Though John Enbom (Veronica Mars, Benched, iZombie) has found great success in Hollywood, he understands what it’s like to work a dead-end job with no hope of advancement in sight. He remembers those days, the ones that fueled the fire in his belly, and the fraught experiences of his youth led him to team up with Rob Thomas, Paul Rudd, and Dan Etheridge to co-create Party Down, a comedy series about six Hollywood hopefuls as they put their dreams of fame and fortune on hold by working at an upscale L.A. catering company where they serve affluent partygoers while struggling to make ends meet themselves.
The series enjoyed two seasons on Starz before taking an unwanted 12-year hiatus after falling victim to both regime changes at the network and the pandemic, which further stalled its return for a third season. In November 2021, the wait finally ended after a six-episode revival was ordered by Jeffrey Hirsch, the new President and CEO of Starz, who also happened to be a fan of the show. Call it kismet or a stroke of series television karma.
Writer-producer Enbom was anxious to get the band back together and elated to land most everybody with the exception of Lizzy Caplan, whose busy shooting schedule simply didn’t allow for her to reprise her role as Casey Klein. She recently starred in Fleishman Is in Trouble for FX on Hulu and she’ll soon be seen in the Paramount+ series Fatal Attraction.
The rest of the Party Down players returned for the third season, including Adam Scott as Henry Pollard, Jane Lynch as Constance Carmell, Ken Marino as Ron Wayne, Martin Starr as Roman DeBeers, Ryan Hansen as Kyle Bradway, and Megan Mullally as Lydia Dunfree. Newcomers to the party include Jennifer Garner as Henry’s new squeeze, Evie Adler; James Marsden in a two-episode arc as movie star Jack Botty; Tyrel Jackson Williams as influencer Sackson; and Zoe Chao as Lucy Dang, the new catering chef with questionable culinary choices.
Above the Line spoke with John Enbom via Zoom video a day after a tornado weirdly touched down in Los Angeles. He was chatting from his basement, but luckily there was no fear of another weather disaster in the foreseeable future. What Enbom could never have predicted is Party Down‘s comeback 12 years after the party was, surprisingly, busted up early. He discussed the challenge of trying to reassemble the cast and crew, and how to pick up the funny scenarios where they last left off. A self-described writer first and foremost, Enbom also talked about what inspired him to co-create the series and how he remains hopeful that Starz will keep the party going beyond this season.
Above the Line: This series is so beloved, so what took so long for Season 3 to come together?
John Enbom: Well, we had been trying over and over again for a third season. I think it took us so long because we just kind of had to find that lucky moment. The show was canceled the first go-round however many years ago, 12 years ago, because there was a big regime change at Starz where they got a new president and a lot of our executives left. We had been very hopeful that we were gonna do a third season then, but once the new gang came in, we were like, ‘eh, we know how this usually works out.’ And sure enough, that’s what happened.
In a lovely bit of, I guess, good karma or whatever, when a new president joined, like, a year or two ago, we happened to read an interview where they had asked him something to the effect of, “are there any shows at Starz that you miss or that, you know, had gotten away?” And he mentioned Party Down, so we got very excited and perked back up. [Co-Creator] Rob Thomas called him and set up a meeting and that kind of got the ball rolling, and so here we are. It was that kind of wheel of fate, basically, because we love doing the show and we gladly would be on season 13 now, [but] we’ll take [another one] 13 years later.
ATL: So what were the challenges in getting the band back together?
Enbom: The huge challenge is just that the band has done very well for themselves individually, so getting that band back in the same room was just a much more logistically complex task. That was not helped at all by the pandemic, [as] we were kind of in a very spiky, high-intensity winter where COVID was all over the place. That part of it was a bummer because usually, making the show itself is very enjoyable [and] fun — an ideal kind of creative television opportunity. We were able to basically corral everybody into this one little window, but then Lizzy [Caplan] had conflicts and, if we moved one direction or the other, other people were falling out and all this sort of stuff. So we ended up having to kind of just do the best we could.
ATL: How did you solve the problem of Lizzy not coming back?
Enbom: We definitely miss Lizzy. She’s wonderful to work with and we love that character but that was where we landed, so we ran as best we could. Jennifer Garner joined us for this go-around, which was fantastic. If we get more show, hopefully, then maybe Lizzy can come back. We’ve remained in touch with everybody pretty closely and so we talked to Lizzy as well and she was very bummed that she couldn’t join us. So we said, ‘if we get more, you’ll be the first to know.’ The spirit is willing. I think it’s just a matter of, again, just trying to get events to line up.
ATL: Who were some of your below-the-line alums who came back for Season 3?
