Female-centric variety show is still a work in progress
Party Over Here, the new Saturday night sketch comedy series on Fox, is no match for Saturday Night Live, and fortunately, it doesn’t need to be. The half-hour show featuring mostly digital shorts airs 30 minutes prior to SNL, isn’t live, and has only three cast members, a talented trio of women: Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna and Alison Rich. For anyone who makes a point of staying up late to watch SNL, you can easily imagine Party Over Here becoming a tailgate hang or at least a keep-you-awake time-killer apéritif in advance of your main event. But it has a long way to go before becoming a main event itself. The premiere wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t funny enough, either, and some qualities suggested that it might never be the appointment viewing blast it wants to be.
Party Over Here resembles the structure of other filmed sketch comedy shows like Mr. Show with Bob and David or Key & Peele, with pre-recorded skits separated by interstitial moments performed in front of a visible studio audience. The stars greeted the crowd (and us) by pretending that Party Over Here was celebrating its 25th anniversary. (2,500 episodes! So 100 episodes a season?!) In a wink designed to draw attention to the show’s admirable feminist orientation, the stars revealed that their “15 white male cast members would not be returning.” It was a just slap at the historical lack of minority representation on TV, but it also felt slightly behind the moment, specifically when it comes to SNL, which has made great strides in recent years to diversify.
Byer, McKenna and Rich — all new faces to me, which is my ignorance — introduced themselves with “Casual Intros,” a spoof of the casual introductions we get from Miss America contestants or presidential candidates that always come out stiff, rehearsed, and calculated. It also functioned as a way of introducing the show’s perspectives and approaches to comedy, too: an interest in parodying pop conventions, a disdain for phoniness and pretentiousness, an awareness of race and gender issues, a gleeful love for ironic dumb comedy and total randomness. “I’m Alison Rich, and I come from the great American city of ‘Room I Was Locked In Until The Age Of 12,’” she began. “I was raised by a plate of spaghetti…”
All of this was as awkward as a muffed handshake. I usually dig nutty, convoluted, writer joke comedy, but I would have preferred a more sincere, direct “Hello” (or no formal “Hello” at all) that allowed me to meet the talent without so much obscuring irony. It was much too eager to please and assumed a familiarity not yet earned. In general, the interstitial moments are poised to be the show’s weakest elements. Like a lot of filmed sketch comedy shows, the difficult juggle of playing to (and with) a studio audience and playing to the camera creates an alienating vibe. You expect spontaneity and authenticity from this kind of thing, but the aesthetic works against it. As a home viewer, I don’t identify with and share the studio audience experience; I feel removed from it. And the execution was just poor. It felt forced and contrived, and it accentuated the fact that the group chemistry is still gelling. It was a bungled beginning for the premiere and an ominous sign.
The comedy of “Casual Intros” and the premiere in general was just too high-concept, too meta for its own good. This wasn’t too surprising. Party Over Here comes from The Lonely Island, the comedy trio of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, and comedian/actor Paul Scheer. They have a shared passion for heady pop satire, goofy absurdity, and, usually, a want for good-natured fun, a saving grace of everything they do, including here. I have always liked their work, but it can be wildly hit-and-miss; the premiere was mostly miss. (There didn’t seem to be writing credits, so I don’t know which material or how much of the material came from the performer/stars. I’m going assume they had significant input.) In one interstitial, the three female stars introduced their three male Lonely Island bosses, who sat in the balcony, expressionless to the point of sternness, wearing dark suits — humorless corporate overlords, watching over their talent in action with a severe eye. Desperate to please them, the ladies offered to degrade themselves on stage by crapping their pants for laughs. It seemed to be poking at subtext, or rather, the fear of perceived subtext. I liked it for being bizarre, but I also didn’t know how to feel about it, either, though that’s not a bad thing. I can see it developing into something interesting if it becomes a ongoing bit of business.
I really don’t want to be too hard on Party Over Here. This is a work in progress. I like what it represents, and I want it to succeed. A broadcast network sketch comedy franchise starring three women, all talented newcomers, backed by a savvy, funny, established comedians? Promising. Admirable. I’m going to keep watching. But for how long? I just didn’t laugh much. The spoof of female-targeted food commercials — in which eating is presented as something of a date, and women enjoy their edibles with sensual, sexual delight — was a solid start. The implied business of Byer stuffing a steamy slice of hot pizza down her pants and her eye-popping AROOOGA! was an effective jolt. It also announced a show with a point of view.
But that point of view needs to be sharper and fresher. The skit about the turn of the century suffragette who can’t use her right to vote because she’s overworked and only has “dudes” to choose from — and forgot to register — was okay, but it petered out by appropriating (badly) “Drunk History’s” voiceover shtick. The half-hour format is both friend and foe to a show that wants to be very dense, very busy, putting pressure on segments to neither be too indulgent or too concise. One segment was too short, the faux news report on female vocal tics and the sexism at play in noticing and being annoyed by them. It ended just as it was getting funny and before it had made its point clear. Another segment, one of the shortest, was actually a few beats too long: the “Beauty and the Beast” swipe that only existed to comment on the craziness of the fairy tale’s implied bestiality. After a long commercial break at the 22 minute mark, Byer, McKenna and Rich returned to sing the credits to their studio audience, a flat anticlimax. To borrow from McKenna’s Olga, the grotesquely gauche, obscenely lipo’d, well-furred “fancy friend” that I suspect will become a recurring character: “This is a fun little play for nerds that you’re doing.” It can be. But it isn’t yet. C-
Party Over Here