Dog wedding. Japanese wake. Mars Lander launch party. If frequently mourned Starz comedy Party Down lived to see a third season, those are just a few of the celebrations co-creators Rob Thomas, John Enbom and Dan Etheridge were hoping to have their forlorn crew of caterers-slash-Hollywood wannabes host. We assume Paul Rudd, the series’ fourth Executive Producer, had some great ideas, too, but since he didn’t make it to last weekend’s Ultimate Party Down Marathon (held at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas), we’ll just have to speculate.
Nearly 200 fans weathered the 10+ hour marathon, and they’re surprisingly alert as the event wraps up. Maybe it’s because they’ve just heard the show’s bluesy, bouncy theme 40 times through. Or maybe the high fives that Ken Marino and Adam Scott doled out, sprinting through each aisle before taking the stage, have something to do with it. As questions about favorite episodes and guest stars come in from the audience, Lizzy Caplan and Megan Mullally giggle and whisper; at one point, Martin Starr calls a time out, goading Scott into an air guitar rendition of George Michael’s “Faith” (a skill Scott’s apparently well-practiced in). This is an unmistakably close group, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
“We really wanted to do the Japanese wake, where all the guests would be speaking a different language,” explains Enbom, identifying the inane twist that would turn a funeral into a potentially awkward, definitely hilarious situation for Party Down’s apathetic crew. Imagine Marino’s clueless but well-meaning Ron Donald attempting to offer condolences to a baffled foreigner; knowing Enbom’s style, it would probably end with a Pearl Harbor joke or, worse, a casket-related mishap. It’s those moments of “How the hell is he gonna deal with this?” that the show handles so well, slowly building each episode up to mind-blowing misunderstandings that are both over the top and totally relatable.
Which is why, for one unbearably hot Texas weekend, Scott, Marino, Starr, Caplan, Mullally, Thomas, Etheridge, Enbom and Ryan Hansen were invited to host the second full-series marathon since the show’s cancellation last June.
“Weirdly, we live together in one tiny room,” Scott deadpans, when asked if this was a monumental event. “No, we get together a lot, and we had a marathon in Los Angeles about a year ago.”
“Yeah, remember when Ryan didn’t show up for that?” Caplan shoots Hansen a look of mock reproach before breaking into a wide smile, something we rarely see from Apatow-obsessed Casey Klein on the show.
The day before, the cast had assembled at Thomas’ Austin home for a pool party. “Truthfully, one of the great things about living in Austin is people want to come here,” explains Thomas, who attended the University of Texas and is back in town after a short stint in LA. “And in this particular case, we’ve got a cast and producers who all actually like each other.” That night, sunkissed and woozy from day drinking, they ended up at retro bar The Highball for an official marathon kick-off party. Neil Diamond cover band The Diamond Smugglers led the cast in a fist-pumping “Sweet Caroline” singalong as fans nonchalantly cruised by their booth.
For a group that’s moved on to more visible roles since the show’s cancellation, there were surprisingly few obsessive fan moments. Regarding his character’s “Are We Having Fun Yet?” tagline, Scott notes, “I’d say that, the fans of this show are more inclined, rather than actually asking me to say it, they usually come up and say, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be weird if I asked you to say it?’ There’s like one level of ironic detachment there.”
It’s no secret that Party Down’s appeal to a “smart and vocal and funny and almost snobby” audience is what set it apart from the growing crop of workplace comedies taking over major networks. It’s also not breaking news that Party Down has managed, post-mortem, to amass a devoted following who are not only willing but clamoring to spend all day in a theater, watching the series’ two short seasons in full (the marathon sold out “almost immediately,” according to Alamo Creative Director Henri Mazza). Comedy snobs may not be the type to order otherwise unknown cable channels, but apparently they’re the exact demographic that spends countless hours online digging up forgotten hits (which explains the high Netflix ratings of shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look and A Bit of Fry and Laurie).
“I only have an idea of it, anecdotally,” says Thomas on The Netflix Effect. “I would say if I talked to ten people who’ve seen the show, two of them watched it when it was on the air at Starz, and the other eight saw it when it was either on DVD or Netflix later.” Adds Etheridge, “I think, anecdotally, we heard that it had become such a thing on Netflix that, were we to have gotten a Season 3 (and it was pretty close), that it was because of Netflix, because it had become so popular there.“
Party Down doesn’t seem interested in measuring personal success by Nielsen numbers. “Success for me used to be, ‘I’ve got to get this job, I’ve got to do that,’” explains Ken Marino. “Then I realized, awhile back, that working with friends and people you respect and love is kind of the thing you want to hit. And for me, this has been the most special thing I’ve ever worked on.”
Commercial success, however, is a bit trickier. “I can remember when I was living here in Austin, teaching high school and writing screenplays,” recalls Thomas, “and I thought that if I ever could sell just one screenplay, if I could ever double my teaching salary, that’s all I want in the whole world. Then every time you sort of ‘get there,’ it moves beyond that, it becomes a quest for world domination. At least, instead of having beloved cancelled shows, I’d like to have just one shitty hit.”
