Near the start of the debut episode of their sketch show “Party Over Here,” stars Nicole Byer, Jessica McKenna and Alison Rich appear on stage in front of a studio audience, proudly announcing the kickoff of their 25th season.
It may be the funniest joke of the premiere — not because it’s a particularly hilarious bit but because it’s hard to imagine viewers giving this meager series that long of a run.
Only mildly amusing and tending toward broad, obvious gags, this Fox late-night program, which is executive produced by the Lonely Island, could develop and grow in confidence over time. But for now, there’s not much life to this “Party.”
Airing on Saturdays at 11 p.m., a half-hour before “Saturday Night Live,” where the Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone cut their teeth, “Party Over Here” follows a familiar sketches-and-studio-banter format that’s been a staple of everything from “Chappelle’s Show” to “Key & Peele.” So far, though, Byer, McKenna and Rich, all veterans of Upright Citizens Brigade (alongside executive producer and director Paul Scheer), fail to emerge as combustible, engaging comedic performers.
Especially at a time when the entertainment industry is publicly grappling with its lack of diversity, a sketch show fronted by three women — one of whom is African-American — is cheering. But such progress would be even better if more jokes landed, and in its initial episode “Party Over Here” suffers from both a lack of a discernible personality and an absence of the killer, signature sketch that would establish the program’s comedic M.O.
Each of the three stars has a moment or two where we can see the potential for something greater. Byer, the only non-singer in the troupe, gamely stumbles through an otherwise drab bit where the women croon their closing credits. McKenna radiates delightful blankness playing a dimwitted Belle who thinks she’s found her Beast, only to discover that she’s made a terrible mistake. As for Rich, she brings tartness to a one-note sketch about the suffragette movement, later showing a winning commitment to creepily serenading the show’s location manager.
What’s missing, though, is a sense of a real rapport between these performers, particularly when they’re sharing a stage together in front of an audience. (Acknowledging the Lonely Island’s involvement in “Party Over Here,” the women at one point look up to the balcony where Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone are staring down at them impassively. It results in a tortured poop joke.) The show boasts polished production values and a catchy theme song, but the slickness only amplifies the lack of comedic inspiration at the center.
For years, Fox has tried to gain a foothold in late-night Saturday programming, trying everything from talk shows (“The Wanda Sykes Show”) to Adult Swim-like irreverence (“Animation Domination”). Based on its first 30-minute episode, “Party Over Here” appears to be the network’s attempt to challenge “Saturday Night Live” in a more direct way, incorporating the upstart energy that has powered the venerable institution’s many rivals. But whether it was “The Kids in the Hall,” “Mr. Show” or “Inside Amy Schumer,” those other programs rippled with a sense of snotty urgency, a feeling that we were witnessing comics whose unique point of view would not be repressed.
It’s foolish to rush to judgment on “Party Over Here,” but still, we live in a crowded marketplace stacked with great sketch and alternative-comedy shows. Amid a flood of excellent comedy options out there on television, Byer, McKenna and Rich are thus far merely treading water.