Into every generation a sketch comedy (sometimes two or three or more) is born. Indeed, we can write the cultural history of our times in their names, from Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows" to the variety shows of Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson, to "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV," to "Kids in the Hall" and "In Living Color" and "Mad TV," to "Key & Peele" and "Incredible Crew," with many more in between and yet to come.
The latest link in this chain of laffs is "The Birthday Boys," premiering Friday on IFC. Its eponymous stars work out of the L.A. Branch of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (see also: "Upright Citizens Brigade," the late-'90s Comedy Central series that featured UCB co-founder Amy Poehler). The two episodes I've seen are very good — engagingly twisted, more invested in ideas than jokes, often funny, usually admirable.
For many, this sort of group show represents a stop on the way to movies or directing or the sort of honest-to-goodness situation comedy that sketch comedies like to parody. What may begin as pure ensemble work can turn into six actors in search of a solo career. But the group still rules here; the actors, who comprise (I believe this is the technical term) a Bunch of Young White Dudes of varying sizes and hairiness disappear into the material. All are able.
Indeed the only name to appear in the opening credits is that of co-producer and featured player Bob Odenkirk (veteran of sketch comedies "The Ben Stiller Show" and "Mr. Show"), who is enough of a presence here that the show might as well be called "The Birthday Boys and Bob." He's like some great, older-school musician jamming with the kids, and his presence, while suggesting historical continuity and passing time, reminds us that sketch comedy remains typically a young person's form.
Still, it has its roots: "Monty Python's Flying Circus" would seem to be an influence, for its associative jumps, left turns and skipping through planes of reality. Things turning out to be not what they first appear is a recurring motif: What looks to be a documentary on Silicon Valley garage computer enthusiasts pivots on the line, "Sleeker design, more storage space, more user friendly — that's what we want in a garage." Pranksters breaking into a house with eggs, shaving cream and toilet paper cook eggs, shave and use the toilet paper as intended. (It's a video for "Christian Mischief, Vol. 1.")
There is a sketch in which a tiny, radio-controlled car navigates traffic on its way to "The Land of Pretend" — that is pretty much it, and it's funny — and another, an action-film parody, in which two cast members are required to be what I can only describe as extremely naked. ("The next thing I know I'm in a scene with my clothes around my ankles," says one in a later "documentary" meta-comment. "And I'm not known for my physique — well, I am known for my physique, just for it being terrible.") It is quite disturbing, mostly in a good way.
'The Birthday Boys'
When: 10:30 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)