An actor’s unique look can accentuate any comedy performance. On an August Sunday afternoon at a private home in L.A. suburb Sherman Oaks, Tim Kalpakis, a member of sketch group the Birthday Boys, with a Dick Tracy–square jaw, is prepping a bit as a 60 Minutes–type correspondent lecturing on “the contemporary family” for his gang’s new IFC show.
Kalpakis stops by a family photo of a group of denim-clad men. “What is family?” he asks. “Why, a family could be 10 fathers.” He then proceeds to another photo. “A family can be a father, a mom and a son. But look closer, that man isn’t really a man, it’s a woman.” Eventually he ends on a photo of fellow performer Mike Mitchell hugging a large piece of fruit. “Or a family can be a man, a watermelon and a stack of magazines.”
Part of the money lies in Kalpakis’ convincingly Brian Williams–esque demeanor. Mitchell’s linebacker physique and cherubic grin are the cherry on the cake both in this sketch and the web short “Bad Murderer,” where he plays a clumsy, stocking-masked stalker. A Liverpudlian hairdo serves Mike Hanford well when he plays a busybody neighbor to Kevin McCallister in a Home Alone online spoof, “Home Alone Neighbor.”
The Birthday Boys’ distinguished mugs–and, of course, the brilliance of their vaudevillian hijinks–have solidified the group as one of the ruling sketch teams at L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. On October 18, the septet, which also includes Jefferson Dutton, David Ferguson, Matt Kowalick and Chris VanArtsdalen, moves from stage to tube to join a cable-TV sketch mini-renaissance that includes IFC’s Portlandia and Comedy Central’s Drunk History and Key & Peele.
Since the Ithaca College friends (and University of Texas alum Kowalick) formed the Birthday Boys in 2007, the group has been a consistent sellout at UCB-L.A., often co-billed with its absurdist doppelganger, A Kiss From Daddy. Neil Campbell and Paul Rust from that group gave the Birthday Boys their start by inviting them to perform at the duo’s open-mic UCB Friday show Not Too Shabby. (The Boys have since cast members of A Kiss From Daddy as guests on their IFC show.)
“When we signed ourselves up to perform at Shabby, we would write seven names or write ‘Those guys from Ithaca,’ ” Ferguson says. “At the end of the day, we wanted a name that evoked a silly, inclusive element.”
The Birthday Boys’ sketches and online videos are reminiscent of absurdist theater or the Marx Brothers, though the guys point to the Kids in the Hall and The State as their idols. What sets the Boys apart is their mastery of UCB’s game philosophy–striking the funny core of a scene and the continually heightening it–coupled with their twisted setups, e.g., inept police sketch artists, or a piece of crap vying for membership at a private Ivy League club.
Each of their IFC episodes builds a series of sketches around a theme, such as “Contemporary Family,” or creates two different storylines that ultimately intertwine. “We want to say, ‘Here’s a story to follow that we’re going to check in on from different angles,’ ” Kowalick explains. “It all culminates in the end, so it’s a reward to the viewer.”
At UCB, the group caught the attention of sketch revolutionary Bob Odenkirk, co-creator of Mr. Show With Bob and David, who has shepherded the IFC show as an executive producer (Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films also is executive producing).
“There’s a shared sense of irony in their pieces,” Odenkirk observes. “That’s a rare thing to see in sketch groups. … They can pitch each other ideas, edit together, and they aren’t at odds.”
Odenkirk never pushed his Mr. Show sensibility, taking a more nurturing role, advising on the translation to TV and encouraging the Birthday Boys to explore beyond the game style. “They’re sillier and have less of an ax to grind than Mr. Show, which always took a critical, harsh look at culture and people,” Odenkirk says. “These guys aren’t that. They’re amused by everything.”