FanBolt had a chance to sit down with some of the stars of IFC’s show The Birthday Boys (Dave Ferguson, Jefferson Dutton, and Mike “Mitch” Mitchell) and talk about what to expect this season, Dana Carvey, and what goes into creating a sketch show for television.
So are you guys in New York?
Birthday Boys: Yeah, we’re in New York. We just did Comic-con on Saturday and did a live show on Sunday. Press today and another live show tomorrow.
I see, so how are you enjoying all of the press tours?
Birthday Boys: Great, man. Great. We’re doing an event down here tonight that’s just kind of a hang session. A lot of walkers and stuff like that. It’s one of those things where we can use any shred of fun press we get. An easy and fun way for us to talk to people. Not a Tom Cruise type of situation where you would rather be sleeping. No, we love it
Can you give me a wildly out of context quote I can use to just bring some heat on you guys?
Birthday Boys: OK, great. Just like a random quote to use as a pull quote? (To other guys) What was that thing we were going to about the show on our press release? That pull quote that went against? Oh right, “Sex Sells.” Sex Sells is our new tag line of the year. If you want a single line pull quote about the Birthday Boys it’s “Hey, sex sells.”
Alright, so I actually got to watch the first couple of episodes here recently and I like what I see. It seems like from last year you have really kind of tightened up the themes. I mean, last year was great but it seems like this year every single sketch is inter-related very tightly. Is that something you did on purpose? Did you have more time to write? What’s behind that?
Birthday Boys: Thanks for noticing, first of all. I think we all had a great sense of pride and accomplishment last season but I think season two does seem like a 2.0 to us. We were able to just, I don’t think we had more time to write. We had the exact same amount of time to write but we were able to just look at the whole experience and vision of season one and see where we needed to spend more time or how we needed to change our process a little bit. So, yeah, it’s a lot more thematically tight. A lot more inter-twined. And it yields just a funnier, tighter, more confident sketch show.
The payoff at the end seems a lot stronger to me with everything being more in line.
Birthday Boys: It was a little more calculated. We looked at the episodes as a whole a lot earlier in the process. Last year we probably had the ability to prop one sketch from another show in post-production. This year, we had already made the episode structure by the time we were starting to shoot.
So you had a little more planning into that?
Birthday Boys: Yeah, we were thinking of episodes as a whole out of the gate
Can you walk me through that process a little bit? As far as starting an episode do you start with one sketch and kind of build around that, do you think of the theme first, do you think of ideas of sketches and sit down in teams or everyone just kinds of goes off and comes back with something? How does that work?
Birthday Boys: Well, generally there’s a big old table and we all sit around it.
How old is the table?
Birthday Boys: The table I would say is 9 feet. It’s a big table. Biggest table I ever see. We
also go off and write sketches and come up with concepts or we’ll just spitball but essentially there’s just a big container next to that table with index cards in it with sketch names. We’ll look at this big pool of sketches and say “Well, what if we put The Mill with this working man song that Mitch came up with” and we’ll sort of find companions. And we’ll think that one could be a runner or that could be a runner that leads up to this other sketch that wasn’t originally intended to be but what we called Tim in that sketch we called Harry and that could be where we end up with this. Every show is like a different animal that come together differently but they just start with raw material. Just going out and generating a bunch of stuff that was funny and that’s where you kind of start building little Lego houses.
So you come up with the sketches first and see which ones kind of compliment each other?
Birthday Boys: Yeah, and in some cases the episode will be pretty far along and we know what
we need here in this episode is a monologue or whatever or a montage or more of a music video and we can fill the holes writing to the episode but in general sketches are first and foremost to us. (Mitch): You know like on Minority Report? You seen that movie?
Birthday Boys: It’s a lot like that. We just have all these sketches on a board and we move
them around with our hands and kind of move them into place and it all turns into an episode. (Dave): You know how Tom Cruise uses his hands? We use our hands. We have a lot in common with Cruise.
