In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd began to develop a show called Party Down, about the Party Down catering company in Hollywood. The show’s characters included Henry, a failed actor back at the company after a 10 year absence, Casey, a struggling comedian whose big break is a bit role in a Judd Apatow film, Constance, a long faded B-movie actress who tutors Kyle, a vapid pretty boy reality star, Roman, a failed hard science fiction screenwriter, and Ron, the team leader, who wishes to open a soup buffet restaurant. The show was developed off and on for several years, even shooting a makeshift pilot in the backyard of co-creator Rob Thomas in order to shop the show to networks. In 2008, Starz picked up the series, hiring directors Fred Savage and Bryan Gordon to assist with production, and the cast of the pilot, along with a few new faces, was reassembled to begin production (Pastorek 2-3).
Premiering on March 20, 2009, the show was an almost immediate critical success. It was named one of the top shows of 2009 by AFI (AFI), and maintains a 66 percent approval rating on Metacritic. Andrew Wallenstein noted, “Lurking behind the surface of this raucous comedy is an astute meditation on the promise and peril of leading an unconventional life, something about which aspiring actors know a thing or two” (Wallenstein). The show worked – as a television comedy, as a comedy about the workplace, and as a deconstruction of the Hollywood lifestyle that claims so many. But it was not enough to keep the show running. On June 30, 2010, two seasons, the loss of two cast members, and a season 2 finale which snagged less than a million viewers in its time slot, Starz pulled the plug on the show, citing low ratings. The critical response to the show had remained constantly good throughout, but the show did not have enough viewers to sustain it.
However, after the cancellation of Party Down, Starz removed it from their On Demand services, sparking a fan backlash. The first two episodes were reinstated, and eventually the entire series made its way to Netflix, where it is still streaming to this day (Umstead and Spangler 1). The DVD sales for the series have been relatively strong for a sitcom that never scored more than 3 million viewers, and fan sites have sprung up across the web, analyzing the relationships of the characters and asking what happens next (the end of the series is a hopeful moment, where Henry, the main character, heads into his first audition in months – not a strict conclusion to the storylines, but a moment of hope after a series predicated on misery and struggle) (Shore). Much like Arrested Development before it, the show found a second life on DVD and the Internet, and now rumors about a finale movie have begun to circulate, among both the fan communities and the cast and crew of the show itself.
So the question becomes, what was the importance of Party Down, and what does it say about television comedy? I would argue that Party Down, with its late in the decade premiere and workplace comedy style, was the natural endpoint for the previous decade of comedy. In terms of the fan response, the network response to the show, the distribution of the show on various platforms, and the ways in which it reflected larger trends in mainstream American comedy, it was a show that captured a small-scale zeitgeist, one that spanned about 10 years and was the natural evolution of the sitcom form. Its early cancellation only solidified the cruel nature of the business that it parodied, and the ways in which television is both changing and remaining the same in allowing programs to breathe. As costar Jane Lynch said, “You never have to cancel Party Down. There are undiscovered, talented, funny people in Los Angeles, and we all know each other. I could cast that show right now. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but there was an audience there” (Pastorek).
This paper will examine Party Down in three contexts – the television/workplace comedy, the Hollywood that the show creates and satirizes, and the fan culture, which developed in the show’s wake. By looking at what gave way to these factors, why the show evolved the way it did, and why the show is important to the comedic medium, we can see that Party Down is reflexive of the industry that produced it. Ultimately, Party Down is an important text worthy of examination, and must be placed in its proper historical context. The framework provided here will help to do just that.
Party Down and Television Comedy
Ian Jarvie asks “Who made films and why? What was the context of their release? Why are these films being made?” (Jarvie 4). The same questions can apply to a discussion of television. The workplace comedy did not appear from a vacuum. As noted by Nussbaum, the American sitcom was on life support going into the 2000’s with the end of Seinfeld and the beginning of the erosion of the traditional family sitcom. But numerous advances were made in the early part of the decade, none more important than the British version of The Office, “which began the trend of mockumentary sitcom that reflected and parodied reality TV” (Nussbaum 2) In essence, even though the show was scripted, it maintained the free-wheeling nature of the documentary, seeming to be improvised and photographed in a fly-on-the-wall style. Other sitcoms, like Arrested Development, were influential in deconstructing the traditional nature of sitcoms (single camera, long story arcs), and shows like Sex and the City began to speak with a certain complexity about the characters, defining them as three dimensional, as opposed to previous sitcoms, which occasionally focused too heavily on single character traits (Nussbaum).
