Erik Griffin On Becoming What Melissa Leo Calls The ‘Heart And Soul’ Of ‘I’m Dying Up Here’

Chances are most people who tune it to watch the premiere of Showtime’s new series I’m Dying Up Here on Sunday will recognize the actor playing Ralph King from the recently concluded Workaholics or the canceled Blunt Talk. And Erik Griffin, the real life stand-up comedian who plays the Vietnam vet-turned-comic, doesn’t mind this recognition one bit. As he tells Uproxx below, having played such silly characters helped clear the way for him to play a serious (but funny) black comedian performing at a fictional Los Angeles comedy club in the early ’70s.

Then again, so did an otherwise unassuming set at The Comedy Store, the very club whose history informed the William Knoedelseder book on which I’m Dying Up Here is based. As Griffin explains it, it was a chance encounter with executive producer Jim Carrey, a few other producers, and some of the writers that Tuesday night that resulted in his getting an audition and ultimately landing the part of Ralph, a character fellow cast member Melissa Leo describes as “the heart and soul of the group.”

I really miss Hershel from Blunt Talk.

You know, I just feel like Starz just didn’t know what to do with a show like that. The first season, they had it on at a weird time, and they didn’t really… I don’t know.

True, though seeing Patrick Stewart do comedy was a treat. One we sadly didn’t get enough of.

I know. Patrick was so great to work with. It was weird to have all my scenes with such a great actor, you know what I mean? It was such a great experience, and regardless of happened to the show, I enjoyed it. Those two seasons of work were some of the most fun I’ve ever had. It was just a great time.

How did you get involved with I’m Dying Up Here?

I was just at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles on a Tuesday night doing a regular set. The manager of the club came up to me and said, “Hey, Jim Carrey’s here.” And my first thought was, “Is he bumping me?” I thought he was going to go up and do stand-up, and initially I got upset about it. I was like, “What’s he doing here? He’s got a hundred million dollars! He’s already done it. He’s had his career.” But when the manager said Carrey wasn’t going up, I figured, “Well who cares, then?” So I went up and did my set. I had a good set that night. But what I didn’t know was, it wasn’t just Jim Carrey who was there. It was also the producers, writers, and the director of the show. They were there scouting comics. Michael Aguilar, one of the producers, took a liking to me because of my stand-up performance that night, and I got an audition the next day. Three weeks later, I was on the show. After two auditions and a screen test, I was on the show.

I was intrigued by how many comics, like you, Al Madrigal and others, were a part of I’m Dying Up Here. The cast largely consists of actors, sure, but with comics playing comics it almost helps it feel more authentic.

Sure, there are three comics on the show, and of course Jon Daly, who’s also a comedic performer. But I have to say, the other actors — the straight-up actors — did their work. They went to open mics. They came to watch us perform several times before we started filming. They did an admirable job. Usually, this is a hard thing to pull off, doing stand-up comedy on screen. It’s a hard thing to pull off. But I think between the editing and the hard work everybody put in, it came off pretty good. I’m proud of the work we did.

Madrigal both acts in and writes for the show. Were you or any of the other comics given the chance to similarly flex your writing muscles in addition to acting?

It was mostly done by the writing team. They would give us a stand-up routine, we would take a look at what they put together for our character, and if there were changes we wanted to make, they were mostly slight changes. At least that’s how I did it, because I wasn’t necessarily comfortable coming up with 1970’s material for a style that I don’t normally do in my stand-up. I trusted what the writers did for me in that regard, but if I felt like something was a little off, or a word or two could be changed, they definitely gave us the freedom to do that.

Were you familiar with William Knoedelseder’s book of the same name, which the show is loosely based on?

Yes, I knew about the book before we started filming. It’s not a book I just picked up and read from cover to cover, but I knew the show was going to be loosely based on it. I didn’t want to spoil things though, so I came into it fresh. I’d heard stories about Knoedelseder’s book being all about The Comedy Store, and so many of the older comics who played there too. I’ve heard all kinds of stories from people who talk about those times. But I never picked up the book and read it from cover to cover.

