Party Down co-creator Rob Thomas’ Austin Film Festival-organized appearance at the Bob Bullock History Museum this week was for both aspiring TV writers and die-hard TV geeks.
On the elevator to the second floor, fans argued over who was a bigger fan of his show Veronica Mars. (One person ended the conversation by saying “I was in Veronica Mars.” So was the name of this reporter, but I kept my mouth shut.) And after the talk, people lined up for an autograph session, with Thomas signing posters that the AFF produced.
Thomas discussed the history of Party Down, calling the cater-waiter sitcom–which aired on Starz from 2009-2010–“the worst example of how to get a show on television.” That’s because it took more than ten years and only happened after he and his collaborators took the highly unusual (and expensive) step of shooting their own pilot independently—even after several networks had specifically said, “we don’t want that.”
At the Bullock, Thomas also screened the original, never-aired pilot, which was filmed at his own Hollywood house. He also paused the action occasionally to offer insights and commentary.
A former TCU football player, high school teacher, San Marcos indie musician, and young adult novelist, Thomas moved back to Austin from Los Angeles a few years ago. The sold-out talk saw members of his family (including his grandmother, to whom he apologized for an extended masturbation joke involving Ken Marino’s Ron Donald character) in attendance.
Now a cult hit, Party Down‘s viewership on the premium network Starz was, in Thomas’s words, “in the tens of thousands,” and he might not have been exaggerating. It was canceled after two seasons, in part because another Starz show, Spartacus, raised the network’s expectations.
“Spartacus showed that they could get a million people, including my wife, to watch a show,” Thomas joked.
Thomas also said that Party Down‘s collection of misfits with dashed dreams and delusions made it “the saddest comedy on television.” But with the show more popular than ever in its afterlife, there has been great clamor for a movie, especially now that actors Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) and Jane Lynch (Glee) are better known.
But that’s also why the plans are only tentative. Thomas, primary writer-director John Enbom, and Party Down‘s other collaborators have been given the go-ahead (and money) to write a script, but then it still has to get a green light for production. Coordinating with the actors’s current schedules will be the biggest challenge.
Much of what Thomas discussed can be found in the oral history of Party Down that Details published last winter, but he offered a few insights at the Bullock event.
Even now, Thomas still can’t believe they got to hire Lynch, who was already contracted to Glee at the time (she left Party Down when that Fox show finally went into production). They had been hoping for a “Jane Lynch type,” when they wrote the part, and then she came in to audition.
Also the unaired pilot does not feature Martin Starr (Roman) or Lizzy Caplan (Casey), which is one reason why it will probably never see the light of day, even online or as a DVD extra. The actors were only paid $100 for their work on it, and that “labor of love” rate did not include any subsequent airings. (Another reason it will likely never air? The episode also includes music like Journey’s “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin'” that wasn’t paid for.)
Thomas said Ryan Hansen, who played Kyle, the blonde, surfer-type dreamboat, is “the actor of whom I’m most proud.” According to Thomas, Hansen went from a one-word role on Veronica Mars to a two-word role to being a regular. Every time Party Down co-producer Paul Rudd tried to suggest casting someone as Kyle, Thomas was like “I’ve already got the guy.”
Actress Vanessa Marano, who played a fifteen-year-old girl that Kyle makes out with in the pilot, was actually that same age at the time, and had never kissed a boy in real life. Ryan Hansen was her first. (She was replaced by Eden Sher in the Starz pilot.)
Several people asked Thomas about his decision to move back to Austin from Los Angeles. He said said that breaking into the television business from Austin would be almost impossible, but having spent more than a decade getting getting established first, he’s able to work from Texas now – with commuting.
As Variety reported, his newest project is a collaboration with Owen Wilson and This American Life’s Ira Glass, “inspired by a ‘This American Life’ segment about a man who deals with a midlife crisis by rescuing two kidnapped kids in Mexico.” It’s tentatively titled Thrillsville.
“Doing a big important classic HBO show, I will happily commute,” Thomas said. “I would love to shoot here, work here, produce here. But in the meantime, if I can get this HBO show on the air, that would be good.”