Indeed, Party Down reflected many of these trends. The show was a single camera sitcom, shot in handheld and digital, much in the same manner as Arrested Development. Though it never reached the complexity and intertextuality of the aforementioned show, the characters were provided with story arcs – all of the characters have projects that they are working on, and their failures and successes provide many of the running gags for the series. “The characters were never boiled down to a single trait” (Shore). For example, Kyle, who begins the series as the token pretty boy, stars in a base-jumping movie that’s supposed to be his big break, but the film is eventually titled Jumping Boy and released direct-to-DVD in Asia. Similarly, Ron, the team leader, is working to create a Souper Crackers franchise, which is an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant. He manages to get the restaurant at the end of season 1, but by season 2, it has failed, and he’s back on the Party Down team as a team member. There are also broader story arcs – the romance between Henry and Casey, the friendly rivalry between Roman and Kyle – which further flesh out the show and its characters. This is important, because Enbom notes that the show started as a more freewheeling enterprise, perhaps one where different actors would be in place as the caterers every week (Pastorek 4). But by keeping a roster of characters and managing several different story arcs in addition to the main, party-related story of each episode, the show solidifies itself as a modern comedy, with multidimensional characters and situations that contributed to each week’s jokes. The show created comedy out of both the situations and the characters, something that could not be achieved if it had been a week-to-week jokey sitcom (Umstead and Spangler 1).
An interesting point is raised by Schwartz, who analyzes the prevalence of the workplace comedy as representative of shifting trends in American life. He says, “Early TV focused on the family because that was where Americans largely focused their lives, he said. And in those days, sitcoms for the most part provided a sincere, loving look at the American family. Popular portrayals of the office skipped the sincere stage… Television went where the American family was going” (Schwartz 1). In short, the workplace comedy is not so much a new form of sitcom as it is a reframing of traditional family sitcoms, where the family consists of coworkers, bosses, and customers. The achievements of life are negotiated in the office context, suggesting that the workplace is where life is truly lived in modern society.
Party Down is certainly reflexive of these trends as well. The family created here is the family of Party Down Catering, with its ineffectual father Ron and mother figure Constance (Lydia, to some extent, in the second season), and the children, played by the other members of the team. If there weren’t romance involved, we could say that Henry and Casey are brother and sister types, and Roman and Kyle are the wacky siblings. This is not outright said on the program at any point, but certainly implied. Havrilesky notes that “The dilemma of the day job — do I keep myself afloat with this meaningless toil, or do I follow my dreams to bankruptcy and beyond? — looms ever present here. The characters not only struggle with their own choices, but also confront the specter of other people’s success (or failure) on a daily basis.” (Havrilesky 1). This drama, as the characters attempt to navigate the world of Hollywood, creates the family unit. Everyone struggles with their personal problems, but they also ask themselves about the wiseness of their current choices, and are bonded to the fellow members of the team by these choices. Only Constance manages to escape the family unit by the end of the series, marrying into money despite loving the team (Pastorek). Furthermore, the workplace comedies of the 21st century rarely leave the office, and Party Down is no exception. The show takes place almost entirely at the parties the team caters – there are less than five scenes in the entire 20 episodes that take place away from the parties. By only providing work relationships for the viewing audience, this furthers the notion that the modern family is negotiated in the workplace context.
