Martin Starr interview: Party Down, Freaks And Geeks

As Starz gears up for a Party Down Thanksgiving marathon in the US, we reminisce about the cult comedy with actor Martin Starr…

As far as I can glean from the covers of the glossy magazines I regularly reach past en route to a bag of Haribo Tangfastics, party season is upon us. For many, the coming month will be filled with chic get-togethers and boozy shindigs celebrating the unlikely and continued survival of our species through the harsh climes of winter (or, whatever, Christmas).

If you find yourself at such an event, spare a thought for the anonymous arm proffering trays of salmon vol-au-vents and mini pizzas. That arm belongs to a person, someone with hopes and dreams that very possibly extend beyond handing out flutes of warm Prosecco to pissed HR managers in the function room of a city centre All Bar One. 

Those are the people Starz’s excellent 2009 comedy series Party Down swung the spotlight onto. Set at a low-rent LA catering company staffed by aspiring actors and screenwriters, Party Down ran for two seasons before being put to bed well ahead of its time due to lower-than-liked ratings and a changing of the network’s executive guard.

Perhaps hoping to right that TV wrong, Starz is airing a Party Down seasons one and two marathon over two Thanksgiving nights in the US (possibly with an eye to gauging viewer enthusiasm for a series revival). To mark the event, we chatted to Martin Starr, who played caterer/aspiring screenwriter Roman DeBeers (hard sci-fi only, dragons need not apply) alongside a rich comedy cast including Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally and more…

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It’s great that Party Down is being shown again over there this Thanksgiving so that the people who missed it the first time around can have a chance to see it.


Because it’s fair to say that it didn’t get the audience it deserved at the time?

Yes, that’s an easy thing to agree on.

You once said there was “a piece missing in the puzzle of acceptance and finding an audience” for Party Down. With a few years’ hindsight now, what would you say that piece was? 

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I don’t know that I can really narrow it down to one thing. There were a lot of different factors that came into it, including that we were all growing in our careers, the entire cast. I mean, some people were clearly very established and had big careers behind them already, Jane Lynch in particular, but also I think Starz was kind of growing into its own. We were the first comedy that I thought really hit the mark that they were shooting out into the ether and it didn’t quite have enough time to… I think timing probably has a lot to do with it.

You were one of the few cast members not have appeared on Rob Thomas’ previous show, Veronica Mars

Thanks for rubbing that in!

Well, you’ve been in it now [the 2014 crowd-funded feature film], so that box is ticked.

[Laughs] Yeah, fair enough!

How did you come to the part of Roman DeBeers then?

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I think they wrote in the initial pilot ‘a Martin Starr-like character’ and then my agents read it and were like ‘do you want to do something like this?’ I read it and really liked it. Quite a simple story!

Were you part of the show’s famous first pilot, filmed in Rob Thomas’ back garden?

I wasn’t there for the initial pilot. They shot a pilot without me and without Lizzy Caplan and then had to recast those two parts because I think those two actors became unavailable, so Lizzy and I lucked out. Then we reshot the pilot I think a year and a half after they shot it the first time. I think they initially shot it for another company and then brought it to Starz so it was a while after they’d initially shot the pilot that they finally had a deal at Starz, so those people becoming unavailable wasn’t a surprise.

Back then, how fully formed a character was Roman? Was he the character we know from seasons one and two?

Yeah, absolutely. As best I remember, he was totally fully formed inside John Enbom’s brain and we got to talk it out. It was also pretty clear in the script what that character was and in particular what that relationship was between him and Kyle (Ryan Hansen), which was the most fun.

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How would you characterise the tormenting relationship between Roman and Kyle?

It’s like a love/hate relationship without the love. Definitely tormentors of each other.

There seems to be a similarity between the relationship Roman has with Kyle in Party Down, that tormenting you mentioned, and Gilfoyle and Dinesh’s rivalry in Silicon Valley. 

Yeah, definitely. The dynamic I think is a little bit different but it’s not totally dissimilar. Kyle and Roman really hated each other while Gilfoyle and Dinesh are a lot more… there’s a deeper unspoken respect that is only there because they have each weathered the test of time and proven their worth in one capacity or another through their relationship, but at the same time the only way that happens and is weathered is by the other one fucking with them as much as possible.

It feels watching Party Down as though there was a special kind of camaraderie in that team of actors, which isn’t always the case when you get a lot of stand-ups and comedians together. Often it can be pretty competitive with everybody wanting the laughs to be their laughs. 

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One hundred percent. It was the most fun because you would sit on set trying to figure out new moments in a scene, when they’re setting up lighting, after you’ve done rehearsal and we’d all be playing around and having fun and pitching jokes, more so for other people than for ourselves. It  was a very unified group and everybody was very intently looking out for each other. There was no ego in the comedy of it all, it was all fun, trying to find laughs for each other as much for ourselves.

