When IFC ordered a series from Los Angeles sketch-comedy group the Birthday Boys, the septet wasn’t starting from scratch: Not only did it have eight years of performance experience under its belt, but it also had Bob Odenkirk—a man whose face belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of sketch comedy—as a collaborator, frequent star, and executive producer. That said, television remained a new frontier for the Birthday Boys, and the 10 episodes they made last year—now available on Netflix—provided a crash course in TV production for them.
Ahead of the season 2 premiere of The Birthday Boys tonight at 11:30 ET on IFC, EW sat down with Jefferson Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Michael Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Matt Kowalick, Mike Mitchell, and Chris Vanartsdalen at IFC headquarters in Manhattan to talk about what they learned.
1. Standards & practices doesn’t do jokes about child molestation.
TIM KALPAKIS: There was a fun sex romp comedy movie trailer called Molesters. [Everyone laughs.] That one made it through the group, made it to IFC, and came right back. [Laughs.]
JEFFERSON DUTTON: When they rejected it, [they said] “We don’t even have to tell you why this won’t work.”
KALPAKIS: It was the only time ever that the note was “We can’t do this.”
DUTTON: It was “No, we can do no version of this.” [Laughs.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the premise?
KALPAKIS: It was in the dog days of summer, and seven adult guys are hanging out in the cul de sac of a suburban neighborhood.
DUTTON: “Another bummer summer.”
KALPAKIS: “Man, this summer is boring.”
DUTTON: A van pulls up.
KALPAKIS: A cherubic new boy in town struts by [Laughs.] and everyone goes “Whoa!”
DAVE FERGUSON: Like Michael J. Fox when he sees the 4-by-4 [in Back to the Future].
KALPAKIS: With some cool music. And then it was just a hard cut to prison. They’re like, [dejected] “Man, this summer…”
FERGUSON: The only thing that’s unfair about shooting that down is they do get their comeuppance.
2. Standards & practices also has thoughts on pubic hair and bare butts.
FERGUSON: There was a season 1 lesson of S&P which was “You can show pubic area, but not if there’s pubic hair.” So if we shave ourselves, you can show those 3, 4 extra inches. It’s just that if they see pubic hair, they freak out. But we did push some pubic hair through in season one.
The season 2 clip you showed at a preview last night featured pubic but on a mannequin.
FERGUSON: That was a heavy conversation. They actually initially said we would have to use bright colors. They initially said anything but black and brown because they wanted “non-organic” pubic hair colors. But then through a conversation about felt and texture we were able to massage some—
DUTTON: They ultimately got the thing like, “Look they can’t possibly get this confused for the real thing.”
MATT KOWALICK: I think one thing that is a little strange is that, for instance, you can show as much violence as you want, but two or three curse words can put you up into a TV-MA, while Breaking Bad is always TV-14, and that’s like such a gruesome show.
MIKE MITCHELL: They dissolve people in vats.
KALPAKIS: And then with nudity, the real rule that we learned was sexual context. Like, you could show Dave’s butt if it’s not a sex scene, but if it’s a sexual context, then that’s nudity we’d have to blur.
MITCHELL: Oh yeah, where did they screw us on that one?
KALPAKIS: With you, when you’re taking a picture of your butthole. There’s a sketch where Mitch was at an orgy, not taking part—he’s at the other side of the room. And he was naked and we saw his butt, but they said because there’s sex happening in the room [Laughs.] —he’s doing something non-sexual in the other side of the room—but it counts as sexual context.
3. Bob Odenkirk will go to the mat for nudity.
FERGUSON: In last year’s sketch where Mike and Mitch had to stand naked as these transporter guys, we had already shot it, posted it, everything and then they said, “Oh you gotta blur the whole thing.” Well, that’s the whole sketch. If you blur this, it doesn’t feel “raw” and “original,” and so Bob [Odenkirk] calls the head of AMC Networks.
KALPAKIS: He skipped 15 layers of people to talk to and called the guy who owns the whole thing—seriously. [Laughs.]
FERGUSON: And we were able to do it! [Laughs.] It wasn’t like “Okay, I’m going to reverse our policy. It was just like, “Okay, no, it’s okay we’ll do it, but we can talk about this.”
DUTTON: I think the next time he ran into our execs, they were like, “Hey Bob, next time, we can do that.” [Laughs.]
MICHAEL HANFORD: Bob’s a pube freak. [Laughs.] He doesn’t take no for an answer.
4. You have to write for the show, not the stage.
FERGUSON: Bob, in addition to be that shield and shepherd and great communicator of the big picture, really pushed us, I think, as we went through season 1 to come in with less sometimes. Because in season 1 we had done eight years of live UCB [Theatre] shows, and we had some zingers that we thought would be great, and they were—they were good material, tested for laughs. But I think as that season wore on, and especially this season, we decided and realized to kind of just write for the show. Come in for a loose idea, come in with a half a script or a full script, but then really punch it into a TV-ready piece of comedy that was born for this exact show and screen.
DUTTON: Because you subconsciously get married to what it was. So this way it was like, “Hey, a brand new thing.”