The notion of the workplace as the family unit also helps to explain the presence of the actors in the show. Enbom noted that his calling card for the show was “not a lot of money, but unlimited creativity” (Pastorek 6). Because the show was produced on such a small budget and was largely free from network interference, it was able to get a large list of stars to appear, famous and not. It’s also reflexive of a larger trend in 21st century comedy; the troupe of actors who moves from project to project. Although there was not a set troupe of actors from another project that came to Party Down, many of the people who appeared on the show had worked together in other contexts (Benson). Rob Thomas, one of the cocreators, was responsible for Veronica Mars, and several actors from that show (Kristin Bell, Ryan Kwanten) make appearances. Judd Apatow is mentioned several times, another source of actors for the show (cocreator Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, and Jane Lynch). Similarly, the mid 90’s comedy troupe The State had several appearances, including Ken Marino as Ron and Joe Lo Truglio as one of Ron’s friends. The show was directed by several members of the cast, and one of the main directors was Fred Savage, of The Wonder Years fame, who took an early interest in the show and helped produce it. Famous actors pop up now and then, in what was called “favors” by Rob Thomas (J.K. Simmons, Joey Lauren Adams, Megan Mullaly) (Pastorek). And various other bit players from TV make appearances as well – Andre Royo, from The Wire, appears as a Hollywood player in one episode.
In short, the modern comedic landscape is self-regenerating, where the same actors work with the same directors and writers over and over, and different comedic products are produced (Shore). This is not necessarily a new trend – we can trace comedic teams far back into television and cinema history. But rarely has the stable of actors been as large as this, and rarely has it appeared with this frequency. The family unit that Schwartz describes could be an apt metaphor for the current Hollywood comedy itself. Look at The Office, which recently began a huge run of guest stars as its main star, Steve Carell, exited the show. Ryan notes that one of the side benefits to this method of casting is an “easy, unforced chemistry between the writers and stars” (Ryan).
By continually appearing in each other’s projects, it becomes easier for these performers and writers to craft characters and form long stories. Indeed, Pastorek notes that the early days of the show were characterized by experimentation, but within four episodes, the general outlines and plots for the show had been established (Pastorek 2). Perhaps this could be indicative of new models of Hollywood distribution, where the quicker something is put out, the better (perhaps this is why the show had such a rushed production schedule – 4 days of shooting per episode, and usually a budget of under $250,000 for the entire episode). The rapid fire nature of the program, the family environment it fosters between the actors, the large stable of talent and the contextualization as both a workplace comedy and a sitcom position Party Down as one of the preeminent television comedies of the past decade.
Party Down And Hollywood
Party Down’s initial story premise seems to be clichéd and overdone – a group of struggling artists attempting to make it in Hollywood. As noted by Havrilesky, “The driving force of the show is: Should you make your creative destiny into a religion? Or should you give in to the suspicions that you have no talent and should just hang it all up right now and stop kidding yourself?” (Havrilesky). Indeed, the characters on the program seem to constantly ask what their place in the Hollywood system is – at one point, after the failure of his base-jumping movie, Kyle asks Roman if he’s going to make it, and Roman hesitates for several moments before saying yes, suggesting that although the characters constantly hold out hope for the big break, the odds of it actually happening are slim to none. In creating the show, Rob Thomas said, “If The Office is a show about people who have really given themselves over to the rat race, let’s do a show about people who’ve chased the dream for far too long” (Pastorek 1).
The question of when to give up becomes an important one on the show – because Henry, the main character, has given up on his dream of acting, many of the characters ask him what led to his decision, and when he knew it was time to move on. His answer is his appearance in the “Where Are They Now?” box in an issue of TV Guide, for his long-ago appearance in a famous beer ad with the slogan “Are we having fun yet?” This is perhaps the show’s most literal manifestation of the greed and horror of Hollywood, and an indicator that even if the caterers work hard and catch their break, there is still the possibility that they will end in failure. The looming possibility of this failure, then, becomes the underlying subtext for the entire series – certainly not an original concept, but one that works for a show primarily set in the Hollywood system.
