After viewing the first two episodes of Showtime’s new “L.A. comedians struggle to make it big in the 70s” prestige drama I’m Dying Up Here I tracked down William Knoedelseder’s non-fiction book of the same name which serves as the inspiration for the show. One of the two is remarkably compelling, impossible to turn away from and builds to clear climactic moments which illuminate the larger themes of the story. The other is the show.
Of course, at this point the book would have to be more interesting. Knoedelseder’s near-300 page cultural history begins with the mass migration of comedians from New York to Los Angeles to follow the relocated Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1972 and ends roughly a decade later with the depressing fallout of the remarkably dramatic 6-week strike led by the likes of Jay Leno, Tom Dreesen and Elayn Boosler against Mitzi Shore’s iconic The Comedy Store, the premiere comedy club in the land that made and broke careers but refused to pay its performers. There is a lovely coda involving David Letterman, Dreesen, Shore and others looking back on their younger days with nostalgia and regret (well, not so much Shore, who seems to regret nothing). Lettermen is quoted as saying, “I have undying affection for those times and for all those people because the older I get, the more I realize that they were the best times of my adult life.”
The book basically reads like the first half of Boogie Nights, with a bunch of tortured souls and outcasts finding a safe haven in the Los Angeles entertainment industry and banding together around a surrogate parental figure who seems to genuinely want the best for all of them before the march of progress and years of drug abuse comes along and screws everything up. Furthering the freakish Boogie Nights similarities, the demarcating point between innocence and sobering reality just so happens to also center around the switch from 1979 to 1980 and a tragic suicide committed by one of the more lovable, yet least successful among them (William H. Macy’s fictional cameraman in Boogie, Steve Lubetkin in Dying Up Here).
The show, on the other hand, is still in its infancy, stuck introducing its entirely fictitious roster of characters (several of whom are played by current stand-up comedians like Al Madrigal and Jon Daly) and peppering their lives with first-hand stories from executive producer Jim Carrey’s own experiences. For example, two Bostonian comedians newly arrived in L.A., played by Michael Angarano and Clark Duke, live in an actual closet, battle hookers trying to steal their clothes from the laundromat, encounter strange, near-naked women in the kitchen of the home they’re renting their closet from and go on a version of Deal or No Deal in an attempt to earn money for food. That all happened to Carrey, except for the part about being from Boston – he’s actually from Ontario.
Sure, it’s kind of strange that Carrey is so involved even though he’s not named once in Knoedelseder’s book nor was he in any way connected to the events surrounding the 1979 Comedy Store strike. He arrived in L.A. right after that had played itself out. However, as the show’s executive producer Michael Aguilar told THR:
“When you can bring an authenticity to it and you can bring someone who understands the pain and the anger and the suffering that these guys go through, it’s hard to get there without someone who’s like, ‘This is what we did. This is the knife fight we got into in the alley over a stolen joke. This is me and Sam Kinison racing down Sunset Strip. This is the thing Sam said to me that gutted me.’ Those are stories that, unless you’re there, I don’t know how you make those up. I don’t know how you make up a story where you find yourself alone with Richard Pryor in a parking lot at two in the morning, having a conversation about ‘I don’t know if I did this right.’ It’s those mind-blowing moments.”
In the show’s world, the strike is likely two or three seasons away since the pilot seems to take place 6 years before the first comedian picked up a picket sign and demanded to be paid for their work. Given Showtime’s tendency to give long lives to any and all shows which earn a modicum of critical acclaim if I’m Dying Up Here goes over well it will surely stick around long enough to cover the strike and maybe even the comparatively wilder and more self-destructive second wave of Comedy Store comedians in the 80s.
