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Resolving Non-Conflict: An Interview with Sketch Comedy’s The Birthday Boys

Clockwise, from the top: Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Jeff Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Matt Kowalick, Chris VanArtsdalen; Center: Mike Mitchell

Clockwise, from the top: Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Jeff Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Matt Kowalick, Chris VanArtsdalen; Center: Mike Mitchell

When you enter the house shared by members of LA sketch comedy group The Birthday Boys, you quickly realize it is more headquarters than home. After all, most homes don’t act as part rehearsal space, film set, editing studio, conference room, prop storage, and wardrobe. The Birthday Boys live, work, and make goofball comedy together, all under one happy roof. They’re like The Seven Dwarves of comedy…but the normal-sized version.

Six of the group’s seven members – Jeff Dutton, Dave Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Mike Mitchell (Mitch), and Chris VanArtsdalen – were friends from New York’s Ithaca College when they decided to take the fateful Upright Citizen’s Brigade Improv 101 class that brought them University of Texas’ own Matt Kowalick. Soon thereafter, the septet began writing and performing sketches together at UCB’s Not Too Shabby, the weekly showcase for UCB performers to test new material. They quickly earned acclaim amongst the Theatre’s faithful for their silly-smart, joyously over-the-top, brand of absurd comedy.

The group works ridiculous hours, balancing the demands of a monthly stage show with those of full-time day jobs. Their show is impressive enough without the realization that they accomplish it using, essentially, only nights and weekends. That tireless work ethic paid off last fall when The Boys were given a monthly show at the UCB alongside another hilarious group, A Kiss from Daddy. At 8PM on the first Wednesday of every month each group delivers a brand new sketch show combining stage and video, culminating in a joint sketch featuring both groups. It is the night of comedy I look forward to most each month.

This is the second in my series of interviews featuring comedians with unique styles. My goal is to find the soul of what an artist or group does best, then mold the interview to best reflect that. In doing so, hopefully, I can offer a glimpse of the creative process. Whether it is onstage in a sketch or off-stage creating it, The Birthday Boys are masters of heightening small conflicts and dissolving the big ones. That is the theme for this interview.

I have divided this interview into “sketches,” interspersing video throughout. I put a name to the sketch and let these guys take it from there. Without further ado, in the words The Birthday Boys’ man-in-the-booth Scott Davis, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s The Birthday Boys!”

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “WHAT’S IN A NAME?”
TIM
Early on, before we had named ourselves, we were referred to at Not Too Shabby as Ithaca Pals. We cringed, then realized we had to pick a name.
MATT
It was a long, arduous process.
TIM
Every name was shit for, like, four months. I was mad at all of us.
MITCH
Probably the angriest we’ve ever been at each other was choosing the name of the group.
MATT
We had to cool off, take time away from each other.
JEFF
For awhile we were kicking around names that include EVERYONE. Like, for instance, The Humans.
TIM
We had Pangeans. Existers. Motorists.
MITCH
Ugh. That’s how bad it got.
TIM
Hey! Motorists is funny.
CHRIS
We got so desperate that we tried picking favorite letters, which resulted in SACPEM.
JEFF
We did the same thing with favorite words. That got us Space Space Brown Shit.
TIM
Mitch wanted the group to be called Beaver Fever.
MITCH
Hold on, though. It wasn’t supposed to be dirty. The symbol was going to be a beaver with a thermometer sticking out of its mouth.
JEFF
I drew the picture of the beaver with a thermometer in it’s mouth. But also, behind it, was the faint contour of a vagina.
MITCH
In retrospect, Beaver Fever would’ve been broken up by now.
MATT
We almost went with The Wheelies at one point. Like poppin’ wheelies.
DAVE
The Wacky Ding-Dongs was another.
MITCH
Suicide Cheese. Everyone loves an obscure baseball reference.
MIKE
My favorite rejected name was Fuck For Your Life.
JEFF
Mine was Fastest Ghosts Artists.
CHRIS
Because it was the hardest name to say.
MITCH
It was our attempt to play a trick on anyone who would try to be our fan.
DAVE
I liked Chin Music.
CHRIS
I don’t ever remember hearing that one.
MITCH
Me neither. That’s pretty good. Why didn’t I see that list?!
TIM
We aren’t reopening this debate.
JEFF
The Birthday Boys was the only one none of us hated after, like, 600 names.
MITCH
We’ve all embraced the name since we chose it.
DAVE
It evokes the right sensibility.
JEFF
Juvenile and celebratory.
MIKE
I like the plurality of The Birthday Boys. I’m a Birthday Boy and we’re all Birthday Boys. It kind of feels like a cool club.
DAVE
And the “The” gives us a sense of bullshit prestige.

DAVE AND TIM IN “INTRODUCTION TO THE BIRTHDAY BOYS”
TIM
Most of our sketches will start with a recognizable scenario, or a movie cliché or something, and then twist the premise. Something unexpected happens, followed by either no conflict or a completely retarded conflict. We take something silly and make it a big deal. Or we take something that should be a big deal and make it silly. Our sketches are almost always conceptual and almost never character-based.
DAVE
Not because we don’t care about characters, but because of how much we care about premises. We come at it from a writer’s mentality. We are so in love with the jokes and the concepts that if we stopped to worry too much about the characters we would lose sight of the premises.
TIM
We frequently make the choice to not have a stock straight man calling out what is absurd in a scene. It’s always more rewarding to find a way to have that absurd thing come out naturally, without just saying it. If you start with an absurd premise and treat it like it’s realistic, you can then heighten like a normal sketch.
DAVE
There are unusual ways to involve a straight man. We have a sketch where Chris plays our acting coach in attendance at the show and we spend the entire scene playing to him. He doesn’t have a line in the entire scene, he’s not even on stage, but he’s a sort of straight man. Or, we have a sketch where I play the straight man interviewing one of the guys who knows the secret formula for Coke, as a direct address to the audience. That can be a fun way to play straight unconventionally.
TIM
The absurd stuff tends to make us laugh the hardest, so that’s most of what we do.
DAVE
Our style is silly, sort of vaudevillian; the sketches are more action-based than dialogue-based. We like using rake bits. Or playing with theatre’s fourth wall. The stage allows you to talk directly to the viewers sometimes, and then also close the wall and do a scene. Or even have a scene where we do both. We can mix in video the same way. One of the things that has been so amazing is that there are people coming to more than one of our shows. That allows us to take more chances and assume a little more, be a little weirder right off the bat.
TIM
But ultimately, the jokes have to be really funny or your style doesn’t matter. As long as it’s all funny, the weirder the better as far as we are concerned.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “HAM HAT”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “BIRTH OF A SKETCH”
MIKE
The way it begins is, somebody will write a first draft of something that has never been discussed before, then email it to the group. You throw it out there and people like it or don’t like it, pitch on it. And then new drafts come out and it’s talked about later in a meeting.
JEFF
We all have day jobs, so email chains act as most of our pitch meetings.
MITCH
We also have sketches that come from the seven of us just hanging out, joking around together.
JEFF
Those are more rare, but some of the best times we have together. Eventually someone has to go off and write the script, though.
DAVE
A lot of the time dialogue and ideas will stay true to the original script. But other times the funniest ideas will come from new pitches, or a character choice, or even a funny mistake made during rehearsals.
TIM
Just because one of us wrote a sketch doesn’t necessarily mean that the best jokes are all his.
MITCH
We insert dialogue during rehearsals a lot. I guess I’m mostly guilty of that.
TIM
It’s very rare that we will write a character for a specific Birthday Boy.
DAVE
We mostly write to an archetype, and then somebody fits that archetype.
TIM
Mitch is really easy to write for. Mike can be, too. Most of us don’t have big character things that we do, so we don’t write a lot of those sketches. But we’ll do a character piece if it’s funny enough.
MIKE
We don’t have a list of do’s and don’ts for sketches.
CHRIS
Anytime politics or social commentary come up, they generally gets groans from the group.

