Inside ‘Party Over Here’ with Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna, and Alison Rich
The Lonely Island guys (SNL) and Paul Scheer (The League) have a new project, this time as executive producers of a new all-female late-night comedy show called Party Over Here. The original sketch show stars comedians Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna, and Alison Rich and includes a mix of on-stage segments filmed in front of a live studio audience and pre-taped shorts. I spoke to the stars about their backgrounds, their favorite sketches from the show, and what they love about working together.
Tell me a bit about your backgrounds.
Jessica: I’m from Southern California. I started doing theater when I was little. Then I studied at Northwestern. I did sketch and improv there based on the Chicago influence, because it’s so close. Then I went to New York briefly and started at UCB, but then moved to LA after about a year and did Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. So I’ve been performing sketch, improv, and musical improv for about four years.
Alison: I’m from Long Island. I originally wanted to be a musical theater actress and after graduating college, I moved back to New York and started showing up to cattle calls. After I tried to get on an improv team and didn’t, a guy recommended I take classes at UCB, so I did in college and then moved back to New York after and was sort of pursuing musical theater and comedy at the same time. Then realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere with musical theater. I felt like I was better at comedy, so I redirected myself into the UCB scene. And then Nicole and I were on our first house sketch team together. In 2012 we both moved out to LA for this CBS Diversity showcase. We lived together for a bit and then I went back to New York to write for Saturday Night Live. Then I moved back to LA this year and came in for a meeting and they mentioned they were working on this all-female sketch show, and I ended up coming in for a meeting for it, and that’s how I was put on the show.
Nicole: I grew up in Jersey and went to an acting school in New York, and then fucked around for a while and kind of found the Upright Citizens Brigade and truly was like, “Oh, this is the only thing I’m good at. I’m only good at making people laugh. I can’t work in an office. I don’t know Excel. I can’t learn those skills, it’s too late for me. Gotta do comedy.”
How much actual writing do you three do?
Alison: We have an awesome staff of five writers who definitely did the bulk of the writing, but there are certain select characters, or Jess [McKenna] did music videos and things like that that she did with her partner. It’s more like SNL where there’s a writing staff, as opposed to Key and Peele or Inside Amy Schumer where obviously there’s a staff, but they’re more writing the material for themselves. There’s a little bit more of a separation.
Nicole: I didn’t write anything, but Yamara [Taylor] and Lauren McGuire, I have worked with before. They’re two people who specifically get my voice, so I would give them ideas of something and they would write this amazing thing. Then yeah, Jess wrote music with Zach Reino, her writing partner, and those were incredible. It’s awesome that she got to do them.
Do you miss more of the writing, or is this the part you’re really into?
Jessica: Yeah, that was a super huge joy for Zach and I, especially having something on the show that The Lonely Island is doing, and we look up to them a bunch, so getting to do music stuff for the show was super exciting. Beyond that I do think of myself as a performer first, so getting some input on the writing is great, but getting to get back to perform funny stuff was pretty great for me.
What do you feel like your own strengths are, as well as, what are each of the other women’s strengths?
Jessica: I think Alison is amazing at embodying great oddball characters and bringing a lot of specificity to her choices. I think Nicole is one of the boldest humans I’ve ever seen. And I am good at pretending to be a dummy.
Alison: I would agree with Jess’s assessment. I mean I think there’s a nice Venn diagram of our comedic strengths in terms of we’re definitely not all the same, but there’s lots of overlapping in what makes us laugh. But also, comedy aside, I think personality wise… [laughing] I feel like was the biggest bitch of the group in that I would stress out about things. It was really nice to look at Jess and Nicole who are consummate professionals and really rolled with anything, and they could learn material really fast. So, we all hopefully have comedian strengths, but they also have personality strengths.
Nicole: All that is true.
What are some of your favorite sketches or moments so far from the show?
