Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Doing sketch comedy really well is incredibly difficult, mostly because it’s just so easy to fail completely. And though the form has a long history on TV, its major successes are few and far between: For every Saturday Night Live or Chappelle’s Show, there’s a dozen Acceptable TVs or Frank TVs. Sketch is also a tough sell to both networks and audiences according to Bob Odenkirk, executive-producer and co-star of IFC’s new series The Birthday Boys—and he should know, having co-created one of the greatest, most underappreciated-during-its-run sketch shows ever, Mr. Show With Bob And David.
But it makes sense that IFC, having found some pretty serious success with Portlandia, would give The Birthday Boys a shot. The new series’ early episodes have the nothing-to-lose energy of Portlandia’s first season (an energy, you could argue, that has been largely lost). But comedically—and this should come as no surprise—The Birthday Boys’ most obvious forebear is Mr. Show. The sensibility is similar: These seven guys—a sketch troupe from Los Angeles—have the same part-absurdist, part-critical, bullshit-free approach as Odenkirk’s former outfit. It also doesn’t hurt that Odenkirk appears a lot—he’s not officially a Birthday Boy, but he appears in more sketches than not.
And like Mr. Show, it takes some time to find the rhythm of The Birthday Boys, which is probably good for the show’s long-term reputation, but possibly tough for its immediate success. There are seven Boys—not including Odenkirk—and it’s not immediately clear, even after four episodes, what each person’s role is. Episodes unfold slowly, with a few longer sketches weaving in and out of each other, and The Birthday Boys seem inclined to include every performer in every story, which doesn’t give any one member much of a spotlight.
But that’s a speculative quibble when a show is consistently funny, and The Birthday Boys is that. Though it’s the group’s first TV show, they’re fully in tune with each other’s timing and sensibility; every sketch on The Birthday Boys feels fully formed. It also appears that The Birthday Boys aren’t interested in recurring characters or repeating gags, which can be the velvet handcuffs of sketch comedy. (One Gilly is great; a dozen is awful.)
The Birthday Boys also smartly builds sketches from multiple angles: In one long-ish piece, the show follows a group of roofers from their day jobs through a starring role in their own TV show (Goofy Roofers) straight back to the bottom of the ladder. It’s clever and self-referential in ways that can be dangerous in the wrong comedic hands, but it’s handled smoothly here. Occasionally The Birthday Boys will start a piece with what seems like an obvious target—chain restaurants or dudes talking about hot babes—only to take a step back (and sometimes break the fourth wall) in order to make weathered topics feel fresh.
It occasionally falls a little flat or goes a little long—a sketch about the group of guys who invented home computing in a garage beats a funny, absurd premise into the pavement—but that’s because The Birthday Boys are aiming for something bigger than just a quick laugh. It seems like they’re trying to build a little universe of their own, on the shoulders of the most notable sketch shows of the past. It’s a show worthy of attention for that reason alone, and doubly so because it’s often funny as hell.
Created by: The Birthday Boys, Bob Odenkirk
Starring: The Birthday Boys, Bob Odenkirk
Debuts: Friday at 10:30 p.m. eastern on IFC
Format: Half-hour sketch comedy
Four episodes watched for review