Yeah, you all have hair and he has that so…
Birthday Boys: Yeah! Most organs we have he has. His are just in better shape
Well, maybe you’ll be that good when you’re his age. You know, you’ll catch up
Birthday Boys: Oh yeah, we’ll look better as we get older for sure
Most people do. Tell me a little bit more about this season. I notice you guys got some really cool guest stars on there. You know, I’m a fan of comedy and so I grew up watching Saturday Night Live and I’m sure you’ve seen people on that show that are just kind of influences on you. Can you tell me what it was like to work with a comedic icon like Fabio?
Birthday Boys: That’s not where I thought you were headed. I can tell you. I kissed him in the episode so I lived out every woman’s dream I guess. He was a very, very sweet man and he talked about whey protein a lot which I couldn’t relate to much but he was the nicest guy on Earth. And we all got to work with Dana Carvey. He’s one of the most influential comedians that we all watched when we were coming up and it was amazing and everyone was extremely nice and so awesome to do the show and it was just a dream come true for us to work with some of these guys.
This is kind of an obscure reference but when I first heard he was going to be on there as a fashion designer, this is going way back, but he was on an episode of Just Shoot Me in the 90’s as a really eccentric fashion designer and I thought he might be doing that again but he took it in a whole different direction.
Birthday Boys: We gotta come clean. Every sketch we ever wrote was actually an episode of Just Shoot Me. I mean everything. All those season one sketches. Car-ry was actually a character in the third season of Just Shoot Me. He was the little car that David Spade rode around in. Well, there goes David Spade from season three.
You can tie Car-ry back into him now.
Birthday Boys: Well, that’s true. It could be a reunion of sorts. But we also have Chris Elliot and Jack Black. Guys that we are just big fans of it was really cool to have them around so we’re trying to keep our cool and at the same time watch them take our sketches into some amazing places. Also, the list of celebrities we got rejected by is really impressive too. We’re trying to get the word out about that. We approached some of the biggest names in entertainment and were rejected promptly including the likes of Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey, Susan Sarandon. Some of the biggest hits in entertainment. Meryl Streep should be ashamed. I had a crush on her before all of this and she turned us down and just broke my heart. That’s how we got Fabio on to play Mitch’s crush. (Mitch): My list is Meryl Streep and Fabio and that’s it. So we got a guest like Ellie Kemper. A show like ours doesn’t have the luxury of a network late night show where you can just get booked and we’ll fly you out. We don’t have that kind of reach or budget or flexibility in our shooting schedule so a lot of times in order to do our show the person has to just like the idea of doing our show. It’s so reverse of how television usually works, usually you get booked because you’re promoting something or it’s financially beneficial. For us, there was no reason for any of these people to say yes to wanting to do our show. Great example, Ellie Kemper is doing a millions things. Literally could do any projects she wants. She live in New York, has tons of people in the comedy world that she can collaborate with and on top of that she has some exclusive deals for her comedy work and she went out of her way to this show and that’s like one of those things where you realize the value of something like the UCB Theater community or Bob’s (Odenkirk) reach. We see that payoff on this year’s episodes. I guess the good thing about it ended up being good thing about that fact that we had so little reach and everybody had to really needed about the show to do it was that everybody that ended up on set was so cool. There was no like “I got to get out of here” and no starry behavior or anything like that. Everybody who, once you get a Dana Carvey or Jack Black on set we worry a little bit about are they having a good time. And they were infinitely cool. We had Dana Carvey change into 3 different outfits but we screwed up and had to go back and get something and so he had to change in the woods or whatever and it feels weird to have people that you regard so highly enjoy working on your show. Or at least be cool enough to make it look like they’re enjoying it. They were all game. Oprah, who said no, she sent us a letter that she like out show. She said it was her favorite show of all time. She said it was better than her own show The Oprah Show. So I thought that was really nice of her. We’ll try again in season three, Oprah.