Enbom: You know, 12 years ago, we had a certain amount of turnover, even in the first two seasons, just because we were a very low-budget show. So if anybody kind of had other things come up, we were encouraging them to take it. So 12 years later, people had moved on from where they were back then, so I’m not sure how many of our below-the-line crew types were coming back in. Our editor [Viet Nguyen] from the first two seasons directed an episode because he’s now gone on to be a director. His assistant edited half the episodes. We had a great script supervisor [Ari Halpern] who I reached out to when we got the greenlight for Season 3 and he was literally finishing the job he was working on the day before we started shooting, so we were able to get him back, which was great because he both knows the show backward and forwards and he’s really good.
ATL: One of the changes is that Adam Scott is now credited as an executive producer. Can you elaborate?
Enbom: That meant he was kind of involved from the very beginning all the way through. The original gang was [me], Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge, [and] the other executive producer was Paul Rudd, [and we] kind of developed and kind of created the show years before we even got the first season shot. We’d been trying to just come up with a fun, kind of crazy dark comedy idea or whatever, and this is kind of what we came up with. So we spent a lot of time developing it together before we finally got it picked up.
So this time [commitment] meant that Adam just kind of joined that team. He was there helping us figure out what the season would look like. “What are we gonna do with this big time jump? How do we play the idea that people are still there? Are people moved on to other things? How do we wanna do all that?” He was involved with all that and then he was very involved with helping us do all our casting.
ATL: Did he help bring in Jennifer Garner?
Enbom: He did, just because he knows that whole process and what we need to be doing much better than we do just because he lives it in a very different way. Myself, I’m very much a writer first [and] then running the show creatively. I consider myself a “three” at best when it comes to being a producer above and beyond that. But his expertise in a lot of those [casting] areas is very helpful, and [he] also [found] ways to schedule people, [and] kind of get somebody to just get an extra day here and there — things of that nature.
ATL: Since you wrote most of the episodes, can you discuss how you keyed into some of them?
Enbom: A lot of the business was us narrowing down this sequence of party ideas and all that sort of stuff. For instance in the first episode, “Kyle Bradway Is Nitromancer,” we knew we had all this exposition to take care of. We had decided from very early on that we didn’t want to just pick back up as if nothing had ever happened and everyone was in the same place — “why are they all still there? Is it weird that they’re all still here doing the exact same thing 12 years later?”
So we very much wanted to find a way to start as if 12 years had passed and we’re sort of seeing people scattered here and there. So our main thing was to try and figure out, in what circumstances would these people ever be in the same room 12 years later? We had always talked about the idea, the comedy of assuming that Ryan Hansen’s character, Kyle, would eventually make it someday, that he was just the charmed-life kind of guy who would have that ascent. So we quickly went to the idea of, “what if he gets his Marvel franchise moment?”
ATL: Can you talk about how you addressed what happened to these characters post-COVID? I think Ken Marino’s Ron says he got it four times and lost his sense of smell.
Enbom: We couldn’t ignore this pandemic that we were, like, knee-deep in the middle of. We always wanted to have the show take place in a kind of real world, and so that’s where I believe our producer Dan came up with the idea of basically doing this big time jump at the end of the first episode. We established that it was before anything bad happened and then treated the pandemic as kind of just another Party Down stroke of bad luck. So we had the idea to jump into that second episode 14 months later or what have you.
With COVID, I’ve been fortunate that I did catch it at one point, but it was very mild, knock on wood; nothing terrible occurred. But other people we know had to deal with that [loss of smell], which also spoke to his [Ron’s] whole mindset. We just felt like that would be the most wrong thing to do — to buy the company the day before the pandemic struck and then grind so hard trying to keep it going because the idea of catering was probably the thing that was probably hit harder than anything in the sense that no gatherings occurred for however long.
The other challenge of the show is, we can never have him succeed, but at the same time, if he’s too messed up the whole time, then it gets repetitive, so we always have to kind of yo-yo him up and down. So that came from the idea that he was on the brink of success to living in the back of the Party Down van. Getting COVID four times was the seed for him living in the van, and therefore when we have this fancy party at a celebrity’s home (“Jack Botty’s Delayed Post-Pandemic Surprise Party”), he’s trying to sneak into the shower.
ATL: My new favorite cast member is the chef, Lucy Dang, played by Zoe Chao. I love how you are making fun of the foo-foo food she creates. One dish is made from paper!
Enbom: [laughs] She did. All of our characters both have ambition and then the thing that keeps them from achieving it. So we had to kind of find a unique way that she can both be driven and ambitious, but also her own worst enemy, so we settled [on] this idea of the most committed author of food experiences that makes her so far-out. She can never actually get where she wants to go but she’s so idealistic, she can’t let go and she can’t compromise.
ATL: Have you heard from any event or catering companies over the years?
Enbom: I have not, but it was very satisfying to me because back in the day, I’ve personally done my share of dead-end nowhere, weird jobs, even less interesting than this. After all, they were all like data entry [or] temporary legal secretary, where more often than not, I was just in an empty room doing mindless tasks all by myself. There wasn’t even any possibility of drama in there and it definitely spoke to the Party Down feeling of wanting to be somewhere else but being stuck doing something that you don’t want to be doing.