FERGUSON: I also think we wrote a little more to our—I’ll coin a term— “thinginess,” coming up with a thing that’s not necessarily topical but something that is a little more culturally sticky. That was something that Bob tried to call out when he heard it and bring on us. Because we’re huge fans of sketch comedy just as a medium of doing comedy, and you can get in that world of doing great, classic laughs, but you also gotta connect with people. So in addition to having celebrities, I think this season will hopefully connect with our world that we live in a little more and comment on things that exist.
MITCHELL: Just watching season 1, I feel like a big difference for me, and I’ve said this before, but you watch season 1 we live in stuff a little more [now]. I feel like this season you just get more per episode.
HANFORD: We wrote scripts that were maybe 45 pages this year, rather than 30 last year, because we would be in the editing rooms last year, like, the final cut would be 18 minutes. It was like, “F–k!”
KALPAKIS: Our show is 22:30, and we had a rough cut of an episode that was 18 minutes, and we were like, “We’ll just slow down what we got!” [Laughs.]
KOWALICK: More reaction shots!
FERGUSON: So season 1’s on Netflix, and look forward to checking it out!
KOWALICK: See if you can find out which episode that was!
MITCHELL: We fixed that problem—we put another sketch in that episode. But it’s fun watching this season. I think the runners are really great this year, and strong, and just learning to do that. Because that was probably the biggest thing even last year was having these runners.
FERGUSON: Something cohesive that makes the episode.
MITCHELL: Yeah, something cohesive. We did a better job of it this year. Each episode has more of a theme. They connect more. I think you get more bang for your buck in each episode.
KALPAKIS: In season 2 episodes, there’s no sketch in an episode that doesn’t in some way fit with the other material, so you’re not just taking a break from a runner for another sketch. Lots of times a sketch will sort of have a thematic momentum, but it’s not really keeping the same story. It’s like one sketch poses a question, then a different set of characters answer that type of thing.
KOWALICK: In season 1 you could’ve taken a sketch out of any show and shuffled everything around and you could make maybe 10 different episodes.
KALPAKIS: Where this year we’re locked in. If we didn’t like something—
DUTTON: Yeah, it posed problems. It was a new challenge for sure.
5. Goof around more.
FERGUSON: We got this email from Bob heading into season 2 pickup where he said remember three things. And then the third one was “Dick around more.” [Laughs.] We had a funny instance with Jack Black on set where we had done a couple takes of this scene where he’s in a Smurfs kind of movie—and it’s always weird to shoot those, because you’re not interacting with a whole lot, you don’t have much to play off of. And so he’d done a couple takes, we had what we needed, and then Jeff was like “Hey, when you walk out of the scene on this one, can you walk with a little gusto, a little Jack Blackiness?”
DUTTON: We were like, you know, like a bushwhacker walk.
FERGUSON: So he walks out of a total living room scene like a WWF wrestler swinging his arms in the air. [Laughs.] And it was really funny, so we had him do it in every scene he was in, and then we had a guy who was playing his character later in another sketch also do it.
DUTTON: Who, by the way, is like 90 years old.
FERGUSON: And it just became one of those things that got to discover more stuff on set or in post. We were a little less precious about script choices that you made five months ago.
6. Have a system.
DUTTON: Our producer Carl Fieler, one of many producers, but he’s our big guy at Abso Lutely, and he has sat us down right before production on both seasons and sort of said like, “We can’t do this for this much money.”
KALPAKIS: Very calmly, “This is unproduceable.”
DUTTON: No, really! It’s gotta be a rare thing that the whole writing staff of the show and this guy will roll up our sleeves and discuss the version of that joke that would work for us, and it’s not confrontational at all. It’s the most collaborative, open-ended thing. He even came up with a complicated rubric: There are three colors: red, yellow, and green. And numbers one, two, and three. The colors were for time spent riffing, like how much time do you want to like riff? And then one, two, and three were like is it a genre thing, is it a movie, or is it like shot on a cell phone.
KALPAKIS: How good does it have to look?
FERGUSON: You see, comedy is math… [Laughs.]
KALPAKIS: We had to tell Carl, like, “We got some green ones coming. There’s a few red threes, but we’re gonna balance it out with green ones.”
HANFORD: I never knew what he was saying. “Carl, is a riffy one that’s shot on a phone?”
MITCHELL: We’d also be like ‘A yellow two, that’s like pretty good, right?” And he’s like, “Well…” [Laughs.] It eventually became “Carl, I just think you’re afraid about everything.”
VANARTSDALEN: We’ve also learned to shoot a lot of stuff just DIY-style. We shot some stuff with a GoPro just in a friend’s pool.
DUTTON: For many weeks, we shot DIY stuff.
VANARTSDALEN: Yeah, we shot things on cell phones—that footage went on the air.
HANFORD: We did our own stuff last year too.
FERGUSON: I think this show’s scrappiness is a thing that we don’t shy away from. I think it makes for good sketch comedy when you can feel like making of the process happening in the shoot, especially if it’s something that’s authentic and meant to feel real and we’re doing a web-video vibe on something. You don’t want to downgrade it from a beautiful cinematic shot, you would shoot it the way somebody would shoot it…
MITCHELL: People want to see those boom mics.
HANFORD: The motto this year was “Scrappy, not crappy.”
FERGUSON: We all got tattoos of that on our back.
HANFORD: Which are healing, so we’re not going to show them.
MITCHELL: Like the Lord of the Rings guys, we all got tattoos at the beginning of this.
HANFORD: We all got Lord of the Rings tattoos.