Where the show differs from typical examinations of this lifestyle is its attention to detail and its focus on these specific characters. The catering lifestyle is one that claims many young actors, and indeed, most of the cast of the show had some experience with catering large parties. As noted by Lizzy Caplan, who plays Casey on the show, “ I remember catering a premiere, and it was horrible. People don’t pay attention to you when you’re the caterer. They don’t even look at you. They just ask for things and take things, and you’re walking around rubbing shoulders with these actors, like, “No, no, no, it should be me, and it will be me in a year, and then all you assholes will feel so bad about not paying attention to me.” (Pastorek 3). The show focuses with laser precision on this cast of characters and perfectly captures their angst and loathing. They frequently get Shored and drunk on the job, take long breaks to get involved in various adventures (including an orgy and a switch with a famous rock star in one episode), and generally don’t care much about the work they are doing. But they remain intensely jealous of the people who they are catering for, even when they treat the caterers like garbage, because their clients represent he lifestyle they wish they had.
The power structure of the haves and have-nots becomes an important undercurrent for the series, but what’s interesting is that the stars they cater to are just as nervous, self-loathing and neurotic as the caterers. This suggests that although Hollywood can make your dreams come true, it also eats the people it works to make famous, and the price of fame can be just as high as the price of working a dead-end job and waiting for your break. As Havrilesky notes, “Rather than helpful advice, what the aspiring actors, comedians and writers on staff get is discouragement, again and again — from their agents, from their parents, from their boyfriends and girlfriends, and from each other” (Havrilesky). The subtext of the show is the implication that this cycle will continue with the actors as long as they struggle to make it, but it also paints a realistic portrait of what the struggle for fame consists of, something that few other Hollywood-themed shows in the 21st century sought to do. The shared misery of being in Hollywood is perfectly manifested - although the characters long for fame and fortune, perhaps their current situation makes the struggle easier, and makes the crap that they take from the Hollywood types easier to swallow, because they know the possibility remains that they will eventually be in those shoes. As one of Roman’s rivals states in an episode where Party Down caters a script selling party, “It was so much more fun when it was just us in that crappy apartment, writing together.”
The show also represents the new production cycles, which are common in the digital Hollywood age. As mentioned before, the show was filmed with a cast that largely knew each other, but it was also shot in a guerrilla style similar to independent films (Pastorek 1-5). The shoot was usually 4 days, often taking place at cast member’s homes. The food was never replaced during the shoot, meaning actors frequently had to eat stale hors d’ouevres. No one had a trailer – the cast frequently had to prepare and do makeup in the bedrooms of the houses they were shooting in. And the cast was not bound to the show – indeed, at the end of the first season, Jane Lynch had to leave because of her contractual commitments to Glee, and the show brought in Megan Mullaly to replace her. This fast production schedule made it easier for the show to be topical and relevant, and allowed for more guest stars to make their way into the show, giving them chances to flex their comedic chops.
It also comments on the show itself – the rushed production schedule was in direct contrast to the work schedule on regular sitcoms, suggesting that this led to more creative input and less studio interference during production. In an ironic move, the only note passed down from the network was a need for more sex – one episode takes place at an orgy and another at an adult video awards celebration, where copious female nudity populates the margins. This is an extremely stereotypical note for executives to pass down, and the show doesn’t comment on it, but it certainly represents a tear in the show’s fabric, the presence of an element that does not necessarily jibe with the feel of the program. But it also represents the necessity of being a team player in the Hollywood system – if the show had not included these elements, it might have been cancelled even sooner, or not received as much funding from the network. It also raises questions of how much a show is controlled by its creators, and how much of it is outside influence on the part of executives. A television show is a complicated negotiation, and it’s interesting to see how Party Down finds a balance between studio dictation and personal independence.
Party Down and Fan Culture
In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes that media has moved toward the participatory, and the consumer becomes the producer, creating the media he or she wants (Jenkins 3). This certainly works as an analysis of how Party Down came into being – a group of artists who wanted to say something about the medium they are utilizing and a culture that may be unsung. But Jenkins also crafts an expert analysis of fan culture in the modern era, which can be utilized for this series. Jenkins notes that fan culture challenges status quo consumerism. Fans use primary texts (in this case, show episodes and DVD releases) in order to construct cultures from the text, both by rereading them and repurposing them to their own needs (Jenkins 177). The fans are building areas to have fun in the context of the shows, and continuing the stories via fan fiction. Jenkins goes on to identify five aspects of fan culture, which can be useful as a model for examining Party Down in relation to this convergence and fan culture. These five characterizations are as follows:
1. Appropriation – A person appropriates in their own life a particular text, work, and practice relating to their fan object. Often these objects are reinterpreted in their own life.
