There’s nothing like a kick-ass party.
In my social circle, we love our parties. So much so that we have it on a schedule. One of us always throws a party for the 4th of July, another throws the designated Thanksgiving feast, my wife and I throw the Christmas party, another friend of ours throws the annual New Year’s Evil bash and the Halloween party – our biggest party of the year – rotates among us, leaving the next person ready to try to top last year’s spectacle. As a result: we’ve got partying down to an artform.
Parties are excellent ways to bring friends together, make new friends, or even a place to meet someone amazing to hook-up or start a relationship with. But you don’t just want to throw out a can of Pringles and a six-pack of Milwaukee’s Best and call it done. You want to throw the kind of party that your friends will be talking about for months or even years to come. And throwing that kind of party, a truly kick-ass party, takes thought and preparation.
Decide On What Kind of Party You’re Throwing
This is, hands down, the most important decision you’re going to make. The type of party you’re planning on throwing is going to influence every other decision you’re going to be making from the guest list, to the food, to how long it’s going to last and whether or not the cops are going to show up and shut the whole thing down.
Having some folks over to watch the Game of Thrones season premiere, the World Cup, or some other TV event is going to entail a completely different set-up from throwing a July 4th barbecue or a “Bobby Elvis Just Got Out Of Prison” rager. It’s also worth noting that some parties are just not going to work with what you have available to you. It’s easier to throw an “everybody gets drunk and crazy” party at a house with a back yard and tolerant neighbors than it is when you’re trying to throw a room party at Project A-Kon or SDCC. Good luck getting that keg past the lobby1 .
Similarly, it’s much harder to throw an elegant dinner partyyyyyy when you live in a studio apartment with a George Forman grille for a stove instead of, say, a brownstone.
Incidentally, planning the type of party includes how you intend to invite people. The “spread the word to everyone” style invite works best if a) you aren’t concerned with exact numbers of how many people are going to actually show up and b) you’re not terribly worried about the potential of complete strangers coming to your party. Setting up an invitation on Facebook is a great way to get an accurate(ish) head-count, but you also run the risk of too many “not going” turning off people who might otherwise show up but don’t want to if it looks like it’s going to be dead. Also: everyone knows “maybe” means “probably not”. And again: if you’re planning on needing a strict head-count for your planning, make sure that you say so in the event listing and ask your guests to make sure to inform you if they’re planning on bringing a +1 or 2 (or, as happened one Christmas party, a +5) who isn’t on the invite list.
Prep Your Place
Getting your place set up for a party is about more than making sure you’ve got enough Solo cups. It means that you want to get your house, apartment or dodgy back alley cleaned up and decked out. Regardless of whether you’re throwing a friendly get-together for a few buddies, a dinner party, a craft-beer tasting or the kegger of your dreams, the way your house looks is going to directly affect the way people act. You may have heard of the Broken Window Theory: the idea that urban disorder, signified by broken windows, sets the expected social norm for others and encourages vandalism and greater crimes. Repair the windows, people are less likely to break more windows and thus not escalate to greater crimes. So, too, with parties: people will be taking your housekeeping as their baseline as to how to treat your pad. If your house looks like Sherman marched through it on the way to Atlanta, people are going to assume that you aren’t going to notice when they’ve stubbed out their cigarettes on your couch, dropped a few bottles on the floor, maybe “accidentally” set the curtains on fire.
So the first rule of throwing a party is simply: CLEAN YOUR DAMN PLACE.
Next, now that you’ve cleaned your place, you want to keep it that way… which means you want to set out trash cans in prominent, high-traffic locations. The more trash cans you have out and available, the less clean-up you’re going to have to do afterwards; people are far more likely to actually throw things away than leave their empties wherever they may lay. If you recycle, then make sure that you have a designated – and very clearly labeled – bin; trust me, if it’s not glaringly obvious, people will assume it’s just another trash can.
While you’re at it: establish a designated smoking area – preferably far enough from the main party area that the smoke isn’t going to waft back in and thus defeat the purpose. As with trash cans, make sure that there are plenty of ash trays – and be sure to empty them over the course of the party. Otherwise at some point, you’re going to be stuck with sweeping up a mountain of used butts (bonus points if any of them are still smoldering and set your trash on fire…) and ash-clogged cups, cans and bottles.
