Talk about a party. The fourth episode of Starz’s Party Down revival abides with a The Big Lebowski-inspired half-hour that’s not only among the best episodes in the show’s history, but also one of the funniest stoner comedies since the blazing glory days of Half Baked swear Smiley Face. “Lebowski was definitely in my head,” the episode’s director — and Party Down cast member — Ken Marino confirms to Yahoo Entertainment when the comparison is drawn to the 1998 Coen Brothers favorite. “That’s spot on.”
In “KSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau,” everyone’s favorite caterer waiters are hired to provide drinks and pass hors d’oeuvres at a very special luau hosted by a local radio station that’s busing VIP guests to a Sting concert. Behind the scenes, Henry (Adam Scott) and his girlfriend, Evie (Jennifer Garner), decide to throw their own party courtesy of some magic mushrooms, and the rest of the Party Down crew — minus Marino’s straight-edge boss, Ron — joins in the fun.
But as the mushrooms take hold, their respective psyches threaten to be cleaved in twain. Soon, resident chef Lucy (Zoë Chao) is making appetizers out of wood pulp; aspiring influencer Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) goes missing during a livestream of his first-ever trip; and Henry and Evie are making like the Dude as they try and solve the mystery of where he’s gone. Meanwhile, the group’s resident sci-fi loving cynic Roman (Martin Starr) — whose paranoia streak is as large as his love for Philip K. Dick — discovers that the luau is actually a police sting operation designed to trap deadbeat dads who have skipped out on paying alimony.
Clearly, there’s a lot going on in this episode, but Marino and the cast really tie the room together by playing the drug humor big… but not too big. “The goal of shooting something like that is to just try to be as real as possible,” the director explains. “Don’t get too jokey with it; be as specific as you can.”
Scott echoes Marino in discussing how he approached playing a thoroughly stoned Henry. “It’s always challenging if you have to play drunk or stoned, because you don’t want it to be fake,” the Parks and Recreation fan favorite explains. “We’ve all seen the fake version of every different type of intoxication. I’ve always found the more specific the better, so that’s the place where I usually start from. And since we were all doing it, it was really fun to just hold hands and jump off that cliff together.”
According to Party Down showrunner, John Enbom, the specifics of “KSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau” changed quite a lot during the production of Season 3. “It originally started out as a completely different episode,” he reveals, adding that the abandoned version of the episode would have prominently featured Lizzy Caplan as Henry’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Casey Klein — the one major character from the first two seasons that doesn’t return in the third. (Caplan intended to be part of the revival, but had production conflicts with other shows that required her to bow out. That’s when Garner was enlisted to make her rom-com return as Henry’s new love interest.)
“Once we realized it wasn’t a Lizzie episode anymore, we had to rethink what we were doing,” Enbom continues. “The idea we had was that they’re in this beautiful place and it’s a boring job, so they would try mushrooms. That’s where we started, and everything else was stuff we came up with [later].”
Like every episode of Party Down — which has always relied heavily on improvisation — the cast had plenty of leeway to decide how their characters would behave during their respective trips. “I was given a surprising amount of freedom,” says Williams, who was not part of the show’s earlier seasons. “I was really excited about it, because of his experience so intense and negative. Ken told me, ‘You can go as far as you want to, and if we need to dial it back, we’ll dial it back.'”
And plenty of Sackson outtakes did hit the cutting room floor mainly due to lack of time. “During the livestream audio where Sackson is babbling incoherently, there are numerous takes where Ken said, ‘I’m going to leave the mic going, just say whatever,'” the actor recalls. “It was so insanely stupid some of the things coming out of my mouth! But it was so much fun; I hope that some of that gets to see the light of day.”
Chao — who is also making her Party Down debut this year — says that Williams’s mushroom-enhanced performance became the gold standard that the other cast members had to live up to. “We shot my stuff after he shot his stuff, and Ken was like, ‘You guys gotta see Tyrel on ‘shrooms,'” the actress says, laughing. “And I was like, ‘S***, Tyrel’s knocking it out of the park! Now I’ve gotta do it, too.'” Fortunately, she was able to cook up her own version of how Lucy’s trip would play out.
“I was really stressed out because I joined the show in Season 3, and I didn’t want to mess up,” she explains. “And I was doubly scared of this episode, because you’re figuring out a new character, and then you’re also figuring out what that character is like when high. The thing that guided me the whole season was my props, so I was like, ‘The answers lie here!’ It’s fun to see Lucy not in an angry, resentful place, but in this blessed-out, turned-on creative space and just going for it.”
Another scene that didn’t make the final cut is Roman’s reaction to discovering that his car has been stolen by one of the deadbeat dads. Needless to say, he’s not as blessed-out. “When we were shooting it, I was like ‘My car is right here,’ and then I pretended to get in it and drive it, but it wasn’t there. It was just me walking around. That was a quality bit — where’s the blooper reel?”
Naturally, someone had to stay sober while shooting the episode, and that responsibility fell on Marino and Enbom’s shoulders. “I spent a lot of time in my trailer, while everyone else was running around having a blast running around this park in Malibu,” the showrunner says. “I would show up and they’d be like, ‘We’re having a great time!'”
For his part, Marino calls the episode a “blur,” but not because of any substances he imbibed while directing it. “We were moving so fast, and I was involved in every moment of it,” he recalls. As for how he stayed in character — and kept a straight face — while watching the rest of the cast lose their minds, he indicates that he channeled his inner Walter Sobchak. “When someone is playing an altered version of themselves, it’s fun to just sit, watch and react. You get to react differently based on what they’re giving you.” That’s just his opinion, man.
Party Down airs Fridays at 10 pm on Starz.