MIKE
Because we don’t understand those things. We usually don’t write stuff that’s very sexual either. We did one sketch about a shrink-ray that only shrunk dicks.
TIM
You see a lot of comedy that relies on being dirty.
We’ll honestly do anything if we think it’s funny enough, but more often than not we would remove a word like cock or pussy if it didn’t need to be there. Just because it didn’t need to be there.
JEFF
One time, during a video shoot, Chris spoke the line, “This car is worth more than your tiny little cocks.” And Tim called cut and insisted we change the line to “tiny little dicks.”

MITCH
I think cocks is a much less harsh word that dicks.

JEFF
Dicks is staccato.

DAVE
Dicks is definitely a sillier word.

TIM
That was just because I can’t think of a cock being tiny. When I think of cocks I think of BIG COCKS.
MITCH
It’s always us sweating the small stuff.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “FROM PAGE TO STAGE”
CHRIS
Not always, but usually, the person who wrote the sketch will cast it.
MITCH
Once cast, each person will bring their own thing to the character.
JEFF
There’s a sketch where Tim wrote a line directly inspired by how Mitch says “shut up” in real life. Before Mitch showed up I was doing the part, knowing Mitch would eventually do it, so I’m reading it as “SHYAAADUUP!” And then Mitch shows up and reads it as “SHUT UP!” He could not for the life of him get it.
MITCH
I did eventually get it, but it took me forever.
TIM
We kept correcting him so many times that he got mad at us and said “SHYAAADUUP!”
JEFF
We were like, “Mitch, you’re doing it!” Mitch is the most meticulous about how a line is spoken. Very rarely is it “acting first” for the rest of us.
MATT
We rehearse at the house where everyone lives but Mitch and I. One wall acts as the audience. Tim likes to be stage right at all times.                                                                                                                                                                                                   CHRIS
That’s true, he does.
DAVE
We would rehearse everyday at UCB, except scheduling is too insane. So at best we might get to the theatre for one rehearsal session and one cue-to-cue tech rehearsal. The rest happens at our house.
MITCH
Staging is a group thing. Everyone pipes up about blocking. Occasionally we have someone outside the group direct a really visual sketch, and I’m always impressed at how much they can get out of us. Neil Campbell and Paul Rust (co-hosts of Not Too Shabby and members of A Kiss from Daddy) directed our first big UCB show, Hotdoggin’.               CHRIS
When we rehearse at the theatre we like to have Amanda Sitko or Drew Difonzo Marks help with the direction.
DAVE
We have gotten exponentially better at blocking, and that is just a testament to doing it more. It’s a given now that when you make a personal choice for a character, you should think about where you are and what’s happening.
JEFF
A lot of times we all read a sketch and picture the same thing. Occasionally we will argue over something none of us knows, like how a submarine should be set up.
DAVE
About 30% of the time all seven of us are on stage simultaneously, so we really have to share a vision for this to work. Our shows are inherently visual, but the visual premises are the ones that actually just kind of come together. If the premise is strong and everyone is on-board, we just go to our natural places.
JEFF
If we can’t reach a group agreement we have been lucky enough to have Amanda and Drew to defer to on staging issues.
DAVE
And they usually don’t know they are settling a dispute. They’ll just say, “Do it this way,” and a few of us get to whisper “I told you so.”
TIM
They have been a huge help to us with putting the final touches on blocking. The material is tested at Not Too Shabby. If we test it all.
MITCH
We don’t always need to. Sometimes we can just tell a sketch is ready. It’s easier to be confident when all seven of us are laughing at it.
JEFF
We only have nights and weekends to work together, so we can’t afford to waste time. The last Sunday before a show is when things get nuts.
DAVE
Chris will be holed up in the basement working on video. Jeff is somewhere making a giant prop. The rest of us are scattered throughout the house. We work hard all month, but that’s our crazy day.
TIM
It’s sometimes tense, but tensions never get too high.
MITCH
It can get frustrating, but it’s really not so bad. Sometimes I’ll leave that house thinking to myself, “Damn, Mike Hanford is such a fucking piece of shit.” (pause) That’s it.
MIKE
Cut to me sitting in a chair whistling.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “DISAGREE TO DISAGREE”
MITCH
We are seven people all trying to agree on one thing, of course we bicker sometimes. But we can work around it.
TIM
There was a sketch where everyone in the group wanted to do a joke one way and I wanted to do it another, so I conceded on the grounds that I got 10 Compromise Points. And since then we’ve joked about this Compromise Points System that doesn’t actually exist.
DAVE
Tim’s been racking them up.
TIM
I have 13.
DAVE
We don’t document or adhere to it…
JEFF
…But there’s an unspoken agreement.
CHRIS
I’m saving up all my Points and one show I’m going to play guitar. And I don’t know how to play guitar.
MITCH
Chris, you need 10 billion Compromise Points if you ever want to play guitar onstage. It’s like the prize at the arcade no one can win.
