If you can remember the 1960s, as the cliché goes, you weren’t there. But if you can remember the ’70s, you’re simply not trying hard enough to forget them. