There are hundreds of places in Los Angeles to see live comedy. From an institution like The Comedy Store on Sunset to the cozy but unpredictable setting at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on Franklin, all types of comedy are happening in all types of places—a list that now includes “late-night TV sketches” and “a 110-year-old downtown hotel.”
It’s Tuesday night at the Alexandria Hotel, and executive producer Paul Scheer is overseeing back-to-back tapings of new sketch comedy series Party Over Here, which debuts Saturday, March 12 on Fox. In addition to producing and directing some pre-taped segments, Scheer will also be seen playing the Chris Harrison-type hosting a Bachelorette parody (his only onscreen appearance of the season). Yet he remains unruffled throughout.
Known for starring roles in The League and NTSF: SD: SUV::, Scheer doesn’t want to distract from the show’s three female leads: Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna, and Alison Rich. He takes the stage and explains how Party Over Here is going to be a different experience for both the audience at home and at the Alexandria. “We’re not going to keep you here for seven hours,” he says, trying to relieve the tension, knowing that it’s common for studio audiences to sit around all night while the director tries to get all the right shots. Each taping of the half-hour comedy will last an hour, at most. At worst, they will tape a sketch twice, sometimes for the purpose of having a TV-14 version for Fox and an R-rated version for the internet. But Scheer—along with fellow producers Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone (known collectively as The Lonely Island), and head writer Nick Wiger—wants the experience to feel just like any other small, local comedy show.
“I was dead set from the beginning of doing it in a real location,” Scheer told The A.V. Club. “The idea that we wanted to create was ‘Hey, this is like a show you could go see.’ We wanted to make our audience full of people who are comedy fans and would be going to see the shows anyway.”
Upon first glance, Party Over Here appears to be doing the same thing as many sketch comedy series before it: Pre-taped segments punctuated by onstage chatter from the hosts. The show’s approach includes scenes that incorporate “sketch comedy for the stage” with “sketch comedy for video.” The three leads appear on stage for much of those, but not with the expressed purpose of intro-ing the next sketch. The entire half hour is composed of sketches, and the hosts are always in character.
“Yeah, anytime my name is ‘Nicole,’ it’s like ‘Heightened Nicole,’” says Byer, who gained a large following from her time on MTV’s Girl Code, and, like many involved with the show, is a UCB alum. “Everything onstage is more fun than ‘Normal Nicole.’” Byer came into Party Over Here familiar with her co-hosts: “Jess and I had been on a sketch team at UCB, and then Allison and I were on our very first sketch team in New York in 2010. Then she slept on my couch for a while.” But being cast in the same TV show wasn’t planned.
Neither, initially, was the idea of having a sketch show with three female leads. “We talked about the landscape of late-night television when we started getting this idea, and the Vanity Fair article came out that showed all the faces of late night,” said Scheer. “The one thing that we were struck by was that there was a lack of women in late night, so we definitely wanted to make sure that our show wasn’t going to be just all white men. If we’re going to do something ‘late night,’ let’s try to approach it differently.”
Byer, McKenna, and Rich have an obvious chemistry on stage, both during filming and between takes. They banter with each other and the audience, which is another clear divider between Party Over Here and other sketch shows. In TV production, there’s often a tension among members of a studio audience, who know that the cast and crew are there to do a job, not to merely provide entertainment. The stars of Party Over Here, Rich especially, show an affinity for relieving that anxiety. They want the show to to be fun for the audience, with the intent that the relaxed atmosphere will translate to the screen, making the experience of watching Party Over Here feel like attending a live comedy show.
That’s a feat the Party Over Here team just might pull off, considering the number of live shows under their collective belts. Each of the stars spins her characters from a distinct comedic type: For Rich, it’s the oddball, drawing comparisons to Kristen Wiig from Scheer. McKenna admits to playing “the dummy,” and like The Lonely Island, she has a background in musical comedy. Byer serves as a central, almost motherly figure in the way that she worries about her castmates but also enjoys seeing the craziness play out.
Not that she’s immune to it herself: The audience at the taping saw Byer play a ghost hunter who has raucous sex with a spirit, as well as the wildest Bachelorette in television history. They also witnessed Rich interacting with a version of herself that had been “downloaded into a computer,” a Black Mirror-esque segment that demonstrated Party Over Here’s knack for blending onstage performance and pre-taped video into a single sketch.
The material Byer, McKenna, and Rich presented at the Alexandria felt fresher and more irreverent than the average network comedy. There’s a Portlandia quality to the writing, though the sketches aren’t so obviously “alt”; what starts out feeling like a Key & Peele sketch can suddenly take a Mr. Show turn at the end. “Our writers and performers are all out of UCB—and so am I,” says Scheer, “And I think we wanted to celebrate that kind of stuff—that style of comedy that hasn’t really been on TV yet… If you’re not pushing boundaries in sketch, then why are you doing it?”