A cold beer, a board game and a few friends make for a great Friday night. But most game nights don’t require a trip through customs, as was the case for Jon Hozier-Byrne and David Reilly. The filmmakers and comedians traveled from Dublin, Ireland, to Madison in mid-February to tape two episodes of Beer and Board Games, a popular web series where four people (you guessed it) drink beer while playing a board game.
Beer and Board Games is the latest project from Blame Society Productions, formed by Aaron Yonda and Matt Sloan, creators of the breakout Chad Vader, a sketch series showcasing the adventures of Darth Vader’s grocery-store-managing brother (shot at the Willy Street Co-op). Blame Society stopped filming Vader episodes at the end of 2012, moving on to other projects, including Beer and Board Games.
Usually Yonda and Sloan tap local stand-up comedians or fellow improvisers from the Monkey Business Institute troupe to appear with them on Beer and Board Games. But the idea to invite the Irish comedians came from producer Courtney Collins. She discovered Hozier-Byrne’s comedy videos because she was a fan of his brother, indie rock musician Hozier. Collins made contact over Twitter a few months ago and offered to host them in Madison. “I immediately felt I had just done something creepy by asking these strangers who didn’t know me to come to America,” says Collins.
Hozier-Byrne and Reilly say they didn’t find it creepy, but they wondered if the offer was real. “I thought it was a prank by our roommate,” says Reilly. “Even at the airport in Madison, I briefly thought no one was coming to meet us.”
The Irish comedians are no strangers to adventure. They traveled to the south of France where they screened a short film at the Cannes Film Festival, and Reilly has performed stand-up in London and New York. Hozier-Byrne recently accompanied his brother to the 2015 Grammy Awards. “But we’ve never traveled halfway around the world just to drink beer and play board games,” says Hozier-Byrne.
Yet that is exactly what Beer and Board Games is. The Blame Society crew films two episodes per shoot, and each show features one board game and three different beers, meaning performers drink at least six beers over the course of the night. Yonda says they play the more complicated game first because of the inevitable inebriation. “We do drink a good amount, but safety is the first priority,” says Yonda. “We make sure everyone has a way to get home at the end of the night. No one drives home.”
The board games featured on the show range from the well known (Pictionary, Munchkin) to more obscure titles, including VCR games, an awful remnant from the early ’90s. They’ve also played games that aren’t available to the public yet. Game creators have turned to Beer and Board Games to promote their Kickstarter campaigns, including the game Snake Oil from Wisconsin’s own Out of the Box Publishing — the makers of Apples to Apples.
Yonda says he appreciates the simple premise of Beer and Board Games, saying it gives comedians room to play. “A few years ago, my brother and I were sitting around, having a few beers, playing a board game and cracking jokes. We were just riffing on and on about the game. I thought, this could be a show,” says Yonda.
With its simple set and small cast, Beer and Board Games is also infinitely easier to produce than Chad Vader, which featured many actors, detailed scripts and impressive special effects — broadcast-quality stuff. Making the show was time-consuming and expensive, Yonda says, and Youtube’s algorithms reward people who put up a lot of content.
Yonda says the quality of the game matters little. “When a game is good, we can really get into it, get a little competitive, and that’s fun. When a game is bad, we can make jokes about it, sometimes suggest how it could be better, and that’s fun too,” says Yonda.
Matt Sloan (left) and Aaron Yonda have moved on from 'Chad Vader.'
Aside from the presence of Hozier-Byrne and Reilly and a bit of St. Patrick’s Day decoration, the Feb. 20 shoot proceeded as usual: Yonda’s dining room transformed into the Beer and Board Games set. The small crew hung lights and set up cameras to cover multiple angles. Sloan stacked board games to build a wall to hide Yonda’s kitchen.
Hozier-Byrne and Reilly contributed a beer from Irish brewery Wicklow Wolf that’s not available in the States. They tried to sneak it into their luggage to get past customs, but airport security found it. “It’s a good thing; it turns out it wasn’t illegal to bring the beer,” says Hozier-Byrne.
The Irish visitors joined Sloan and Yonda in playing Class Struggle, essentially Communist Monopoly. It’s rigged so the lower classes can’t win. It is also really boring. “It’s a lot of rolling, a lot of moving, a lot of reading, and then nothing happens,” says Sloan. Instead of letting the tedium bleed into the episode, the four comedians started inventing backstories for their player avatars.
Over the course of three hours, the crew taped two episodes in a row. Sloan later edited each episode down to its final 15-minute length; dedicated fans watched a livestream of the entire taping. According to Collins, the live chat is often filled with several dozen people from three or four continents.
Hozier-Byrne says he understands why the show has international appeal. “At their best, board games are a social catalyst. There are rules and mechanics that are the same even if the languages are different,” he says. “And beer is pretty universal too.”
Reilly says he and Hozier-Byrne appreciate being the first international guests on Beer and Board Games. “We are not taking this honor lightly,” says Reilly. “Madison is wonderful. Wisconsin is beautiful. It reminds me a bit of Ireland, lots of lakes and sectarianism.”
And the Irish comedians seemed to fit in well with the Madison cast and crew. “We visited for a few days before the filming, and that helped us get to know the guys, get a sense of each other’s humor,” says Hozier-Byrne. Yonda took the visitors to Brocach, Madison’s version of an Irish pub.
“Which was hilarious, with the ‘authentic’ tikka masala and the Calcutta mash,” says Hozier-Byrne.
“Just like Mum used to make,” says Reilly, deadpan.
Episodes of Beer and Board Games are available at youtube.com/user/blamesocietyfilms.