What led to that, would you say? What made it different to other comedy shows where actors are trying to steal focus from each other?

I don’t know that it wasn’t just a community decision. I think we all just appreciated each other. At least I didn’t feel that natural competition. Jane Lynch [Constance Carmell] is also a very experienced improviser and comedic talent and I think that’s specifically the way that she works best, and she was so open and free. To say that she led the charge? I don’t know. She certainly might have but I think it was something that was developed inside the group, just being open, without ego, to finding whatever was funniest for the show. 

There was something similar in Freaks And Geeks, which is such a deeply loved show now. Bill in particular felt like a very special performance, especially from a young actor because it usually takes a lot of experience for an actor to know the value of doing less on screen. Did you come to the show with that performance ready or was it developed with the show’s creators? 

I think that was just where I felt most comfortable and natural. That was definitely a character that I created and really enjoyed playing around in. I was very different [laughs] in many ways from that character, I’d say more so than any of the other characters I’ve played. That was me fresh from being in improv class in Culver City and just enjoying this new freedom of playing inside a character week in and week out, which I had never done before.

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Bill is so many people’s personal highlight in a show that was full of highlights. What sort of response have you experienced to him over the years?

It seems totally positive from my perspective. People seem, in general, to be touched by the honesty created from that show, from the writing, the performances… it all really came from the heart.

You once described the purpose behind both Freaks And Geeks and Party Down as being very pure. What did you mean by that? The purity of their purpose in comparison to other shows?

There’s a lot of reasons that people move to Hollywood and a lot of reasons that people start growing a career. Perhaps they don’t even start off in their career looking for the kind of success that they end up wanting and which becomes the purpose of it all. I think what I meant by that really was that Freaks And Geeks was as true an interpretation of a seed planted by Paul Feig about his childhood and his life and his desire to get those stories out, and much in the same way I think the seed of Party Down was created by four guys who really just wanted to find a funny premise and create something fun together and that all spreads throughout. 

We all took on, in Freaks And Geeks, the role that we had to play in order to bring these really honest stories to life and that was kind of pure. It wasn’t anybody, as best I could tell, looking for their ego to be boosted or their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to be planted, it was just the experience that everyone was looking for.

I think the same was true of Party Down, everybody was there enjoying the experience itself. I mean, there aren’t a lot of sets I’ve been on since Freaks And Geeks aside from Party Down where people stayed after they were done working, where the enjoyment was so thorough that there was no reason to feel the need to go home and clock out of your nine-to-five. 

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You mentioned the honesty of Paul Feig’s storytelling there. Linda Cardellini told me that the writers would ask the cast for stories and memories about their teenage lives and often work those in to the show. Did you feed in to the show with your own experiences?

I’m sure we went over things like that. I’m sure there were conversations like that but I don’t remember now. I recall being given things that had already been written and being told to just to improvise, which is directly where I’d come from, that kind of training and teaching. There were big scenes like that where it was like ‘Try this again and see if there’s another way for this arc to evolve in this scene’. That’s what I remember more than anything. I don’t remember specifically if any of those improvised scenes made it or actually contributed to the show, it was more that process.

Because of that show, you started working pretty young, at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Does that mean you skipped that whole would-be-actor-working-in-a-service-industry-job depicted so well on Party Down?

Now hold on, I was a barista for one day! [laughs]

Wow. What happened on that day that you only lasted the one?

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Good question! It was terrible. It was a place in a neighbourhood where I think most of the people that worked there were under the table, they were not legally working here. I think the owner of that coffee shop was saving some money. I wasn’t a barista at Starbucks, I just went into a place in Brownwood.

This was after Freaks And Geeks?

Yeah, I was nineteen, maybe in my early twenties. I always wanted to be a pizza boy, but that never worked out. I thought that would be a really fun way to meet weird people.

It probably would be. I guess then, that you weren’t able to draw on that real-life experience in the same way as some of your Party Down co-stars?

I mean, Lizzy [Caplan] didn’t either. I don’t know if Jane [Lynch] did. I’m sure Jane had a lot of weird jobs. I don’t remember off-hand what they are but she clearly has a lot to pull from every time she improvises. I think Adam [Scott] might have worked in a catering company, but I certainly didn’t. I just had to pull from the scripts that were really well-written.

After Freaks And Geeks, did you ever feel that you had to push against or were constricted by typecasting in nerdy, sardonic roles?

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No. Not at all. I’m sure maybe right after Bill happened I felt a little bit typecast but I certainly don’t see similarities between Bill and most of the things that I’ve done since, now having fifteen years’ experience from then tie now, there’s a bigger library to pull from.

What was the experience like filming the porn or orgy episodes for Party Down? Was everybody game or was there any trepidation or reluctance about that kind of material?

