up watching Mr. Show, even though it wasn’t one of our influences. [Laughs] We love his work so much that it’s almost like we share his sensibility, I like to think. Most of the time we generally find the same things funny. It’s not too hard to work together; we just pitch jokes until we’re all laughing, and then we run with it.
DAVE: What ends up happening is the collaboration works great, and then one day you’ll find yourself talking for three hours about whether some character’s coat should be yellow or blue. The conversations will often begin to shift to details because they’re little things that made you laugh, which is a lot more fun to pitch on and discuss than when you have a totally different concept of what works for you.
MIKE: And spoiler alert: the coat is yellow. Don’t print that, please.
VIDEOGUM: What are the biggest differences in preparing for the IFC show compared to web videos and live shows? Besides Bob working with you.
DAVE: I think scope is a big thing. When we were on a timeline making a video for the Internet and for our own benefit and laughs, or making a show for UCB, your timeline was whatever you set it to be. Once a network says, “We want ten episodes of your show by this date,” there’s a new sense of urgency to the writing and creating process, which, if anything, is a positive, because it forces you to make decisions, get creative, and solve problems in a more focused way, and not let them linger until the project loses its excitement. The cool thing about this is that it’s been a head-spinning experience of work, but never of boredom-work — waiting around to see how something will turn out. We’re just constantly working on the next thing. We’re gonna go right back into editing today, until well into the night, which is great, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
CHRIS: It’s also fun to have more resources at our disposal. We have a sketch coming up where we wipe a cow’s butt, and it’s kind of great to say to a producer, “Hey we need a cow so we can wipe its butt,” and they go, “Okay, we’ll get one for you.”
MIKE: Once again, spoiler: it’s a dairy cow.
DAVE: Working on a cable show means working with a crew. It’s not an extravagant crew; we kept things at a scope that we were comfortable with, and that let us be mobile and run around town to pick up shots and be kind of guerrilla about the whole process. But the logistics of executing our big ideas is just so much more feasible when you’re planning for a 10-episode season.
VIDEOGUM: I’ve watched the first two episodes, and I feel like the show’s tone matches pretty well with that of the web videos. Have you noticed any change in tone in transferring to a new medium?
DAVE: I think we’d agree as a whole that the coolest thing about working with IFC is that they’re pretty supportive of not only new voices, but also just the artistic vision of whether it be Bob and us, or us and Bob. I do feel like it’s pretty true to our voice, and the show in general.
CHRIS: I think we really were able to maintain the tone from our web videos. If anything is difficult about making a TV show, it’s that we can’t always use the songs that we’d like. We have to use stock music instead of just using any song under the sun. That’s really the biggest change.
DAVE: And even that became an opportunity, in the sense that we began to work with this composer Eban Schletter, who’s our music guru and who’s done music for Mr. Show and hosts of other projects. So even then, it gives us opportunity to get creative and come up with different angles on things. I think what Chris said earlier, maybe the one difference is that there is a little bit of a polish to the concepts, because we can be a little more ambitious about what we take on — but it’s always in reason. A lot of times we get asked if we’re going to do things that we did in our live show, ideas that we’ve done over the years at UCB, and the answer is, “sometimes yes, sometimes no.” We pretty much make those decisions based on what we think would translate well to film and TV rather than just arbitrarily picking something because it’ll get a big laugh.
CHRIS: I think a lot of our style has remained intact. We had a web video called “Pooljumpers” that was basically a fake documentary, and we have a handful of sketches in the show this season that are that same documentary format, or retro footage format. We like doing stuff that takes place in the early ’80s, or ’20s, or some different time period. We’ve still maintained our love of that sort of style.
DAVE: Genre work.
DAVE: I think maybe the most exciting thing is when you make a one-off web video, you’re not thinking about what comes before or after it. Specifically in regard to the difference between a one-off video and a show is that the show has something that holds it together. We can explore a larger idea or we can find something that goes across two sketches or that calls something back, whereas if you’re making a three-minute, or, even better for the Internet, two-minute idea, you’re not rewarded for those kinds of choices.
VIDEOGUM: IFC’s two current sketch shows each focus on and parody a specific subculture and television genre which makes each one a little bit easier to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it, whereas yours is kind of standalone. How would you describe your show to someone who hasn’t seen it?
