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.
The culture stuff is excellent: the desperate fight for stage time, and the way Goldie plays psychological warfare with her many hungry performers (none of whom she pays, because “This is a school; what school pays its students?”), or how cash-strapped newcomers Eddie (Angarano) and Ron (Duke) resort to living in the closet of one of Goldie’s employees, and go on Let’s Make a Deal in hopes of winning enough money to feed themselves. Whether drawn directly from the book, or from the memories of Flebotte (a former stand-up himself), executive producer Jim Carrey, and others, that material has the air of specificity that any good story — whether told in a TV drama or a comedian’s monologue — needs.
It’s the stand-ups, and their acts, that feel more generic.
Flebotte and company are dealing with a few challenges at once here. First, while some actors can do passable stand-up with a good script, and some stand-ups (like Robin Williams, also a figure in the book) can turn out to be great dramatic actors, it’s rare to find a lot of people who can do both, and between its main and recurring casts, I’m Dying Up Here has one of the fuller ensembles on TV at the moment. Of the stand-ups, Santino is given the meatiest role as Bill, a bitter misanthrope who feels like the brass ring is perpetually just out of reach, while Graynor gets the most mic time of any of the traditional actors as Cassie, who’s trying to break out of the straitjacket in which female comics found themselves in back then. But Bill is often a flat and irritating character, while it would be hard to differentiate the nights when Cassie’s developing act is meant to be good versus bad if not for the reactions of the extras playing Goldie’s customers.
The Studio 60 Problem(*) is an issue for all the characters, regardless of who’s playing them, and for stories of fictional comics in general(**). A good stand-up bit is one of the hardest things to create in all of show business, and anyone gifted enough to write them would rather hoard them for themselves then loan them out to a fictional character — even if they happen to be playing the role. Flebotte told critics in January that the goal is to make the routines true to the period, and, “when we watch a lot of early ’70s stand up, by today’s standards, you might not laugh.” But the fact that the fake stand-up only occasionally generates laughs — and usually more through delivery than writing, like Madrigal’s character confidently riffing on the word “Mexican” — creates a problem as the show tries to establish a Goldie’s pecking order, and to draw a contrast between the confused and miserable people the characters are offstage versus the release they can sometimes find under the hot lights.