Yo, Judge Erich Asperschlager! Happy birthday! You're cool!
While NBC's Saturday Night Live continues to define television sketch comedy for some reason, the funniest sketch shows are on cable—Key and Peele and Kroll Show on Comedy Central; and Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC, home to the newest kids on the comedy block, The Birthday Boys.
Facts of the Case
The Birthday Boys: The Complete First Season has 10 episodes on 2 discs:
Birthday Boys troupe members Jeff Dutton, David Ferguson, Mike Hanford, Tim Kalpakis, Matt Kowalick, Mike "Mitch" Mitchell, and Chris VanArtsdalen are joined for their first season by executive producer and unofficial eighth member Bob Odenkirk (the "Bob" of HBO's classic Mr. Show). Odenkirk gives the Boys instant comedic cred, but they don't need any help. From its large cast to absurd sketches, The Birthday Boys is reminiscent of MTV's The State—a comparison I don't make lightly. This is funny, weird stuff.
All but one member of the Birthday Boys met at Ithaca College (my neck of the literal woods) before heading off to LA, where they studied improv and made a name performing at the UCB Theater. The move to YouTube and then television gave them the means to make their bizarre sketches a reality. Although this set includes early stage versions of several sketches, The Boys' material is tailor made for TV. The episodes "Goofy Roofers" and "Catching Up On Shows" skewer television—the kinds of dumb sitcoms people love, and how the combination of serialized TV and the DVR has made it impossible to actually watch all the shows everyone is talking about.
The Birthday Boys has a kind of internal mythology, with running gags and characters, but this isn't the kind of sketch show that relies on goofy catchphrases. The Boys strike the right balance between new ideas and jokes that reward careful viewing. "Rock and Roll" has a fake documentary where modern rock musicians (including special guest Ben Stiller) gush over scratchy depression-era folk songs that pop up elsewhere in the episode. A fascination with the early 20th Century fuels several of the season's best sketches, including the discovery of real pioneer of flight Pip Denny; a profile of terrible Disney-era cartoonist Glanard Frugner; and footage from the first "raunchy" teen movie, 1943's prim "Will You Take a Walk With Me?"
The Birthday Boys: The Complete First Season looks and sounds great on DVD with a sharp 1.78:1 anamorphic video and 2.0 stereo sound. Nothing fancy, but it delivers the very visual humor.
IFC's other big comedy series, Comedy Bang! Bang! set the standard for DVD extras, with hours and hours of content. The Birthday Boys doesn't have Bang! Bang!-level bonus features, but there's plenty for fans to dig into:
• Audio Commentaries for every episode with all seven group members. They apologize early on for Bob Odenkirk's absence, but the Birthday Boys have great chemistry together, even when the commentaries stray into dry making-of territory.
• "The Making of Season One" (15:54): A collection of behind the scenes and rehearsal footage, with a running gag about people not wanting to be interviewed, and a hilarious series of outtakes where Mitch can't stop swearing in front of a kid.
• "From Stage to Screen" (10:44): Footage from the Boys' stage show mixed with the TV versions of the sketches "Coke," "Cool Machine," "Ropes and Underwear," "Shrink Ray," "Sketch Artists," and "Pretty Dad." Some of the sketches are close to the final version, while others are very different. "Pretty Dad" pushes the envelope in its TV incarnation; the stage version goes (disturbingly) further. It's a lot of fun. I just wish the disc included the full stage sketches.
• Nine "Bonus Videos" comprised of material cut from sketches, Odenkirk improv, random stuff, and web video: "A Birthday Greeting from Woosh" (0:47), "Binderbender and the Town Idiot" (1:05), "Principal Bob's Graduation Speech" (2:13), "Paparazzi Poker" (1:07), "Bob's Production Companies" (1:59), "Glanard Frugner: Complete Works" (1:18), "Fucky Tattoo" (0:30), "Good Ideas: Inside the Writer's Room" (2:18), "The Birthday Boys Accept IFC's Offer" (2:04).
• "Promo Videos": "Introducing the Birthday Boys" (0:33), "No Afterlife Promo" (0:28), "Pinewood Prankster Rap Promo" (0:43), "Pip Denny Promo" (2:30), "Three Problems Promo" (0:17), "Pitcher of Water Promo" (0:31), "Indie Film" (0:45), "Car-y Promo" (0:16).
I know, I know. There are a lot of sketch shows out there—but none are like The Birthday Boys. Featuring seven distinct comedic voices (shepherded by comedy icon Bob Odenkirk), this subversive series eschews tired sketch tropes in favor of the bizarre. In other words, my kind of show.
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