DAVE: That’s a really apt observation. I think that’s the challenge of the show. Bob has said before that true sketch shows — meaning sketch shows that aren’t packaged or boxed by a hook — are hard to market, and hard to explain to people. I think what we usually lead with is a fun, shared sensibility that only comes around every once in a while, because there aren’t very many ensemble shows. When you think back to, even not going too far back, to Human Giant or Kids in the Hall, or even Mr. Show, what you’re really buying into is that group or that duo’s sensibility, and our sensibility is usually a high-energy, fun, inclusive tone that pervades into some big genre, high-concept sketch comedy. That’s what we lead with. We’re comedians that love fun, big ideas, and fun, silly performances.
MIKE: Big silliness done cinematically.
CHRIS: Big stupid ideas done intelligently, or big intelligent ideas done stupidly.
MIKE: Oh, how about this one? “Big silly ideas disguised cinematically.”
DAVE: Another unique thing here is Bob Odenkirk’s return to sketch comedy. He probably has been asked if there’s any chance of a Mr. Show reunion, and for us it’s a chance to give Bob a forum for his ideas — to both influence our comedy and do his own sketches. The coolest thing about our show is that there are sketches that Bob flat-out wrote — ideas that he had, put down on paper, and passed amongst the group, and we collaborated on. It’s a cool, unique opportunity for that.
CHRIS: Bob is actually in every single episode. He really has a big footprint on this show. He acts, he produced, he wrote, like Dave said, he directed. He’s a really big part of the show.
VIDEOGUM: Do you guys have any favorite sketches from the show that you can talk about?
MIKE: Here’s one I like. It’s called “Seven Brothers Brewery,” where the seven of us own and operate a brewery, and the hook is that we just swim in the beer. We fall in the beer all the time and drink it. It was a lot of fun to shoot because we got to do that, and I’m looking forward to people seeing it.
DAVE: In an era of craft brewery and craft food, where everybody talks about how close we get to the ingredients, the care taking and handmade process, these guys take it a little too far and spend too much time in their process. It’s kind of a big idea, but [sketches like this] were based on truths, so they stand out for us as performers and creators of content.
CHRIS: Another one of my favorite sketches is “First Teen Movie.” We imagine what a teen movie like American Pie would be like if it were made in the 1940s. So essentially it’s a teen movie in black and white, and it’s about kids in college, but instead of trying to get laid, they’re just going on walks with each other. Very conservative.
DAVE: And then we had a lot of fun collaborating with Ben Stiller, another executive producer on the show. We did a sketch where he’s one of the pioneers of modern heavy rock, and he talks about his influences, and those influences are silly folk songs from the Dust Bowl about crickets and bugs jumping on people. It’s such an amazing opportunity to work with these super high-caliber people like Bob and Ben in the context of sheer silly fun character work.
VIDEOGUM: So you guys are going on tour with Comedy Bang Bang. Have you guys been on tour before?
DAVE: We haven’t done a multi-city tour but we’ve done a lot of festivals. We played the Montreal Just for Laughs festival a couple years back, we’ve done San Francisco both by ourselves and with Bob, we’ve done some shows in New York and Chicago and Seattle, sporadically. One of the things we’re looking forward to is doing material night after night, and having fun with it, playing with the form. Opening up for Paul F. Tompkins and Scott [Aukerman] is just a fun opportunity because fans of those guys share so much in common with us, sensibility-wise, we hope. It’s a fun opportunity to play to a new audience that’s probably predisposed to some of material. We can’t wait. It’s a really great reflection of the pairing that will happen on IFC when we premiere on the 18th. It’s just a very natural partnership between Birthday Boys and Bang Bang. Three of us actually write for Comedy Bang Bang, a couple of the guys have directed web content for the show. There’s a nice handoff of sensibility, and yet they’re such different shows that have different areas to explore and formats to come from. It should be a lot of fun.
MIKE: Also, we’re using the tour as a really great opportunity to beef up our postcard collection. The Birthday Boys have a postcard collection, and any city we go to we just want to have them. This is gonna be really great.
DAVE: We added a couple spots on the tour, there’s no venue to play at or anything but we just picked them because we’ve heard about their postcards.
[Ed. Note: Jenny Nelson is a writer, student, and -- most importantly -- Videogum intern.]