The Birthday Boys' team approach to getting laughs
By Gina Piccalo For Los Angeles Times.
May 11, 2010
Comedy Pipeline: A seven-member sketch troupe looks to break into the mainstream.
Series: One in a series of occasional articles about how alternative comedy is fueling Hollywood.
On a recent weekday evening, after they'd all been mercifully released from their day jobs, seven clean-cut young men, a.k.a. the Birthday Boys, a popular local sketch comedy troupe, lounged on the worn couches that line their living room-cum-production studio and took turns cracking one another up.
It didn't take much, really — these guys know one another so well that they complete one another's one-liners. All but one graduated from the same small liberal arts college in Ithaca, N.Y., about five years ago. They all came to Los Angeles the same summer, crowded into the same Upright Citizens Brigade comedy classes, and five of them moved into this two-story house overlooking Universal City.
Now they're part of that new generation of comedians bred by supportive parents, Adult Swim, YouTube and Zach Galifianakis. And like so many other dreamers out here, they haven't quite cracked the mainstream — it's no easy task booking a seven-member troupe on TV — but in their first 18 months performing together, they landed a spot on Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival, secured high-profile management with Principato-Young and their own half-hour, monthly show at UCB.
"You get the question a lot: 'So do you guys get paid?' " said Dave Ferguson, the group's de facto spokesman, who has a sort of Richie Cunningham buoyancy. "There is no money involved at the work at the [UCB] theater. So it was never a desire to even make it a profession. It was just like, 'We can have an audience to do what we find funny!' "
Los Angeles is thick with throngs of young, sophisticated and tech-savvy comedians like the Birthday Boys, lured as much by the promise of fame and fortune as by the comedy community that thrives after hours in the black-box theaters around town. Sometimes, like the actors and filmmakers struggling alongside them, they try New York or Chicago first. But eventually, they realize the lion's share of the work is in Hollywood. Once they get here, they spend years trying to land some of it.
Here's what it looks like at the bottom of comedy, L.A. style: While driving Paul Rudd to the airport for your boss, you get called to the MTV Movie Awards writers' room. To help craft a bit for Paul Rudd. You miss the chance to be an audience plant on "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" because you were taking lunch orders for the writers and producers of "The Simpsons." And that comedy video you spent your weekend shooting warranted a really nice comment on FunnyorDie.com. From your mother.
"You want to get up on stage and play guitar with Keith Richards," said Mike "Mitch" Mitchell, who's still bummed about missing that O'Brien gig. "You don't want to get him an 8-by-11 envelope. That's the frustrating part."
Holding on to jobs
By day, the Birthday Boys are desk-bound subordinates to folks higher up the Hollywood food chain. Ferguson works for an Imagine Television executive. Chris VanArtsdalen, Jeff Dutton and Mike Hanford work at Buster Design, which produces TV commercials and content for TV shows and Web series. Matt Kowalick is a writers' production assistant at the NBC drama "Mercy." Mitchell works for the producers of the Fox series "The Simpsons." And Tim Kalpakis is a production assistant at James L. Brooks' film and TV production company, Gracie Films.
They dream of landing their own sketch comedy TV show, something in the vein of 1990s-era Canadian sketch TV troupe Kids in the Hall or Bob Odenkirk and David Cross' HBO show "Mr. Show." For now, though, they're living off the adrenaline rush of churning out eight new sketches each month, working them out live on stage every week, shooting videos on the weekends, nailing an occasional audition and writing, writing, writing.
Their material is refreshingly lighthearted. Unlike many of their peers, they veer away from the really dark stuff. Instead, they favor the ridiculous, such as the buddy cop movie spoof, "The Veteran Cop and the Veteran Cop," and "Hottubbin'," one man's pathologically creative reasons why he won't drive a stick shift. Even the name Birthday Boys is grounded in their own kind of silliness. "We wanted something that evoked a stupid sense of fun," Ferguson explains. "And Kids in the Hall was taken."
Nearly all of the Birthday Boys' production happens in their four-bedroom house. The dining room is draped with a giant green screen. Video editing takes place in a bedroom downstairs. Their wardrobe rack is so crowded with Santa Claus suits, ministerial robes and the like that visitors have to squeeze by it just to get inside the front door. A huge cardboard whale fin — left over from a Moby Dick sketch — is conspicuously stashed in another corner. A large dry-erase board listing sketch ideas leans against an oversized security monitor they found on the street and use as a TV.
"We have this stunted development situation," said Ferguson. "We live together. Mike [Hanford] and Jeff live in that room. And then work together. And share an office."
Ferguson himself shares a room with Kalpakis and Kalpakis' library of comedian biographies. VanArtsdalen, the computer animation wizard of the group, shares his room with his video editing hardware. Kowalick and Mitchell don't live there at all, but they're parked on the couch so often they might as well.
On this night, the troupe is working out its next live show, a series of '80s-themed bits with something for everyone: a nun in a miniskirt, a Ferris Bueller reference, a bizarre reimagining of the 1989 dead-guy comedy "Weekend at Bernie's" and one automated "Caddyshack" gopher singing Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright."
"It's always about the unexpected," said "I Love You, Beth Cooper" star Paul Rust, a big fan of the troupe. "I think they're very much a product of growing up with 'The Simpsons' and 'Late Night With Conan O'Brien.' Like if you're going to be silly, be as smart as possible, and if you're going to do smart be as silly as possible."