Season 1 of ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ Favors Fiction Over History
Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, which ended its first season last night, is the newest unfunny drama about the world of comedy. Based in part on the book by the same name by William Knoedelseder, it’s a fairly unambitious show. This actually makes it work better than the late, sarcastically lamented Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but it too ultimately disappoints. I’m Dying Up Here emphasizes the way comedians develop routines from jokes that don’t work into ones that crack an audience up, too often at the expense of fascinating history. In doing so, the show ultimately fails to transcend its period-wardrobe kitsch and squanders some of the most interesting material in its source book.
Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here is more or less bookended by two significant moments in standup history. In 1972, The Tonight Show moved production from New York to Los Angeles, making LA the place to be for aspiring comics hoping to get noticed – and The Comedy Store was one of the best places in the city to do it. In 1979, fed up with not getting paid for their stage time, LA comedians picketed The Comedy Store for months, forever changing the business. These events loom large over the series; the comics are desperate to be on Carson, and are frustrated by the lack of pay at The Cellar, the fictionalized stand-in for The Comedy Store, which still exists today (not to be confused with New York’s actual club, The Comedy Cellar). The show pays more attention to Carson than to the wage issue, and it doesn’t pay that much attention to either.
That I’m Dying Up Here is loosely fictionalized is one of its bigger drawbacks. Its main characters are composites of real people: Instead of matriarchal Comedy Store owner-operator Mitzi Shore, it’s Cellar owner-operator Goldie Herschlag (played typically by Melissa Leo — matriarchal, vicious, and assertive). The Comedy Store’s now-famous lineup of comedians have been replaced by fictional characters, generally played ably by a cast that includes a mix of comedians-turned-actors and actors playing comedians.
The real world still exists on I’m Dying Up Here: Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor both make cameos (Dylan Baker and Brandon Ford Green, respectively), and characters make offhand remarks about The Comedy Store. Here the series truly loses its footing. Since the series focuses on the way that comedy was changed by these young comedians, it’s impossible to have any stake in the doings of these fictional characters, knowing that elsewhere in town, real historical figures are reshaping comedy.
Despite the difficulty of investing in the show’s reality, it does successfully examine standup comedy in some insightful ways. Cassie, an up-and-coming comedian played by the always-great Ari Graynor, spends much of the season developing a routine about her parents dying. Goldie and many of the club’s regular comics insist that people will be too depressed to laugh, but Cassie is confident she can make the material work.
Like many of the comedians at the Cellar, Cassie has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with Goldie, the club owner. Goldie marginalizes Cassie not just because of Cassie’s offbeat material, but also because Goldie gives the best spots to male comedians. Goldie and Cassie both exist along a spectrum on I’m Dying Up Here as victim and perpetrator of anti-woman discrimination, but the show’s treatment of women characters other than those two demonstrates that the writers’ room may not be as progressive as it believes. It’s a premium cable drama, so there’s plenty of nudity, mostly by women in only one episode — or one scene — about the sexual exploits of male characters.
As any hourlong cable drama with multiple overlapping storylines promises, there are many repetitive and frustrating plots about the inner turmoil of the neurotic young white male. The series begins with a suicide, that of a rising star comedian, Clay (played by Sebastian Stan), who’s just had a tremendously successful appearance on The Tonight Show and decided that there’s nowhere to go but down. It isn’t the only suicide in this show’s first season. Suicide figures prominently in the book, too – Freddie Prinze committed suicide at the height of his success on Chico and the Man, and after Mitzi Shore blackballed comedians who participated in the Comedy Store strike, Steve Lubetkin threw himself from the roof of a building, leaving behind a suicide note that read, in part, “I used to work at The Comedy Store.”
As Michael Stahl noted here, “Tossing characters that appear to be dealing with mental illness issues – like those that Clay must have had – into an artists’ community undergoing its own transformation is a volatile recipe for conflict.” It’s definitely true the series, like the world of standup comedy, is rife with stories of depression, addiction, and other mental illness. However, I’m Dying Up Here also successfully examines the extent to which this world is full of enablers. The comedians at The Comedy Store belonged to what Jerry Seinfeld called “kind of a sick culture… Unless you were kind of a broken-wing bird, they had no interest in you. It wasn’t a healthy environment.” This is reflected on I’m Dying Up Here, where the comedians compete fiercely for stagetime and for Goldie’s attention, all of which stands in the way of their ability to organize for better working conditions.
The trauma the characters are working through is also era-specific. Ralph, a Vietnam veteran played by Erik Griffin (finally released from Workaholics), has a largely apolitical act and won’t discuss his time in Vietnam with anyone, until an old army buddy comes through town and insists that nothing Ralph says onstage is as funny as a truly horrifying story from their time in the military. Beyond that and a Roe v. Wade joke that opens the series to establish a time period, though, there’s very little topical material — a genuinely strange choice for a series set exactly in the middle of the Watergate scandal.
Watergate would have been a tremendous opportunity for I’m Dying Up Here to draw a connection between 1973 and 2017, two eras of incredible corruption and bigotry in the White House. Another opportunity the show misses is by setting its first season in 1973 to begin with. It may make sense in the long run, but it also means that if the show is meant to roughly follow the timeline of real events, it won’t be until at least season 5 before it reaches the only genuinely exciting event in its world: the 1979 comedians’ strike. That’s a long time to spend watching a show about made-up comedians who co-exist (though rarely interact) with the comedians who interested us enough to get us watching the show in the first place. It’s also a long time to wait for the story with the most ties to recent developments in LA’s comedy scene.
In 2013, Los Angeles experienced a new wave of dissatisfaction by comic performers going without pay. This time, it was at the Upright Citizens Brigade. At the time, one of the UCB’s cofounders, Matt Besser, told The New York Times, “There’s a creative vibe at UCB, and to maintain it, we can’t pay people. If you pay, then you have to assign worth to shows, and then people will resent that” and “I don’t see what they do as labor. I see guys onstage having fun. It’s not a job.” In 1979, Mitzi Shore said, “I would never disgrace the profession by paying a comedian $5 for a performance. [My clubs] are showcases. And I’m standing by this. They are not nightclubs. They are places for you to learn your craft and work out new material.” The parallels are impossible to ignore. Then as now, the people with the money insist they won’t pay not because they can’t afford to, but because it would be unprincipled to do so.
According to Deadline, Showtime is waiting to hear what stories the writers have planned for season 2 before making a decision to renew. Unless the writers’ plan is to fast-forward half a decade to when things get interesting, the show may never have the chance to tell its most compelling story. To be fair, this season provided a few decent stories about young comedians struggling to find their way — but if that’s all the show is, it could stand to be a lot funnier. Audiences won’t always wait for a routine to get worked out.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.