- Participation – There is an openness for people to participate at all levels within the community. They are so inspired by it they write music, create events, etc.
- Emotional Investment – People become really invested in this object, topics, etc. It is something they are really into and something they want to talk about.
- Collective Intelligence (rather than the expert paradigm) – There is room for everyone to have something to say and contribute to the collective understanding of the group. Collective intelligence doesn’t need credentials, degrees, etc.; experiences and insights are beneficial to the community and conversation.
- “Virtual” Community – These are communities that are not necessarily built around face-to-face meetings. Some of these people know each other and some are unknown, but more often than not these groups will have times to meet face to face (Jenkins).
Appropriation manifests itself in the response of Hollywood types to the program. Lizzy Caplan mentions being on the set of Children’s Hospital, which is run by many of Party Down’s cast members, and how they lamented on the demise of the show, because it so accurately reflected the Hollywood that they had lived in (Pastorek 9). As mentioned before, many of the cast and crew of the show had worked in catering and odd jobs before they became famous, so the show could be seen as a manifestation of their past struggles, a fictional interpretation of what they saw to be the problems inherent in trying to break into Hollywood.
Participation can be seen at the fansite level. The Facebook fan page for Party Down currently has 80,897 members, and the wall has numerous posts encouraging fans to recommend the show to others, posts to fan fictions about the characters, and recommendations for other shows in the same vein. On the first page alone, user Jodie Irvine writes about catching reruns on ABC2 in Australia, Nathan Rolf suggests Children’s Hospital for its inclusion of many cast members, and Piero Roco writes, “Bought S1 DVD tonight. So good. Terrific, smart commentary. Cool outakes. Next release of S1 on DVD, more gag reel please!” (Facebook). There is even a small movement on the page for the release of an mp3 of “My Struggle,” an unintentionally anti-Semitic song sung by Kyle’s band at a wedding party, along with requests for more songs from the band. This fan culture is partially the creation of the show, and partially the desire for fans to continue the show after its cancellation. Many people on fan pages speculate about what happens to characters after the conclusion, and the fanfics are a manifestation of this desire. The show cannot continue in the traditional sense, but in convergence culture, fans can reappropriate the show’s materials and use them to craft their own scenarios for the characters.
Emotional investment can also be tied to this fansite culture. The fans begin to view these characters as real people, who make decisions of their own free will and continue their lives when the camera isn’t looking. Indeed, many of the fanfics can be attributed to this investment. For example, the crucial relationship in the series was between Henry and Casey, who began as a couple that had casual sex, then became a romantic couple, then split up for months, then came back together for work, and then negotiated their romantic feelings and work demeanors for the remainder of the series. As noted before, this relationship inspires most of the fan fiction of the show, but it also shows how fan fiction is limited by the show’s framework. The fanfic “It’s a Tangled Rat’s Nest,” by RaspBerryStars, has the slogan “For Henry, being with Casey is his only option” (FanFictionNet). This not only suggests that there’s enough emotional investment and backstory for the characters to inspire other, post-cancellation stories, but that although the fans have some say in their own fanfics, there’s a certain amount of changing of the basic plot that they can and can’t do. In this case, the relationship between Henry and Casey, which remained hazy at the end of the series, can be completed in the fanfic realm, but only if it follows the rules of the relationship established in the previous 20 episodes.
