When Party Down premiered on Starz in March 2009, it barely made a blip. Despite a cast of comedy all-stars like Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Adam Scott, and Martin Starr, and a production team including film star Paul Rudd and Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, the show—about an incompetent catering service in Los Angeles—ran under the radar for its entire first season. A cult following discovered the series via the Internet and Netflix, and enough buzz began that TV critics and entertainment blogs began to take notice, earning the first season of the series a nod as one of the best television programs of 2009 from the American Film Institute alongside Mad Men, Friday Night Lights, and Modern Family. Combining shades of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, Judd Apatow's slacker heroes, and the painful reality-based humor of The Office, Party Down was textbook cutting-edge comedy. (Marino also got hit in the nuts a lot.) But devoted viewers and critical acclaim weren't enough to keep the show alive—it was canceled after only the second season.
Now, for the first time—and for no reason except that the show was really good and we miss it, so we asked them to do it—the entire core cast and creative team tell the behind-the-scenes story of the creation and cancellation of Party Down.
ROB THOMAS, creator: I had this ex-girlfriend who told me I needed to watch this British series, and I finally got around to watching it just so I could tell her I did. It was the British version of The Office. And you know, that first scene where Ricky Gervais is hiring a forklift operator—it's just one shot on his face, and he gives this monologue, and by the end of it, my jaw was on the floor. It changed everything I had thought about television comedy. So I started calling my friends over, because I wanted someone to tell me that I wasn't crazy and this was the greatest TV show that had ever been done. The guys I called over were the guys who ended up doing Party Down: Dan Etheridge and John Enbom and Paul Rudd.
DAN ETHERIDGE, creator: John wrote his first screenplay for my USC thesis, which was, we both agree, ghastly. Rob and I randomly met his first night in L.A., I introduced Rob to John, and over time, a shared sense of humor brought us all to be friends.
ROB THOMAS: My first night in town I met Dan at a party and just started bumping into him around town. I think we officially decided we were kindred spirits when we were both at, like, a Tuesday-afternoon matinee of Galaxy Quest, stoned.
DAN ETHERIDGE: I produced Overnight Delivery with Paul in '96, and that's where he and I got to be pals. And unbeknownst to me, Paul and Adam happened to run into Rob in a bar in Austin.
ROB THOMAS: Thirteen years ago, my girlfriend and I went down to the worst Irish pub in Austin because a friend tended bar and we could get free drinks on the sly. My friend was talking to these guys, and I thought, "God, I recognize that guy. Oh, that's the guy from Clueless!"
ADAM SCOTT, Henry Pollard: We all just started hanging out and drinking and then went back to Rob's house and watched Space Ghost Coast to Coast. We became fast friends. Rob was a schoolteacher then, and, like, a year later he moved to L.A. and immediately became super-successful. I was still scrounging up guest spots on Walker, Texas Ranger.
ROB THOMAS: So we got in this habit: Each week everyone would come over to my place and we'd watch the previous week's episode of The Office and then watch the current one. We started riffing. If we were to do a show like this, what would it be?
PAUL RUDD, creator: One of the very first ideas was, what happens to the "Can you hear me now?" guy when that campaign dries up? What do you do if you're 30 years old and you can't get a job, or don't even know if you want to do that anymore?
ROB THOMAS: 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.
JOHN ENBOM, creator/show runner: Rob had this idea of cater waiters. Every episode is a different party. It's totally simple, but it made sense.
ROB THOMAS: Paul is actually the only one who has worked in the business. He worked as an emcee doing bar mitzvahs. My life previous to L.A. had been the life of an Austin musician: Somebody gets a keg of Shiner Bock and puts it in the back yard.
JOHN ENBOM: I temped a lot, these just anonymous, blank jobs where you don't even really interact much. So, in that sense, the catering actually seems exciting.
DAN ETHERIDGE: I have indexed books, I have delivered pizza. There's very little I haven't done except whoring myself, and that was on the table. I just didn't think I could actually make a living that way.
ROB THOMAS: We initially sold Party Down to HBO, and at that time Paul was going to star in the Henry role. He was shooting Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and talking to Steve Carell about playing Ron Donald. And then we ended up turning in this outline to HBO, and we had one of those tragic meetings where you can tell that the two entities are on entirely separate pages. The first word out of the HBO executive's mouth was, "We know outlines really aren't supposed to be funny . . ." So we parted ways.
DAN ETHERIDGE: It was fairly deflating.
In 2004, Rob Thomas sold a high-school-set detective series he'd created called Veronica Mars to UPN and brought John Enbom and Dan Etheridge on board to write and produce. Paul Rudd, meanwhile, was off shooting movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Party Down was put on a shelf. Then in 2007, Thomas was given notice that the third season of Veronica Mars would be its last.
ROB THOMAS: They reduced our order by a couple of episodes and there was, like, a [free] month in our schedule. We thought, "Well, the Veronica Mars crew is available, and we're available—let's go ahead and shoot a Party Down pilot in my living room."
JOHN ENBOM: Our impulse came out of a desire to put tone and character out there for everybody to see. There's a version of Party Down that's sitcomy or whatever. And then there's the version we had hoped to do. We finally decided to just shoot one ourselves so we could at least answer that question for people.
DAN ETHERIDGE: That was one of the happier shooting experiences of my life. First of all, it's got to be noted Rob wrote the not-insubstantial check to fund that pilot. And that was really ballsy. Because nobody makes money on an indie pilot. That could literally just be lighting your money on fire. And, you know, we used so many favors from so many terrific people. This hand-picked awesome cast just stepped into the roles. Obviously this wasn't a thing where we had trailers. It was just the actors sitting around in the bedroom waiting to come out.
With Paul Rudd busy filming movies (and Steve Carell starring in the American version of The Office), the producers pulled from friends and former Veronica Mars players to fill out the Party Down pilot cast. Adam came on as Henry, the former commercial-catchphrase star at the center of the show; Ken Marino (The State) stepped in as Ron Donald, the hapless catering-team leader; Jane Lynch (Glee) agreed to play cheerfully deluded actress Constance Carmell; and Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars' Dick Casablancas) had the blond good looks perfect for up-and-coming schmactor Kyle Bradway. Dog Bites Man's Andrea Savage played struggling comedian Casey Klein.