Whether or not that happens might depend on our collective tolerance for yet another show about stand-up comedians. We’ve already had plenty of half-hour Louie clones in which the comedians either play themselves in highly autobiographical storylines (currently Pete Holmes on HBO’s Crashing and Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher on Seeso’s Take My Wife, but recently Marc Maron and Jim Gaffigan had their own shows) or ever-so-slightly fictionalized versions of themselves (such as Tig Nataro playing an LA radio host One Mississippi). Now, Amy Sherman-Palladino has a two-season commitment from Amazon to make a prestige dramedy out of her The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel pilot, which, like I’m Dying Up Here, centers on fictional characters who happen to rub elbows with real life figures (like Lenny Bruce) and play in genuinely iconic clubs (like The Gaslight Cafe).
As such, despite its differing period setting there are many beats in I’m Dying Up Here which now feel hopelessly familiar. There’s Ari Graynor’s Cassie discovering the power of simply being herself on stage instead of trying to adopt a hackneyed persona, Andrew Santino’s Bill struggling to get out of his own damn way due to his anger issues and everyone using humor to channel their depression and anxiety. If you know the history you can kind of guess who some of the characters are supposed to be, but as TheRinger put it the ensemble plays like “a collection of composites who feel more like animated concepts than human beings.”
Of course, we’re only talking about 2 episodes. At this stage, it’s entirely normal for most of the cast to feel half-baked. It seems clear that the show wants Cassie to be the central character since she is the most developed thus far, turning a personal tragedy into a crucial career turn (spoiler: someone close to her dies halfway through the pilot) and consistently refusing to play by bullshit genderal rules. She has already been pitted against Melissa Leo’s Goldie, a barely-concealed version of Mitzi Shore, speaking in a Borscht Belt accent and playing every scene like it’s her “For Your Consideration” pitch to the Emmys (which might not be too far from real life considering Shore’s apparent tendency toward melodrama).
Goldie is of a different era and has antiquated gender views, but she thinks she’s actually being progressive and helpful by pushing Cassie to adopt either a Dinah Shore or Joan Rivers persona. This is actually pulled from Shore’s own mishandling of the Comedy Store comediennes, and I’m Dying Up Here will surely use it and the looming confrontations to draw some kind of feminist parallel to the gender issues which still plague Hollywood, a tactic also used this year by the similarly history-based Feud: Betty and Joan. However, I’m Dying Up Here could use some lessens in subtlety. The Ringer might have been a little too harsh in saying the following, but they’re not entirely wrong
As much as Ari Graynor’s Cassie complains about being tokenized as the only female comic of her peer group, that’s exactly what I’m Dying Up Here does to her. Every tiresome debate with Goldie — and there are many — about sex appeal and point of view sounds like it was pulled directly from a “Misogyny in the Entertainment Industry 101” PowerPoint.
Yet I can’t bring myself to give up on this show, not after two episodes. The scripting for Cassie might be heavy-handed, but Graynor’s performance isn’t. The beats might be familiar, but the actors play them for emotional honesty. The unmistakable desperation coming off the characters makes it easier to root for them, and sometimes their standup routines are fun to watch, even when they’re bombing. While there are all sorts of composite characters and compressed historical events on display there is still a tone of authenticity, a direct result of Carrey’s hands-on approach as producer and consultation from other era-specific talents.
The goal for all of them, as we see in the pilot via a caemoeing Sebastian Stan, is to get booked on Johnny Carson, and beyond that if Carson likes your act enough to invite you over to the couch then your career has been made. Give it 72-hours and you’ll probably have a 6-figure contract with a network and a sitcom in development. However, Carson and his people were very particular about what kind of comedians they’d book and whether or not some up-and-comer was truly ready. It was very common for a comedian to be told they were good, just not Carson-good yet.
And that’s where I’m Dying Up Here is as a show right now – it’s good, just not Carson-good yet. There’s plenty of potential, particularly if Cassie lands better lines and Melissa Leo dials it back in the coming episodes. I’ve read the book this whole thing is based on. I know that if they can pull it together there are some amazing stories waiting to be told. I hope they get there.