By BRIAN GORDON
Last Wednesday Jefferson Dutton, Michael Mitchell and Chris VanArtsdalen, three members of IFC’s Birthday Boys, made a trip to Ithaca for a screening of their new sketch comedy show. The Sun was able to sit down with the boys after the screening to talk about comedy, show business and working with Ben Stiller and Bob Odenkirk, two of the show’s producers.
The Sun: How’d the name come about?
The Birthday Boys: We pitched 300 names. Probably more. Eventually we became so exhausted that no one hated Birthday Boys enough to veto it. There’s a corporate response that it’s Birthday Boys because we’ve all had a birthday. We tried once to form a name by having everybody shout out their favorite letter. That gave us SACPEMM which didn’t work, but with Birthday Boys, nobody hated it. I’m not sure that’s still true to this day. It might be a bit too cutesy now. People always have weird jokes about it, especially my mom. National Camp Fire? The Times New Roman. But those sound like names that wouldn’t have television shows. I think Birthday Boys was just good enough. We tried not to have a name that was joking.
The Sun: The LA Times positively referred to you guys as a “lighthearted” group. Do you understand that label?
Boys: I think being out in comedy for eight years, you see people going dirty a lot and it kind of becomes a turn off. It’s more a comment on laziness than anything else. It sort of gets boring for a guy to come out and just be like “9/11, aids, dead baby … ” On the other hand, Louis C.K. is dirty but it’s birthed from amazing material. It all depends on whether the joke is worth it. If it’s funny, it’s funny. We don’t explicitly shy away from things that are dirty, but hopefully there’s something additional that makes us laugh about it, otherwise it’s kind of just low-hanging fruit.
The Sun: Your comedy seems to be a big hit with audiences that have comedy backgrounds themselves.
Boys: Yeah, a lot of our stuff relies on the audience to be the “straight man.” We didn’t provide a character in the sketch to be like “Hey wait a minute, that seems weird.” We rely on the audience to be media literate enough to know the trope and be like, “hey, they’re not doing it right.” I think that’s a characteristic of alternative comedy. That being said, I don’t think we are super alternative with our comedy. Yes, some tropes might go over people’s head, but I don’t think you ever need to have seen the trope before to appreciate it.
The Sun: You guys get to work with two comedy legends, Bob Odenkirk and Ben Stiller. How is it to work with them, and what do they bring to the show?
Boys: Ben and Bob know each other from way back when Bob wrote for The Ben Stiller Show. Because of that relationship, when we were pitching the show around, we went to Ben’s Red Hour Productions. Having Bob there is incredible because he has been one of the best sketch writers for years. He had an approach where he let us have our own show: He would say things that would tweak [a joke] to make [it] perfect. Or, if we really loved a joke, he would let us have it. Ben came in and shot for a day and he was great, he improvised and was so funny on set.
The Sun: You mentioned being big childhood fans of Bob’s Mr. Show growing up. Is it hard to view him now as a co-worker and not an idol?
Boys: We still look up to him for sure, but Bob is so much in the trenches with us that he makes you engage and use your own instinct. He doesn’t just want us to bow down to what he wants to do, he really wants to hash it out. You start interacting with someone as a real person once you disagree with him, sometimes, and it’s ok. Bob is a real person. And with the whole Breaking Bad thing, he got bigger and bigger and his career was taking off all over again.
The Sun: How has attending Ithaca College helped get you guys to where you are today?
Boys: I would like to think we would still be doing something if not for IC. Ithaca had little to do with comedy. It was only once we got out to L.A. and started seeing midnight shows that we were like, “hey they joke around just like we joke around. We can do this.”
I don’t know if we ever would have ended up in California if it were not for Ithaca, though. Ithaca has an L.A. program for a semester and I think that’s where most of the Birthday Boys met. Ithaca gave me that idea that, “hey, you can work in L.A., in TV,” and at a larger school you might get lost in the shuffle a little bit. The best part about Ithaca is that you get to move away and be happy it’s not raining. It’s an eternal happiness. Ithaca weather is like a weighted bat for four years and once it gets lifted it’s like oh boy, weather!
The Sun: The reputation is that pursuing an entertainment career in Los Angeles can be a struggle. Did your experiences mirror that reputation?
Boys: By the time the show was about to happen, everyone was getting work, and work is hard to come by. You work various office jobs. Some of us started directing stuff for Funny or Die, which helped get us out of our day jobs, which was a huge bump in our happiness factor. Your whole purpose in life shifts a little more into what you want to be doing. But we had many years of “the grind” — making coffee, going on supply runs.
The landscape has changed. [Now] with Funny or Die or College Humor there are a lot of internships and all these new channels to get jobs through. It’s still not easy to get one of those jobs, it might take several years of slogging 12-hour days on sets for a movie you’ll never see because its made-for-DVD or made-for-the-wastebasket just to make rent.
The struggle is always on. Even after making the show, I don’t feel like its hands behind our head and we’re good to go. You always have to hustle a little bit. We still look for other work outside the Birthday Boys. Mitchell will appear as Bjorn Lerpiss on several episodes of Parks and Rec this season.
Mitchell: I am Bjorn Lerpiss.
The Sun: Where do the concepts for your sketches come from?
Boys: A think a lot of our sketches come from movies. It’s generally a bad thing if your stuff is all derivative of representations of life and not actual life, but we depend on the audience to know that this is a “meet the gang” scene or still find a twist on it.
We have one about your DVR being too full and people found it super relatable. But we’re all movie nerds, so if we make an Alien sketch, we’ll make an Alien sketch. Or like the shrinking dicks sketch. Well, that one is from life too.
The Sun: Can you share a good “inside baseball” Hollywood story? Feel free to name drop.
Mitchell: We were writing for the MTV movie awards one night and Aziz Ansari was hosting a party downstairs, while Tom Cruise was hosting a much nicer party upstairs. It was like the Titanic. Cruise came down from his party and was talking to a swarm of people. I didn’t want to get a picture, I just wanted to talk to him so I could tell my mom. So I approached him and put my hand on his back. I figure he’ll feel me and eventually turn around. Three long minutes later I subtly peel my hand off his back. He must be so used to people touching him. So celebrities don’t mind being touched is the real story.
Dutton: I put my hands on Kate Homes and she knew immediately.
The Sun: Advice for making it in Hollywood?
Boys: Taking classes in Ithaca, making it in Hollywood seems so unattainable until you get out there and you realize, oh, you can actually do this. You need to slug it out for a while, but there are a million little ways to find your way. You’ve got to put your work in. You can definitely get work, not everyone will be the star of a sitcom, but y can find your place.
The Sun: How can you watch the show?
Boys: Our IFC overlords would like to remind everyone that new episodes of the Birthday Boys can be seen at 10:30 p.m. on IFC, on iTunes or through IFC.com.