Finally, lay in basic supplies: cups, cutlery, napkins, toilet paper (you never want to run out in the middle of a party), cleaning spray and trash bags. If you’re expecting things to get especially rowdy or drunk, I recommend getting a bottle of Nature’s Miracle; it’s designed for cleaning up after Fido or Mr. Whiskers’ mistakes, which makes it ideal for dealing with getting puke and beer stains out of the carpet and couch.
Work The Logistics
One of the things that people neglect to consider is the flow of the party. If you don’t set things up properly, you’re going to end up with large clusters of people talking amongst their own little groups, which has the effect of freezing out other people who might want to talk to them. The best way to avoid this and set up an environment that encourages people to move around, talk, mingle, flirt, and generally have a good time is to pay attention to the party feng-shui.
… OK, I feel dirty for having just said that. But at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo new-age-y, setting up the environment will encourage people to circulate rather than clump up.
The key is to give people a reason to move around. At any party, people will cluster in one of three places: by the drinks, by the food and by the smoking area. If you put any two of the three too close together, you’re going to end up with a giant clot of people. It seems natural to, say, keep the food and the drinks near one another, but you’ll end up with a large cluster of people just standing around. By arranging the food at one end of the room and the drinks elsewhere, you’ll find that everyone is more likely to move about, allowing for more opportunities for people who might not know each other to interact and get acquainted.
While we’re at it, if at all possible, move the furniture around a bit to allow people to move freely while still providing places for people to perch and chat. More open spaces makes it easier for people to move around instead of having to dodge around the coffee table and ottoman in order to get to the nibbles. Plus: you’re less likely to deal with your drunk buddies stumbling around and breaking your stuff.
Stock The Bar
If you want a successful party – while keeping the budget reasonable – then keep things simple. Unless you’re hosting a small dinner party, have worked as a bartender – or you have a friend who has and is willing to be the designated mixologist – then you don’t need a wide array of spirits, liquors and mixers. The odds of anyone wanting something more complicated than a vodka tonic or a Jack and Coke is relatively low. Plus: drunks having access to a martini shaker is how you end up having to Google “Getting Kahlua stains off the ceiling” at 3 AM. So keep the liquors and spirits to the glaringly obvious and popular: rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey and bourbon. These will satisfy 90% of your party – the ones who aren’t drinking beer, anyway.
(Pro tip: if you’re buying a cheaper vodka, throwing it through a Brita filter will improve its taste. It’s not going to turn the jug vodka into Grey Goose, but it noticeably smoothes out the harshness and chemical taste that’s synonymous with the cheap stuff. I’ve done this. It works.)
Unless you’re prone to drinking Irish Creme or White Russians yourself, then don’t go out of your way to get liqueurs; you’re going to end up with bottles that just collect dust after everyone goes home. If they’re that determined to try to live their Big Lebowski fantasies, they can bring their own or hit the local Applebees.
It’s worth having a bottle or two of white and red wine as well, just in case – more if you’re having a dinner party.
You also want to make sure to have a strong supply of non-alcoholic options – both as mixers and also for the designated drivers, any under-age guests and anyone who doesn’t drink alcohol. As a rule of thumb, you want Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite or 7-Up, tonic water, club soda, grenadine, bitters, OJ, cranberry juice and pineapple juice. Have some lime and lemon juice on hand as well; they always come in handy for a number of drinks.
Lay in for a 24 pack of beer – personally I like Shiner Bock – and encourage the guests to bring a six-pack of their own if they have a favorite; it helps ensure that there will be a mix for people to choose from. Unless you have a significant amount of room, or aren’t expecting more than 402 guests, I recommend you don’t get a keg. It isn’t worth it in terms of the space it takes up or the cost, especially if you don’t empty the keg.
Consider The Food
The type and amount of food directly correlates to the type of party you’re having, the number of guests, and the time you’re planning to throw this shindig.
When you’re planning the food, consider when the party is supposed to start and the type of party; are your guests reasonably going to be expecting something substantial enough to rate as a meal or just assorted nibbles? The closer the start time is to “dinner” (generally 6 – 8 PM), the more likely that your guests are going to expect more than bowls of chips, especially if the party is more involved than “everyone get hammered.”
