Pop Culture

‘Party Down’ Star Ken Marino’s Secret to Playing a Lovable Asshole

Ken Marino and Adam Scott in Party Down.

Ken Marino and Adam Scott in Party Down.Courtesy of Ron Batzdorff for Starz via Everett Collection.
From Party Down and Veronica Mars to The Other Two, playing a hilariously pathetic jerk is Marino’s sweet spot.

According to Ken Marino, there are a lot of different ways to play an asshole. “You can be like a straight up asshole that is unlikable and there are a lot of fun things you can do with that,” he says during a January Zoom call. Or “You can be an asshole who doesn’t know he’s an asshole.” 

He’s something of an expert: Ken Marino has played a lot of different types of assholes: the asshole rival private investigator in Veronica Mars, and the asshole camp counselor desperate  to get laid in Wet Hot American Summer, to name a few. He’s currently an asshole music manager in HBO Max’s hilarious The Other Two. But most crucially, he’s reviving what is perhaps his most beloved asshole role: Ron, the spineless leader of an LA-based catering company made up of struggling actors in the cult comedy series Party Down, which returns to Starz for a long awaited third season this month.

These guys are all different flavors of jerk, but Marino often finds a bizarre pathos to these frequently humiliated men. And he’s having a great time while doing so. “It’s so much more fun to play the butt of the joke or the jerk of the scene than to play the straight man,” he says.

The magic Marino can create with a character who lets his desperation get the best of him is on full display in the new batch of Party Down episodes, which reunite most of the cast 13 years after the series was originally canceled. Marino’s Ron Donald is a recovered alcoholic who has poured all of his intense energy into making sure Party Down is the best catering company it can be. Except, faced with uninterested employees and his own incompetence, that is rarely the case. 

In the reboot, Ron is still wrangling a team of wannabe creatives slinging hors d’oeuvres. Some of his former colleagues have moved on, but he has not. In fact, he’s more dedicated to the world of pink bow ties and cater waitering than ever before. 

Ken Marino returns as Ron Donald in Party Down season 3.Courtesy of Colleen Hayes for Starz

Marino has always known how to play Ron, even before he was ever officially cast. He first encountered the idea for the series when he was guest starring on Veronica Mars, as the teen detective’s adult competitor Vinnie Van Lowe. Dan Etheridge—one of the co-creators of Party Down along with Mars creator Rob Thomas, John Enbom, and Paul Rudd—was telling him about this project they hadn’t gotten off the ground when Marino expressed interest. “I read the script and I gave it back to Dan, and I said, if you ever plan on trying to get this made again, can I please audition for Ron?” he remembers. 

“I saw that he was trying so hard and he had a big black cloud over his head the whole time,” he says. “And I was like, if you gave him a heart five sizes too big, that would help counterbalance the idiot he is and that would also make him more sympathetic and more interesting.” He decided Ron should have a severe hairstyle, like a wayward soldier. “Since he was a recovering alcoholic, I wanted him to be sort of militant about it,” he remembers. “He thought, ‘In order for me to stay clean and sober I have to think like I’m in the military.’”

When Party Down ended in 2010—with an episode Marino directed, in fact—the cast and creators knew they had something unique but that audiences just hadn’t found it. (Co-star Adam Scott recently joked that they had “something like 13,000 viewers.”) But over time it became one of those shows that comedy fans wouldn’t shut up about, breathless explaining to the indoctrinated that it boasts a formidable lineup the likes of  Marino and Scott and Martin Starr and Jane Lynch and Megan Mullally at the top of their dry wit game.

This arc is familiar to Marino. A similar thing happened with Wet Hot American Summer, the movie he made with David Wain and Michael Showalter, his friends from The State, the group he joined at NYU. Marino went to college with the intention of studying acting and had been accepted to the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. And while he continued his training he also met a bunch of people he loved to laugh with who wanted to create a sketch troupe.

Ken Marino and Molly Shannon in The Other Two.Courtesy of Zach Dilgard for HBO Max.

After The State’s eponymous MTV television show ended, Marino went out to Los Angeles and found himself frequently cast as the  straight man. It was fun, but not as fun as when he was asked to come onto Veronica Mars and play the sleaziest sleazebag to ever sleaze. Despite that show also having more of a cult fandom than mainstream, it was enough to open doors and minds, leading to characters like Ron, and his roles on Eastbound & Down and Burning Love (the latter of which his wife created, which he also believes deserves the love that the likes of Wet Hot and Party Down get.

Ron, Marino admits, shares some DNA with Streeter, the eager manager for a teenage popstar in The Other Two. The third season, which he has recently completed when we speak, is the “craziest and probably the funniest” one they’ve done, he promises. Perpetually ignored by his client’s family, Streeter just wants to be loved in a father figure sort of way. Despite his idiotic fame-chasing schemes, you almost feel for him. 

Similarly, in this season of Party Down—in which he returned to the director’s chair for an episode—Marino puts the full force of his body into Ron’s pain. During the premiere he bashes his fist against a wall so hard that his finger becomes dislodged. Then, upon shaking someone’s hand, he blacks out from the pain and hits his head. Later in the season, he is wrecked with such intense food poisoning you can almost feel his body strain every moment he’s on screen. It’s hilarious.

“I hurt myself a lot,” Marino says. “But it’s sort of like a good hurt, like after you work out and the next day you’re sore. If I feel like I did a good physical bit that hurt and then I’m sore the next day I’m happy. It was worth it to me.”” 

Sometimes playing an asshole requires a little bit of pain.

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