The cancellation of the show also led to the depiction of emotional investment – on numerous fan sites and message boards, the fans decried the network for not giving the show more of a change, and lamented the fact that the show’s plots would never be fully resolved. As noted by Paul Rudd, “Our reviews were strong. The die-hard fans of the show felt like it was their show. That’s cool. We all took pride in that, I think” (Pastorek 8). No matter what the eventual fate of Party Down ends up being, the show has an established audience that connected withthe characters, and a devoted base which keeps the show alive online. For that, the show can be said to have strong emotional ties.
Collective intelligence comes into play in regards to the show itself. One of the great advantages of the Internet is the proliferation of information about television shows and media forms. Indeed, via Wikipedia, IMDB, and Facebook, one could learn almost everything there is to know about Party Down, from the initial idea of the show to its eventual production and cancellation. Fan sites note cross references to other shows and other roles the actors have played – Kristin Bell, who played Veronica Mars on the show of the same name, appears as the evil head of Valhalla Catering, Party Down’s closest rival, and several lines of dialogue in the series come directly from Mars (Benson). The creators are allowed to speak on behalf of their program, as noted in Pastorek’s extensive chronicling of the series. And ultimately, all of the information is collected by various sites and made available to the public, creating Jenkins’ “sum total of information held individually by members of a knowledge community” (Jenkins 322). The Internet has made it possible for the Party Down fan community to flourish, and also made it possible for all the information about the show to be compiled in several centralized hubs. This collective intelligence is important, because although it can lead to reductive readings of history, it also makes sure that these texts are filed and given their importance, so they are not lost to history.
Finally, we return to the idea of the virtual community, which has been discussed previously but deserves mentioning again. The virtual culture creates “affinity spaces” where people both engage more actively and learn more from popular culture topics than they do from textbooks (Gee via Jenkins 186). Although we cannot necessarily say that Party Down is a show that teaches useful skills, we can say that it’s a show which provides a worldwide view of a very narrow culture, Indeed, the aforementioned Facebook post discussed the show airing from Australia, which suggests the reach of the show is global via the Internet. The Internet also provides access to the show and all of its intertextual materials, so a person could learn extensively about the show even if they do not live in America. Baltierra notes that “Shows amass a cult like following through the release of DVD’s and syndication via cable or the Internet.” A show like Party Down might not have survived long if it hadn’t immediately been released on DVD at the conclusion of its first season, where fans could devour the episodes several at a time and multiple times, then discuss them on Internet message boards (Baltierra 11).
The show continues to survive moreso in the message board forums than on fansites like those inspired by Harry Potter or Middle Earth, but the community exists just the same – a group of people contributing to the knowledge of the show, and continuing its story and supporting its cast as they move into future endeavors. Ultimately, fan culture manifests itself in a variety of ways, and Party Down represents a very narrowly focused audience, one that appreciates different comedic forms and keeps shows alive even after their cancellation, all on the worldwide Internet community. Fan culture develops in interesting and exciting ways, and looking at Party Down as a microcosm of these cultures helps us to understand why it proliferates.
Party Down – What’s Important?
Shore says, “If Arrested Development was the king of television comedy, Party Down was the heir apparent” (Shore). Party Down was certainly the culmination of a decade of television comedy. It refined the styles, which had been present in several sitcoms up to that point. It was reflexive both about the nature of TV comedy and the Hollywood business, which both the characters and the show itself were involved in. In its cancellation and fan culture, it shows how a cancelled show no longer has to be the end, as it can be rewatched, dissected, and recontextualized for audiences for years to come.
But ultimately, the importance of Party Down is what came next. Sitcoms like Louie and Community have begun to play with self -reference and breaking the boundaries of what traditional sitcoms can be. Digital convergence has placed all of the episodes of the show online, and heralded a still developing trend of television shows finding second lives on Netflix. Networks, in their wisdom, are still cancelling shows before they’ve been given a chance to grow, but shows are also being allowed to grow even when the ratings are down, such as Community. And Party Down helped to continue the trend of a stable of comedic actors working together and making products that comment on themselves and the industry at large. Party Down is not the most unique show to exist, but it personifies many of the trends of sitcoms that became popular in the past decade, and it should be regarded as important, not just because of its cultural impact, but because of its humorous look at the business we so often take for granted.