So is she looking to buy IFC just because of you guys?
Birthday Boys: Man, hey, from your lips to God’s ears. It happens that she’s buying up all of entertainment. Look out IFC
Working with Dana Carvey; first of all what’s it like working with such an icon but still looks younger then everybody and did you guys learn anything from him? Did he give you any tips or guidance?
Birthday Boys: He didn’t speak to us with any points of wisdom or anything. We did have this realization earlier this season. Last year we get so into this concept because we write everything sometime you forget to have fun on set and forget to take chances. He’s the type of guy that’s constantly generating. He’s doing voices when he’s talking to you and he’s in the makeup chair and talking about stories from past work and everything so more than anything was embracing whatever choice you make and having fun with it. He did tell us some good SNL stories but they were more the kind of oh wow, that happen? Versus something like here’s something you can learn. Also, he’s good friends with George H.W. Bush. That was really interesting. He told us he’s got a real friendship going with the former President. He calls him to talk on occasion and it was just one of the greatest experiences. He was so nice and so kind and was telling us stories. I think he knew we were fans but was being super cool with us. It was just really awesome. And if was a dick it would have been heartbreaking. The alternative would have been the worst thing in the world. He’s so good. There’s a moment where he acts really serious on the show and he’s so good. I wish Dana would do even more. He’s amazing. That’s an interesting moment. So, the storyline that he’s in has a dramatic turn at the end that’s played for laughs in a high concept way. Dana comes along from that world of character based comedy and getting a lot of laughs from quirks and voices and stuff and we kept telling him play it smaller. We’re getting close play it smaller, smaller, smaller. And finally he just nailed the line. He delivered it like an arch-villainy quiet whisper and we’re like yeah that’s perfect and he’s like “Oh. We’re making a drama.” That was really something interesting to realize. Maybe that’s something unique to our show. Bob has pointed it out many times that we try to do sketches that could not happen on Saturday Night Live not because they’re funnier or better or whatever but because of the layers to them or where they go or how they’re shot. Or the fact that they’re not always going for straight laughs, they’re going for subtle textural stuff.
Yeah, Saturday Night Live doesn’t usually have a lot of time for character development.
Birthday Boys: Yeah, exactly, you got to write a three minute stand-alone sketch, sometimes longer, but you’re just trying to comment on the topic at hand and introduce this great ensemble of characters that you have at your disposal so like for use, the script is upside down. We’re trying to write great episode of TV, we’re trying to have really interesting, unique comedy and layered concepts and then we’re trying to be funny as actors. Which can help us and hurt us but it is what makes the show unique.
So you mentioned Bob Odenkirk. He’s the producer. Would you consider him the showrunner? How much is he involved? How much does he rein you in or lead you just day to day?
Birthday Boys: Oh yeah, showrunner is still the right term for Bob for sure. I mean he has a whole episode to himself this year. Kind of in a season one sense where he’s driving the whole storyline and pops up in different sketches. But he also makes the occasional pit stop but his main impact is in the writer’s room. Early on he’s there every day. He’s taping how we’re talking about the show and what areas we want to go into and then he makes sure we’re still doing something original and lets us know if he thinks we’re going off in one or two directions too far. More than anything he’s just sort of like a shepherd of the show as a producer and writer. And he even fought to keep the pubes in the season pilot episode. I don’t know if that’s been discussed but that was a result of back and forth on what we could show in the sketch ropes and underwear.
The one where she wants to be one of the guys?
Birthday Boys: Yeah
That was somewhat unexpected
Birthday Boys: There’s a lot of flesh in that scene. There wasn’t a problem with the flesh but
you’ll see nary a pube on TV-14, it becomes TV-MA. Bob took it right to the top. He made a phone call he probably shouldn’t have made in retrospect but it airs as such.
Was that something you got some executive notes back on that they didn’t really care for? Is that something you get a lot?