You play Ralph King, who figures prominently among the show’s core group of comics. How do you see Ralph in all of this?

I’ve never been in something like this before, in which I had so much hair and make-up. Usually I go in and it’s like a 5-minute deal. They go, “Oh, this is great.” They put a little bit on me, then they’re like, “Get out of this chair.” This time it was an hour and a half of going back and forth between the hair and make-up. The sideburns count as make-up, then you have to blend it in with the hair people’s work.

So by the time I’m looking at myself in the mirror, by the time the hair and everything was put on, that’s the first moment you realize you’re someone else. It’s really helpful. Dress-up really is helpful for becoming someone else. At that point, I felt like I had to give in to the sensibility of this person who has a dark side. You don’t see it in the pilot, but he has some stuff to deal with because he was in Vietnam. He’s a veteran. He has a little bit of that baggage. As a result, I felt like I needed to be the sensible person in the group, and taking that onto the set helped me become the big brother. The guardian of the group, if you will, and that’s how I played it.

There’s a moment in the pilot when we’re at the bar, talking with each other because Clay (Sebastian Stan) just died, and Edgar (Madrigal) has taken acid. When we were filming that, the director, Jonathan Levine wanted to swing the camera over and focus on me to get my character’s reaction, even though I don’t have any lines in that scene. And I’ll never forget this, because Melissa Leo said, “We have get the heart and soul of the group.” She was talking about me. That carried me through the rest of the season, because it gave me a sense of how everyone else in the group saw my character. That’s when I got it. That helped me get to the level I needed to be at.

The cast has become really close, which is great. I’ve never worked on anything like this, in which everybody gets along so well and enjoys each other’s company. I think that played into it as well. It’s why our chemistry on screen is so great. And I put all of this into who Ralph is. Some other things happen throughout the season to this guy, who thinks he has the golden handcuffs because he’s a writer on a TV show. He thinks he’s pretty much made it, but he realizes everything has stopped later in the season. He has stopped progressing, and he learns this through this kid played by RJ Cyler. It was somewhat parallel to my own life, just thinking about how I’ve tried to progress my career. So I put a little bit of that into Ralph.

Considering the period setting, I suspect things like sexism and racism will play a role in I’m Dying Up Here‘s storylines. The pilot features plenty of the former, but I didn’t see too much of the latter.

There’s going to be some of that, because how can you stay away from it when it’s 1973? There’s no way. I also can see how someone who, like Ralph, has been in the military and fought alongside all kinds of races would have to endure. It’s not something that necessarily comes up in his peer group, but you can feel it elsewhere, and I think they deal with it more in the case of RJ’s younger character. It’s not that they ignored it, but it’s definitely there. Even with the female comic characters, it’s not like you have to directly talk about these things. You can feel it, or get a sense of it, from what they experience in the show. I think that’s what they did with race, too.

Apologies for this everyone-else-asks-that question, which your Jim Carrey story already kind of answered, but what sticks out the most when you reflect on filming I’m Dying Up Here?

Oh God, there are so many of those, but I will tell you the best thing I remember is me and Andrew Santino’s attempt to stop eating the donuts. We decided we weren’t going to eat anymore of the donuts they gave us on set, because it became such a bad habit. I told him, “Dude, I can’t keep eating these donuts. I’m just going to be a big fat guy.” So we made a pact with each other, promising we wouldn’t eat anymore donuts until the last day of shooting. It became a big joke. We would take pictures of ourselves with the donuts and send them to each other. But on the very last day, we pigged out. It was great. That’s the kind of closeness we had.

There were other great experiences too, like Melissa Leo schooling us. She was so great to be around. It was like attending a master acting class every single day. I learned so much from her. I went from playing these typically silly characters, like Montez on Workaholics and even Hershel on Blunt Talk. They were just nincompoops and weirdos, but now I’m playing the levelheaded guy, Ralph. I definitely needed some tutelage for that, and she gave it to me without my even asking. She just knew I needed it, and it was great. Making this show was a real joy, and I hope people enjoy it too. I hope they like the show, because we did something good.

I’m Dying Up Here premieres Sunday, June 4th at 10pm ET/PT on Showtime.