For a TV show about comedians that’s executive produced by Jim Carrey, Showtime’s new series ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ takes a surprisingly dramatic bent, leaving the laughs only for the scenes of performers on stage. Does this look back at the L.A. stand-up scene of the 1970s kill, or does it bomb?
At the moment, judging only by the first episode, the show is not quite a breakout success, but it has a lot of potential.
The pilot sets us up with a bit of a fake-out. Set in 1973, the story appears at first to be about Clay Appuzzo (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming comedian who just hit the big time with an appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’. His act went over so well that Johnny Carson (Dylan Baker, who wouldn’t have been my first choice to play the icon) called him over to the couch for an interview. This is the most coveted achievement any comic of the day could hope for, and it makes all of his friends terribly jealous. For Clay, this is the pinnacle of his career and his life. Equating it to Sir Edmund Hillary climbing Mt. Everest, a victory that only lasted a few minutes at the peak and was all downhill afterwards, Clay rents a hotel room not far from his apartment to watch the show, eats a nice room service meal, then goes outside and steps in front of a bus. He’s killed instantly.
The actual focus of the series is on Clay’s friends and colleagues, who mostly congregate at a comedy club called Goldie’s (which is fictional, but loosely based on The Comedy Store in Los Angeles). The proprietor, Goldie Herschlag (Oscar winner Melissa Leo), is a hard-nosed businesswoman and a self-described kingmaker with a keen eye for talent. She makes her comedians work hard to prove themselves on the basement stage, and when she finally judges them ready for a showcase on the main stage, they know their careers are truly about to kick off. Getting to that point, however, is a cutthroat business where even close friends become bitter competitors.
This is a big ensemble show with a lot of characters. Chief among them is Clay’s ex-girlfriend, Cassie (Ari Graynor). She struggles not only to cope with Clay’s death, but with overcoming the rampant sexism of the era and Goldie’s insistence that she hasn’t found her voice as a comedian yet. While everyone else believes that Clay’s death was a tragic accident, only she suspects that it was suicide. Against Goldie’s advice, she tells this to Clay’s disapproving father (Robert Forster, on loan from Showtime’s ‘Twin Peaks’ revival), who already blames his son’s death on the hedonism and moral bankruptcy of their lifestyle. Hearing that Clay killed himself just makes the man extra furious, and (as Goldie warned) does nothing to alleviate Cassie’s guilt.
Also notable in the cast are Clark Duke and Michael Angarano as a pair of Clay’s old friends from Boston, who have the incredible bad timing to fly out to L.A. on the day after his death expecting to crash with their buddy. Their misadventures in finding someplace else to stay despite being dead broke are some of the few funny bits in the episode that don’t take place on stage. Alfred Molina also appears as a sleazy and ineffectual manager whose only skill appears to be name-dropping.
When rumors of Clay’s drug abuse make the rounds through the industry, Carson puts a moratorium on featuring young comedians on his show. This is very bad news for Goldie’s business. At the end of the episode, Cassie develops some backbone and leverages this for a shot on the club’s main stage, threatening to spread word that Clay’s death was a suicide, which would further poison the well for Goldie.
Upon taking the stage, Cassie’s act fizzles at first, until she drops her usual material and turns her performance into a very personal, confessional comedy. The audience loves it and Cassie is vindicated.
As a drama about the behind-the-scenes workings of the comedy business, I’m reminded of Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived NBC series ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’. This show has one significant advantage over that one, in that the comedy material is actually funny. In fact, a lot of it is really damn hilarious. (The supposedly brilliant sketch comedy in ‘Studio 60’ was mostly direly unfunny.) Being a Showtime series, it’s also free to go very blue and R-rated. In that regard, ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ feels really raw and edgy and authentic. The cast is strong, the characters are well-drawn, and the storyline is pretty interesting.
On the other hand, a bit where a struggling black comedian resorts to being paid to masturbate in front of a dying Catholic priest feels like an unnecessary cheap shot. The 1970s setting, which is shot through a piss-yellow filter and almost exclusively features the most grotesque fashions of the era, also seems nearly cartoonishly exaggerated. I hope that sort of thing gets toned down as the show goes on.