I don’t think any of us had any issues with it. To be honest, those were notes back from Starz specific to ‘hey let’s have more boobs in this, we’re on pay cable, let’s try and do something that pushes the boundaries of what we can do on pay cable’. So that’s part of the evolution of those episodes. But I don’t think anybody had any issues with it.

Why do you think Starz has chosen to replay Party Down now? Is it testing the water for the much-discussed revival?

I hope so. Initially there were talks about trying to make a feature and I know that those didn’t end up going anywhere, firstly because of how busy all the creators became after the show, most of all [writer] John Enbom who was a big part of the voice of the show having written most of the episodes, and [producer] Dan Etheridge as well.

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I would love to do it, even if I couldn’t do it in the capacity that I did before. I would love everyone to get together, and selfishly, I would love to be a part of the whole experience with the cast that we had before. I think it’s a great premise and it should continue to live on.

The last we heard, Adam Scott suggested that new episodes would be more likely than a feature film. Are there any updates on that?

I don’t know any more and I don’t think he does. That was something discussed a while ago as they were trying to beat out a script, and it just structurally made less sense as a feature. It was going to become three episodes combined into a movie which would feel like three episodes combined into a movie as opposed to a movie, if that makes sense. I think there’s still clearly a much bigger arc that could have played through it and I’m sure it could have developed into a cool movie but the show really lived best in the half-hour format.

So it’s fingers crossed, still a possibility but no movement at the moment?

Listen, if you have funding, we’ll give it a go.

Sure, I’ll wire you a few million.

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When it was becoming clear that season three wasn’t going to happen—I think that’s when Adam Scott jumped ship to Parks And Recreation, which you’ve also appeared on—what was the feeling of the group at that time? Had you expected a third season?

There was a shift in power at Starz and that’s something that led us to think that our show might be let go. I think when someone new takes over a network they want to put their fingerprint on the direction the network is going and we were the only comedy on a network that was doing well at that time and [laughs] we weren’t doing that well, so it was clearly an opportunity to wipe the slate and start anew, which was unfortunate for us. I think we saw it for what it was. 

Adam [Scott] didn’t leave until he really knew that we weren’t going to get picked up, he put making that decision on hold as long as he could so that if there was really an opportunity for us to continue on Starz, he would have absolutely stuck around for it.

I don’t think there was one person on the show that didn’t want to be there. We were all so excited at the opportunity to come back and do it again. Even Jane [Lynch] didn’t leave because she wanted to, Jane left because contractually she had to go and do Glee. Glee didn’t want her to be on another comedy. They didn’t allow it.

Party Down attracted some really memorable guest stars. J.K. Simmons, George Takei… the Steve Guttenberg episode will always be one of my favourites.

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Oh yeah, Steve Guttenberg was amazing, so much fun. He’s just a good guy. And also Steven Weber, we had so much fun working with him on that episode in which he played a mob boss. I don’t know if you remember that one?

The getting-out-of-prison party episode.

That was Jane’s last episode.

Until she came back for the season two finale.

Right, until she came back again late in the second season. Those are the two that stand out the most. 

Jennifer Coolidge took over from Jane for a couple of episodes, really doing her own thing. Having the fortune of being able to have her for a couple of episodes was really fun.

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And of course, then Megan Mullally came in after that.

Yeah. We got so lucky through and through on that show.

One particularly memorable moment for your character was him dressing up as Jackal Onassis, the Marilyn Manson-type singer.

[Laughs] Yeah, with Jimmi Simpson, who’s now doing Westworld. Are you getting that out there? I’m really enjoying it. He’s phenomenal. We had a great time working on that episode too.

It’s fun to have people on a show like that, I think we had it on Freaks And Geeks as well with a few people, in particular Ben Foster who played the mentally challenged kid in the pilot. It’s great to be on a show and guest stars are like ‘this is so much fun, you guys are so lucky, I wish I was a part of this more and i’m having so much fun being here for the week that I am here’.

Should the revival come together, the calibre of guest stars you’ll be able to draw in for that would be pretty great.

Oh absolutely. Even then, we had so many amazing people, even after doing the first season, you get people champing at the bit to be a part of it. 

Also with that amount of experience going into a show there are so many connections that can be tapped into to bring really great people. You look at Freaks And Geeks and we had Jason Schwarzman, Kevin Corrigan… some amazingly talented people just come on for an episode, so the same is true for Party Down. Steven Weber, Steve Guttenberg, Nat Faxon… a lot of really talented people. 

It’s cool man, you should make a TV show, it’s really fun. I think that’s the moral of the story.

Martin Starr, thank you very much!

Starz’s Party Down season one marathon starts on Thursday the 24th of November at 7pm ET/PT, followed by a season two marathon on Friday the 25th of November at 7pm ET/PT.