I was always very anxious about the idea that we weren’t doing it right because I was never a caterer. I don’t know if we were just completely off the mark in our depiction of what was going on. It was also the first time I’d met somebody who had done it and they were like, ‘you nailed the vibe and everything.’ I was so relieved. [laughs]
We definitely play it a very certain way in the sense that they have zero professionalism or pride in what they’re doing and get pretty cavalier about how they treat the job itself. It speaks to [some of] the themes of the show in general [in terms] of where they’re at and [how] their eyes are always somewhere else.
ATL: Let’s talk about some of the guest stars such as Nick Offerman and James Marsden.
Enbom: I met Nick years ago, back during our second season. We were all big fans of his, even before we had seen him do all that much. At that time, he had been on Parks and Recreation, so even back then, if we got a third season, we [knew, we] gotta figure out something for Nick. [laughs] We had a 12-year wait, but finally [we] were able to do it.
We had Bobby Moynihan join us in the “KSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau.” When you talk about the balance between how much is written [and] how much is kind of improvised as we go, it was great having him on board, just in terms of how much stuff he was able to riff on.
James Marsden is a recurring character, where he’s in the first two episodes. He was right on our radar immediately. He’s in that wild, sweet spot where he can very much play the sort of handsome leading man type [of] guy, but he’s got a very good sense of humor and can play the comedy. We like to be able to give everybody as much free reign as we can. He fit in great in that regard.
ATL: Another new cast member is Tyrell Jackson Williams.
Enbom: We wanted to bring in some new characters just because we knew that Megan [Mullally] and Jane [Lynch’s] characters are no longer working at Party Down as caterers. We knew we needed new caterers, just so that we had a full team always working in all the episodes. Part of our pitch was always, “what do we do if somebody leaves or gets a better job or whatever?” Well, it’s catering, and people come and go all the time, so that allows us an opportunity to bring in new characters that will be fun. I was excited that we got to bring new people in this go-round. It was the first time we sat down and did real casting as opposed to just either finding people [who] were a friend-of-a-friend-type thing [who] we could convince to join or people we just already flat-out knew. That’s kind of how we cast the show, the first go-round.
[Here], we put out the net for new young people [who] we weren’t necessarily familiar with or didn’t know personally. What was interesting about Tyrell’s character, Sackson, was we understood him the least in the sense that we were middle-aged guys trying to come up with a young, twenty-something, online influencer-type character. What drew us to him was just the fact that he [was] very funny, very sharp, and [he] had that ability to both seem very knowledgeable and in control of what he was doing in the character, but also to be totally clueless and feeling around for just any avenue.
He kind of formed the character helpfully, for us, in the process of auditioning. [laughs] He’s also very charming, great to work with, and really funny. It was a little shift from what we had originally aimed for, which was somebody who was almost basically like a young Ryan Hansen, somebody kind of bubble-headed and a little dim. We ended up feeling like he had a more interesting take than that.
ATL: I don’t think we’ve ever seen a truer depiction of taking psychedelic mushrooms on screen before!
Enbom: We always try and come up with ideas where we can put people into weird situations that also reflect the degree to which they aren’t engaged in what they’re doing. We liked the idea that just recreationally, they would try and do something, and once we had the notion where they kind of peer pressure Roman into trying it, but then he figures out all these secrets of what’s actually going on, but nobody believes him because they’re like, ‘oh, you’re just doing mushrooms for the first time.’ That was kind of the comic idea. We’ve certainly never done anything like that before. I think we’ve had a couple of little drug moments in the past, but definitely not one like this.
ATL: So what has been the most satisfying thing for you after coming back to Party Down after all these years?
Enbom: Honestly, just getting to do it again. It’s the best possible way to kind of make a show. I love the idea of the show. I love that it gives you the opportunity to be working with this very talented group of people who are a great pleasure to work with and have such a great vibe. But also that the nature of the show, by being in a different location with different guest stars every episode, makes it constantly renew itself. You don’t feel like you’re just repeating yourself. You’re not falling into ruts. There’s always a way to kind of put yourself into a new place and find new stuff to do.
It’s fantastic for me just to be able to do it at all. [laughs] The fact that we were able to do it again, to pick up [years] later, and everybody jumped right back into the same old spirit of the thing… [and] also, we had a little bigger budget. We got one extra day of shooting! We got to shoot in fancier locations and things like that.
But at the heart of it, it’s just being able to work with this cast and find new and interesting things for them to do. That’s the sole thing. It’s always delightful, and so that’s why we’ve always been trying to do more. Hopefully, we can [still] do more. Our fingers are tightly crossed.
The Season 3 finale of Party Down will be available on Starz on Friday, March 31.