Thomas has had his share of producer’s angst; two of his other shows, Veronica Mars and Cupid, were cancelled, while a handful of other ventures resulted in declined pilots or early departures due to creative differences. Party Down, which began as a labor of love, has a long and complicated origin story. Originally pitched to HBO, it didn’t meet their vision of an “inside Hollywood” expose. Next, FX loved the concept, but worried the show wouldn’t appeal to fans of their breakout hit It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. When Veronica Mars faced cancellation and Thomas had a few free weeks, he rushed to shoot a pilot for the script that had been sitting in his drawer nearly four years.
The show’s relationship with Starz, the network that eventually bought the show, was a mixed blessing from the beginning. Initially, Thomas explains, the network had wanted them to shoot nearly half of each episode in the Party Down Catering van, to cut location costs. Enbom, who wrote most of the show, especially felt the strain. “It was very unlike any network show, where you have a whole staff of writers writing,” says Thomas. “We would break the stories before the beginning of the year, and it was really up to John to have them all written before we started shooting, otherwise there would have been no one to produce the show at the time it was filming.” This meant that Enbom often wrote on set, sometimes working on upcoming episodes from the editing room.
But the lack of meddling from Starz also meant that the crew had more freedom to develop the show’s unique voice. “[We’d] just done a network comedy pilot,” recalls Thomas, “where they focus test it, and then 50 random people from the San Fernando Valley are weighing in on your show, [and] network executives deliver these to you if not as ultimatums, certainly as important factors in how you rewrite or redraft. Of course doing Party Down is none of that. It’s what makes us laugh, and so that’s a much more fun way to do a show.”
While Starz didn’t have many day-to-day demands, they did have hopes for the direction of the show. “They may have been looking for anti-Entourage, but not in the sense that we ended up at. They may have been looking for people who are trying to get in, but have wins as they get in. Whereas we were thinking of it as, people who can’t even get inside,” explains Etheridge. And indeed, the success of the show hinges on the complexity of characters’ unrealized, forgotten and/or crushed dreams.
“There was a critic who called us the anti-Entourage, and at one point we begged Starz to use that quote in our ads,” says Scott.
It’s noteworthy that Showtime, whose stable of hits reads like a DVD bestseller list, was caught up on the promotion angle. As it turned out, Starz, taking a risk with their first produced original series, was a bit baffled, too. “There were a lot of surprising things about the way they promoted the show,” Scott states diplomatically.
The first bad omen came while the first season was still shooting. To generate buzz at a Television Critics Association event, Starz assembled a “sizzle reel” from the few complete scenes they had.
“They had us up in a hotel room,” Scott remembers, “and they were like, here’s this hot sizzle reel we cut together for you. And they cut together the worst [shots], with sound effects and awful music. It just showed us that the publicity department at Starz, at that time, just did not get the show at all, and in fact were trying to turn it into — I don’t know what they were trying to turn it into, but it was like cut together by someone who had seen a sitcom once. So, it was just a few of us who had gone to do it, and we just wanted to leave, it was so terrifying. Like, is this what the show’s going to be? Dan [Etheridge] had to reassure us that he too was horrified, and this was not what the show was going to be.”
For most critics, this would be their first impression of the buzzed-about Starz debut. When the show premiered, publicity efforts were equally off the mark. “The first season, we were asking, ‘Hey, you’re going to put billboards up everywhere, right, so people hear about the show, right?’” says Caplan. “And they’re like, no, but, we are going to rent a storefront in Times Square and have people go around in pink bowties handing out fliers. And then people can come in and watch three episodes! And we’re like, that’s your publicity idea?” Starz also developed an iPhone app called “Waiter Wobble” that’s the subject of ridicule among the cast (though possibly just because none of them got to appear in it).
The end result, obviously, is not positive. But it paved the way for one of Party Down’s biggest successes: serving as the #1 example of The Netflix Effect. Thanks to The Netflix Effect, we clearly see how certain niche audiences, while small, can have a big impact on the success or failure of a fledgling show. And these markets can’t be treated the same as that of, say, Two and a Half Men.
“If you see how they promote Children’s Hospital now, having the cast go to Bonnaroo and Sketchfest and stuff like that and really cultivate the audience, it’s a very kind of narrow audience,” notes Scott. “I don’t even know what they wanted us to be doing. They just wanted magically to have two million people watch the show. They didn’t have any interest in figuring out how to get 600,000 of the right people to watch the show, they just wanted two million of anyone to watch it.”
The serious fans at the Alamo are more a small gathering than a trend-shifting mass, but there are many more where they came from. They’re probably home burning through a full season of The League on Netflix, or revisiting classics like Peep Show on Hulu. Most of them probably love Liz Lemon, but prefer watching their Thursday night comedy online, at their leisure. Networks are still trying to figure out what this means, but for the cast of Party Down, it’s helped them gain solid footing.
They’ve finally got the fan base they were looking for and hopefully, if everything works out, the much-demanded Party Down movie will prove it. In the meantime, Enbom is heading up a US adaptation of UK hit Free Agents, Thomas just sold sitcom Little in Common to Fox, Caplan’s slated to star in the HBO adaptation of Julie Klausner’s autobiographical I Don’t Care About Your Band, and Offerman and Mullally are sticking around Austin for awhile to shoot Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me with Kevin Corrigan. Let’s just hope that, next time the Party Down gang reunites, it’ll be in front of the camera, pink bowties and all.
Samantha Pitchel is an editor, but would probably definitely be the kind of waiter who spits in things for fun.