MIKE
We argue over the music between sketches more than anything. Most other stuff just gets discussed.
MITCH
I was just watching a documentary about this band I like. I won’t say the name, because some people think they’re kind of lame…
JEFF
Let the record show, it’s Dave Matthews Band.
MITCH
JEEEEFFFFFFF!
TIM
Nice cover, Mitch.
MITCH
Anyway, this band…
JEFF
…This “Matthews” band.
TIM
It was definitely some sort of “Matthews” band.
MITCH
They were talking about how poison seeped into their relationship because they weren’t open about what they were doing creatively. We are always very open about how we feel about stuff, so no one feels attacked by criticism. The small head-butting incidents often can result in something good.
JEFF
Comedy and clarity are what butt heads the most. Often times one idea is funnier and another idea is clearer. I will usually find myself siding with funnier at first. But it’s a lot easier to be talked into clarity.
MITCH
I’m a big fan of the joke being as clear as possible. But it’s also fun when we can make people say, “Huuuuuh?”
CHRIS
When we do disagree, we don’t put it to a vote. We just discuss it until someone gives up.
DAVE
It’s total-agreement driven. That’s what it means to be in a working seven-person group.
TIM
A vote would just tell us how many people feel this way and how many people feel that way.
MITCH
And the losers would cry.
JEFF
You can just tell when you’re fighting an uphill battle. The writing is on the wall eventually.
DAVE
The way to move your objection forward is to pitch another idea. The rest of the room will dictate whether or not the new idea is an improvement.
TIM
And sometimes one person will have an objection to something, make a good valid point, suggest something new, and then we’ll just do the first thing anyway. The winner didn’t really win the argument and the loser didn’t concede. But the idea goes in anyway.
MATT
There’s a lot of bullying that goes on here.
MITCH
We all know it’s about picking your battles.
JEFF
Everything falls under the Birthday Boy umbrella. If this was The Jeff Dutton Show it would bother me if the song I wanted wasn’t playing. But it’s not. We really have an uncanny amount of similar tastes for seven people. It’s easy to forgive the small percentage of stuff where we differ.
MATT
Except shaving cream vs. whipped cream.
CHRIS
We had a sketch where a bunch of us had to spray whipped cream down each other’s pants, and Jeff was insistent that using shaving cream was better.
MIKE
He just didn’t want his pants to smell.
CHRIS
I would’ve been fine with shaving cream.
MATT
Whipped cream sounds funnier.
DAVE
Eventually Jeff gave in. In the end, all our decisions are based on what will be funniest and clearest. It doesn’t matter who is right, only that the joke is right.
JEFF
I still think I was right.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN…I’LL JUST LET THEM TELL YOU.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “THE BIG SHOW”
MITCH
Early on a lot of us had performance anxiety.
CHRIS
I still do.
MIKE
I do too.
JEFF
Wait, we’re talking about boners, right?
TIM
I have performance anxiety if I ever have to do anything different from what we ordinarily do.
DAVE
You guys are pussies.
MITCH
I think most of the nervousness now is just because we want to do well.
MIKE
When we first started, we didn’t really know how to act.
TIM
Riiiiiight. When we first started. That’s when we didn’t know how to act.
MITCH
I don’t know what these guys are talking about. I’ve been acting all my life. I was in plays as a kid up until high school. Then I was afraid of getting beaten up.
JEFF
As performers, we are always a little afraid of the audience turning on us.
TIM
We are just starting to realize that when an audience isn’t laughing, it doesn’t mean they hate us. One joke didn’t make them laugh, but they are still waiting for the next joke. When a joke just goes out there and hangs in silence, part of us still feels like, “Oh shit. They’re mad.”
JEFF
Like they immediately start gathering pitchforks.
CHRIS
When we watch the tape, there are always more laughs than it seemed from the stage.
DAVE
The beauty of doing comedy is that, as high as the stakes feel to us, they are actually really low. You might as well have fun with it. It’s easy to have fun if you are being silly. Not that we don’t take the shows seriously. We take being silly seriously.
CHRIS
We take the costumes seriously too.
DAVE
Sometimes it seems like we change clothes more during the show than the whole rest of the month. It’s a very sweaty backstage.
MITCH
When the audience sees that you’ve changed costumes it’s a symbol of a new character. You aren’t just coming out like, “It’s me, Mitch. Here I am again for this next sketch.”
JEFF
We’ll do anything to help the audience perceive we are acting.
CHRIS
We wear real camping equipment. I wear my expensive suit onstage.
TIM
I’m the opposite. I wear shitty sketch clothes to work.
DAVE
Tim looks like a sketch character all the time.
TIM
Never in my life have I worn a suit and not felt like I was playing dress-up.
MITCH
Suits are supposed to make you look and feel good.
TIM
I know. But I have a size 34 waste and 46 shoulders. That doesn’t work for humans.
MITCH
Dave does a lot of the direct address stuff because he’s the only one of us who can pass for a normal human being.
CHRIS
He introduces the group to the audience and then the freaks come out.
MIKE
“Is it time?!”

