Paul Scheer walked away from Party Over Here. When the Lonely Island—Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone—initially approached him with the idea of a late-night sketch show on Fox, he was wary. Fox has a troubled history with late-night comedy, and the flavor of sketch he wanted to make isn’t exactly what you’d associate with network TV. “I said I’m too busy and I kind of walked away from it,” he told Paste. “Then we kept talking and they eventually brought me back into the fold. I still didn’t know if it would be doable. I thought, oh, Fox is gonna want to see a real traditional sketch show with digital shorts—I felt like we would be creating more of a cable show and they’d never go for it.”
Spoiler alert: they went for it. Party Over Here premieres tomorrow night, and though it’s unlikely to oust Saturday Night Live anytime soon—if only because they don’t share a time slot—it does offer a refreshing new approach to the genre. In recent years we’ve seen a slew of excellent sketch shows that took the Lonely Island’s cue and turned the digital short into an art form. Last season saw the end of Kroll Show and Key & Peele; Portlandia and Inside Amy Schumer will last us a couple years yet. Scheer and his co-producers could have spun the same model into a perfectly successful show, but they were more interested in what hasn’t yet been done on TV. “When I go to UCB or Groundlings,” Scheer said, “there’s a certain style of comedy that’s not being represented. It’s this whole idea of presentational comedy, where it’s not ‘Oh, we’re in a kitchen and you’re wearing a crazy costume!’ It’s more character bits, bits involving the audience. It’s a much more communal experience where you’re a part of the thing.”
On the surface, the result seems like a fairly traditional sketch show in the vein of early Key & Peele: a medley of digital shorts bookended between live performances by the main cast—Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna and Alison Rich. This is not a mark against Party Over Here; Byer, McKenna and Rich have formidable chemistry, and frankly it’s invigorating to watch late-night hosts who don’t look and sound like every other late-night host. The show’s most sublime pleasures, though, are embedded in the atmosphere and architecture: the cozy blues and golds of the Alexandria Hotel (Scheer refused to tape in a studio), the way our hosts leap into and engage with the audience, the overwhelming feel of sitting in a comedy club with a bunch of your friends. This effect is unattainable in SNL, metaphysically impossible in one-sketch-after-another series, and probably best currently represented in The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail—but that’s stand-up. Factor out cable, and Party Over Here is entirely peerless.
Oh, and the writing’s good, too. The writers, led by NTSF:SD:SUV::’s Nick Wiger, strike a delicate balance between conventional games—one joke heightened to a climax—and subtler material concerned more with character and world-building. Occasionally, as in the case of “The Struggle Is Real,” a predictable enough scene concludes with a button that upends both form and voice. In others, like “Mistaken Identity,” the chief pleasures are in the tiniest details—a grimace, an offhand remark, a vivid blue bow, the honest enactment of an insane premise. By now this level of cinematic production is to be expected of sketch, sure, but Party Over Here’s formal plasticity—its refusal to be one type of sketch, even within a single sketch!—remains distinctive. Which is exactly what Scheer wants. “Sketch should always be representative of what’s actually going on,” he said. “It should always be evolving.” Damn straight.
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.