Alison: There have been a lot of great moments. One of the writers that I really jazz with is Heather Anne Campbell. She wrote this really hilarious sketch called “AlisONE” hasn’t been on the air yet, but I love it and I think it’s a really good example of the oddball stuff that Jess and I like to do.
Nicole: I have two sketches that I love dearly. Yamara Taylor wrote me this sketch called “Ghost Trappers,” where essentially I’m a ghost hunter and the way I get ghosts out of the house is to fuck them. I think it was the second day of shooting and our director Danny was like, “Anything you’re not comfortable with we’ll work through it,” and I was like, “Nah man. This is my wheelhouse. I love this!” I think I really set a great tone for myself. And then the other sketch that I truly, truly love, I don’t know if they’re ever going to release the dirtier version of it, but Lauren McGuire wrote me a sketch where I’m the first black Bachelorette. Well it doesn’t really matter that I’m black, anyway, I was a Bachelorette and I fucked all the contestants. It was just wonderful to look at my male friends in the eyes and go, “I fucked that one. I fucked that one. I fucked that one.”
Jessica: Both musical moments with Zach I’m super excited about, the one that aired this last weekend, “Preaching to the Choir” and then there’s another, a rap song about “What the Heck is a Blouse?” And another one that aired this weekend that Heather Anne Campbell wrote where I’m a really confident contestant on Millionaire. That was a really fun one to perform and I feel like was a good example of how it played live – in trying to capture that live show feel, that was one that I felt, “That’s how it really felt to do live.” I was really happy with how it came out.
What are some of the things you found surprising or challenging in shooting a live show or the season overall?
Nicole: A challenging thing was, before we starting shooting, Paul [Scheer] kept being like, “Even though we’re in front of an audience, you can tape things again until you’re happy with the take.” I’ve been doing live comedy for about eight years now. With live you don’t get a second take, so it was really hard getting out of the mindset of “This take is it. This take is perfect take.”
Alison: I think that one of the challenges was definitely adjusting of being on a live set, because all three of us have experience doing digital web content and there you have a sense of how big to go and what the tone is, but there it can be odd to do a show for a live audience, but then also being aware of camera. Because at times, like Nicole was mentioning, you’re kind of like, “How big do I go? Where do I deliver this? What is this supposed to look like?” That felt like a challenge for me.
Is there anything that would surprise most people about you?
Alison: I don’t know, I think I’m a real open book and I have no secrets. The only other thing I’d want to say is that it was a very positive experience and I feel very grateful to the people top to bottom from Lonely Island, our director, and our writers.
Jessica: I hope people can tell this about me, but I’m a pretty decent freestyle rapper. But to get serious for a second, I think it would surprise people that I’ve never finished a hot dog or a donut. I discovered this when I was about eight and decided to maintain it for moments like this where I could use it as a fun fact.
Nicole: I am surprisingly very sensitive.
Actually, speaking of sensitivity and that you talk about it being a positive experience. Talk to me about the Gravy Challenge.
Nicole: Our prop master Trevor Bedwell was my favorite human being I’ve ever met. He was so funny. We never drank the gravy during our dry run. Alison just held this warm pot of gravy and was like, “It’s warm.” We were like, “Trevor, can this not be warm,” and he was like, “Sure.” “Can we have opaque cups so we can cheat a little bit?” And he was like, “Of course!” Then the sketch is happening live and it’s one of those things where you kind of have to get it in that one take, because we’re drinking gravy. The pot comes out, it’s warm, and then there’s clear cups! And it was still warm! It was like hot pudding. You could see the steam on camera coming off of it. It was one of the hardest I have ever laughed performing.
And nobody threw up?
Nicole: No, because I actually didn’t drink it. I dribbled it out of the side.
Alison: Yeah, there was a little bit of cheating on my part. I would throw it down my neck, so it looked more like I was eating it than I was.
I feel like I can’t blame you for that.
Nicole: It was so gross and hot for no reason.
Jessica: Also, I have to say that these two are the best and are so funny.