Birthday Boys: Not at all. It’s really not that kind of situation with IFC. Creatively, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a “don’t do that” note. You might occasionally get one that says “explain this a little more, dive in a little deeper, spend a little more time or less time here” but if they have to say no to something it’s usually a standards and practices or legal issue and nothing more. The good side of that is it’s usually just a clear cut answer about what they want the downside is there’s not much you can do about it most of the time. The weird thing about IFC is they can air their movies completely uncut but in order to be able to sell our show as a TV-14 rated show they have to do a little bit of censorship. It travels better. That gets you on Netflix and streaming more places. We originally wanted it to be a sci-fi drama show but they demanded that it be a sketch comedy show. So that was a huge difference obviously. Again, they wanted a sci-fi drama with Oprah and that was the only overlap we had had agreeing on who should be in the show.
I actually have read it was going to be a sci-fi drama period piece.
Birthday Boys: Yeah, yeah, yeah, if was going to be in the 90’s. The early 90’s.
Who are some of the guests you have on this season and who would you love to have on the show that hasn’t already said no?
Birthday Boys: Ooh, that’s a good question. Bill Murray. We couldn’t get Sarah Silverman this year but it was looking good for a second there. People are usually pretty down if they’re familiar with Bob’s work or the show but our schedule is so tight, it’s crazy. I mean we’re shooting eight sketches a day sometimes just knocking out shots. So the scheduling is the hardest. Adam Sandler, Jennifer Lawrence.
As an Oklahoman myself, I always have to lobby for Bill Hader. He can do no wrong to us
Birthday Boys: Yeah, we just watched Bill the other night at SNL. He was great. Will Forte,
he’s like a super nice dude. The only issue with all of these people is they’re super talented and working all the time. That is the only time, scheduling-wise. Everybody is really cool but they’re usually on some other cool project.
Are you guys touring this year? Last year you were on the Comedy Bang Bang! tour
Birthday Boys: We wanted to do that again this year and I think Scott did too but he’s making
forty episodes of Comedy Bang Bang! this year. We’re actually paired off with him this year; we’re at 11:30 and he’s at 11:00. So because of his shooting schedule we have only been able to do one show in New York and we’re talking about maybe doing on in LA but if we do a tour we probably have to do it on our own when were off and on weekends.
For people just reading about you for the first time, what would you say to people that have never seen your show before that you think might get people to come in?
Birthday Boys: Well, I think the show has gotten better and better so I would actually caution people, is this bad to say guys, I would actually advise people to jump in any time. Go ahead and watch whatever one is on. Don’t worry about, you don’t need to like a drama, it’s not Breaking Bad, you don’t gain anything watching them out of order or in order. I just like the later episodes, I’m excited for season two and I don’t want people to feel like they needed to watch season one to understand season two. Maybe I already said this, but I think it’s a unique kind of show. It’s not a collection of web sorts, you know we try to make an episode of TV that has some kind of nuance and layering and do a thing that no other show does. With every episode we made a dumb choice and commit to it. I feel like that’s our voice is committing to dumb things. It’s just gotten better and so, definitely watch season one when you can but with season two it’s only gotten tighter from last year and I think we were able to kind of this year we wrote so that it changes up even more in an episode. Just hop in and watch it. That’s the plus side of sketch comedy is that there’s no interesting thing that happened in season one that carried over. Or maybe there is. Maybe we’re messing with you. Put some Breaking Bad stuff in our show. May parents, God lve them, have told me that they love the show and they usually love it most on the fourth viewing> I was like stop rewatching that. But really just jump in anywhere.
Season 2 of The Birthday Boys premiered Friday, October 17, 2014 at 11:30pm on IFC and you can check out our season preview here. Be sure to tune in again this Friday at the same time on IFC!
Interview By: Jacob
Edited by: Jasmine Alyce
Photo Credit: IFC