The single most important factor, however, is the number of guests. It’s fairly simple to guess that a box of cookies from the supermarket, two bags of Doritos and some bean dip will last through most parties, but if you’re planning on doing any sort of pass-arounds or hors d’oeuvres, you want as definitive a head-count as you can get. It’s embarrassing for the host to run out of food early in the party – it makes him or her look like they’re unprepared, which is unfair when the shortage is due to unexpected or uninvited guests showing up. A handy guideline if you’re making something more substantial than, say, meatballs is to assume two pieces per person if you’re having an assortment of foods and snacks. Of course, if you’re planning on smaller tidbits, then you might want to up the ratio to 5 per guest and plan on 4-5 different selections of small bite foods for every 20 guests.
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s good to have a mix of foods for your guests – especially so that any party goers who might have dietary restrictions have options. In my social circle, we have a number of people who have varying levels of gluten sensitivity that range from “annoying” to “requires hospitalization”, so ensuring that there are gluten-free options is a must.3 Having vegan options is also a good idea in general.
One thing that almost always goes over well is a selection of cheese, grapes and crackers. A mix of soft cheeses (especially brie. The brie is always the first to disappear) and firmer varieties tends to be incredibly popular.
Curate The Music
Music can make or break a party. Shitty music can kill the mood faster than an unfortunately timed fart at an orgy.
It’s hard to keep an energetic, happy party going when suddenly you’re listening to Lydia Lunch rasp her way through Gloomy Sunday, after all. Picking the right music to enhance the desired mood is more art than science, so you want to set up the playlist well in advance, keeping the general tone of the party in mind. Do you want music that’s going to fade into the background, or do you want it loud and raucous? Do you want it to be relaxing and elegant or energetic and encouraging people to dance?
One of the best things you can do is sign up with a streaming service like Last.FM, Spotify or Slacker; these give you access to literally millions of tracks – a must if you don’t have much of a music collection or have more… unique… tastes. Plus, some services like Spotify have a social component, allowing people to share customized playlists – which can drastically cut down the amount of work you need to do. If you go the computer route, it’s worth investing in some wireless speakers; even a bluetooth-enabled speaker like a Jambox can kick out some pretty impressive jams for its size. If you already have an impressive iTunes library, you can stream the audio through an AppleTV as well. And in a pinch, many cable providers have music channels organized by theme.
Know When To Call It Quits
Look, we all have dreams of a party so awesome that we never want it to end… but no matter how much fun you may be having, there’s going to come a point when you hit the wall and all you’ll want is everyone to take their drunk asses home so you can get some sleep. It’s tempting to let the party last until the last guest leaves – I was just at a wedding reception that went until 6 AM the next morning, complete with breakfast – but let’s be honest: by 1 AM you’re going to be sick of everybody and by 2, you’ll be ready to chase them out with a whip and chair. Besides: letting the party go on too long means that you’re going to be stuck with the morose drunks, the folks who’re determined to sponge up every last drop of booze you have around, and the one guy who’s decided that the best way to get laid is to play the Wounded Gazelle Game4.
If possible, make sure your party has a designated end time as well as a start. Otherwise, when you’re ready to start signaling to everyone that it’s time to head out – but you’re not quite at the point of telling them to GTFO already – then simply start cleaning up. Put away the food, start gathering up the empties, hauling out the trash and otherwise making it clear that the party is winding down. Hopefully, some of your party guests will be willing to pitch in and lend a hand. Regardless, killing the music and starting to put away the plates is a universal sign and people will start to head home… if only to avoid being dragooned into being part of the clean-up crew.
The other point of having a designated end time is that it keeps the party from dragging on too long. Like all things in life, it’s better to end on a high note; let things go too long and even the best parties start to curdle. Having a designated end point means that people will go away thinking about how excellent a time it was, ready to brag on Facebook about what a great time they had at your kick-ass party, and getting people excited for the next one.
- Although I have seen folks drag an entire park bench into their hotel room during Mardi Gras. No idea how the hell they got it there, but clearly it’s possible. [↩]
- Depending on the size of the keg and your friends’ capacity for Live Oak Heffenweissen [↩]
- if any of your guests have food allergies, then be careful of cross-contamination and warn them about potential hidden ingredients. [↩]
- Waiting around until closing time or the end of the party in order to try to hook up with one of the women stumbling out of the door who’s been separated from her friends [↩]