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN “PACK OF LEADERS”
MITCH
The reason we get along so well is because we understand that we all do this together. Everyone brings their strengths to the table and the end result is the hard work of all of us.
TIM
It’s worked so far for everyone to fall into the roles that they like best. We would run into problems if, say, I had really strong feelings about prop construction, because that’s Jeff’s thing. He likes big props, so we have big props. If too many people have too many strong opinions, that’s when they clash.
CHRIS
We don’t have one leader. And for the record, we have always requested normal-sized props. Jeff is overcompensating for something.
DAVE
We’re not laissez-faire in terms of not caring, we’re laissez-faire in terms of not caring where the idea comes from.
JEFF
Dave is the taskmaster of the group.
MITCH
But the group wouldn’t work if he didn’t do it. So we all appreciate him for it.
TIM
Dave’s a major dick.
DAVE
I’m actually totally fine with the major dick description.
MIKE
If we formed as Voltron, Dave would be the dick.
TIM
Two of us would be the balls. One, the asshole.
MIKE
Others would form the pubes.
MITCH
Awww man. Am I the taint?
MATT
We form just the genitalia of said Voltron.
MITCH
We form into a giant robot’s junk, then we save the day.

THE BIRTHDAY BOYS IN ONE LAST VIDEO.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Thanks, Birthday Boys. You guys saved the day.

You can find more videos from The Birthday Boys at UCB Comedy and Funny or Die.

My name is Ben and I interviewed them.

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June 18, 2009 - Posted by | Interviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] one I specifically endorse: A pair of Poop or Chocolate interviewees, Convoy (Improv) and The Birthday Boys (Sketch Comedy), share a show at The Dark Room at 8pm Friday night. I think the show might be sold out, but either […]

    Pingback by A Very Sketchy Weekend « Poop or Chocolate | January 29, 2010


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