Fear lurks just behind any creative exercise, whether it’s acting, writing, or franchising a failing soup restaurant. Countless are those stymied in life not necessarily because of an absence of talent (although, you know, that kind of matters too), but because of something we lack a better word for in English: cojones. (Ah! We thought of a better word in English: “balls.”) Furthermore, attempts to address this universal terror can get a little tough. Often, art that’s about how hard art can be come off as too inside baseball, too self-important, too nuts. (Or, if it also involves a rapturous audience, a headset mike, and an outfit that can best be described as “Starfleet funeral,” then it can be all three!) That is, unless you are the brilliant writers of Party Down and choose to deal honestly with issues of anxiety and self-expression by having them broached by Steve Guttenberg while naked in a hot tub.
“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” is immediately the best episode of Party Down’s second season thus far — and also its (gulp) halfway point. As befitting its place in the season, some real character moves were made: Ron, freshly shorn with a backup shirt, is now “NEW new Ron” and back in AA thanks to his “takeaway from being locked in a coffin while high.” (Henry’s takeaway? “Don’t get into a coffin while high.”) While Henry and Casey are edging ever so closely back to their old roles — flirting, joking, and then getting uncomfortably near to dealing with actual, real-life questions about Henry’s career, Casey’s commitment, and whether you’d rather have a mansion or an excellent view of a Taco Bell. Best of all was the setup: The chesty Guttenberg (who clearly is a believer in the Joe Piscopo Workout Plan for Past-Their-Prime Comedians — other notable graduates include Top, Carrot), having forgotten about his catered birthday party, decides to have it anyway only with our catering crew (and their invited friends) as his guests. Is this believable? Maybe not. But is this believable for the star of Three Men and a Little Lady? We’re going to say “yes” and roll with it.
With our pink-tied heroes on the other side of the serving tray and the wine flowing, the half-hour was jammed with the sort of easy-breezy hilarity that makes the show so special: Lydia hanging with her only L.A. friend, Mrs. Gomez who works at the airport, and misunderstanding the famous “how do you get to Carnegie Hall/practice” joke (“the driver’s deaf!”), Kyle trying to impress a lithe, much-smarter-than-him acting-class scene partner (“Do you guys know any German? What’s Ayn Rand? Like ‘a’ Rand?”), and Ron totally misunderstanding the point of AA by having his sponsor come to the party not because he’s tempted by wine, but because the wine-loving sponsor is a plumber and Ron got a shrimp jammed in an expensive, artistic fish tank.
But the meat of the episode centered on perpetually frustrated, actually terrified Roman as he struggled with selling out, “surgitubes,” and the first public reading of his work. We also met his even geekier writing partner, Kent Gerbels (like the animal, not the Nazi), played by McLovin Christopher Mintz-Plasse. After all this time of hearing about Roman’s “hard sci-fi” genius and seeing him heap scorn upon anyone unfortunate enough to be less talented than he is (which is to say: everyone) we got to see some of his work “on its feet,” as they say in Mr. Guttenberg’s beloved “thee-uh-tuh.” And guess what? It sucked! After a sidesplittingly perfect performance of the worst, inert Star Trek fan-fic imaginable (“FINE MERCHANDISE, UH, DUCLARK?!?”), it’s the weirdly peppy Guttenberg who convinces Roman and Kent not to be afraid of feelings or, y’know, rewrites. The second performance is a doozy, with Casey challenging Henry to an act-off and Roman’s (well, really Kent’s) totally emo rewrites scoring big with the eloi peanut gallery (i.e., Lydia and Mrs. Gomez).
Of course, the second performance also sees Henry planting a big wet one on the deceased slave girl Casey, which is awkward because she’s spent the episode secretly watching a DVD of one of his first performances (as a “troubled teen,” natch). Seeing Henry as Captain DuClark — and as an ambitious, talented guy instead of a Vicodin-popping slacker — rouses up some old feelings, and Casey ends up coming onto Henry in the hot tub, only moments before the Goot shows up and recommends going commando because “the jets feel great on your balls.” The scene and performances are killer here, but also strangely affecting. We all would like to feel the way Casey seems to think acting makes Henry feel — the feeling of being so good at doing something you love. But we’ve also all felt the sting of rejection and relate to Henry’s hard-earned life motto: “No risk = no risk.”
I mean, sure, we could dwell on the $300,000 painting of a naked guy screwing a porcupine or how to Lydia good wine tastes like sticks “and rope,” but really we’re left pondering Henry’s final exchange with the hot-tubbing, acting-class scene partner–stealing, good sport Guttenberg. “It’s been my experience that if you have talent, then nine times out of ten you break through,” he tells Henry. “Yeah, but what if you’re that one guy?” Henry responds. The Goot’s lack of reply speaks volumes.