One of the veteran stand-up comic characters on the new Showtime drama I’m Dying Up Here tells a newcomer that their profession isn’t built for posterity, but, “We get something better. We get the moment. We get the right fucking now.”
Is I’m Dying Up Here (it debuts Sunday night at 10; I’ve seen the first six episodes) getting its moment, or has the moment for another show about the inside workings of the comedy business — which this year alone has already seen HBO’s Crashing, TV Land’s Nobodies, and the Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel pacing the same tiny stage, on top of other recent series like Lady Dynamite, The Jim Gaffigan Show, Louie, Maron, and Mulaney, to name just a few — already passed into the kind of history books that the experienced stand-up insists will have no record of who she was or what she did?
Adapted by Dave Flebotte from the nonfiction book by William Knoedelseder, Dying theoretically has two elements distinguishing it from its predecessors. First, it’s a period piece, set in Los Angeles in 1973, a year after Johnny Carson moved The Tonight Show from New York to Burbank and relocated the comedy trade’s center of gravity. Second, while certain subplots are played for laughs, and we hear pieces of the comics’ acts, for the most part the stories are meant to be taken seriously, as the show examines not only the cutthroat fight to be the next stand-up to get the coveted Tonight Show spot (and, better, the legendary wave from Johnny to join him on the couch if he likes what he just saw), but the dysfunction and pain that drives so many of these crying-on-the-inside clowns to devote themselves to it.
But the execution isn’t ready for Carson just yet, or maybe even the main stage at Goldie’s, the fictional club in which so much of the show takes place.
Goldie’s stands in for real-life LA institution The Comedy Store, with Melissa Leo as the hard-nosed Goldie herself, in lieu of legendary Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore, and a group of invented comedians — some played by actors like Ari Graynor, Michael Angarano, Clark Duke, and Jake Lacy, some by actual stand-ups like Andrew Santino, Erik Griffin, and Al Madrigal — as alternatives to figures in Knoedelseder’s book like Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Andy Kaufman. Real-life comics like Elayne Boosler get namechecked, Dylan Baker appears occasionally as Carson (and wisely opts not to do an impression, instead capturing the man’s cool arrogance at the height of his powers), and one early episode features Richard Pryor (Brandon Ford Green) mentoring young black comic Adam (RJ Cyler). But Flebotte is largely mixing real details of ’70s LA stand-up culture with his fictional stand-ups, and it’s there that Dying starts running into trouble.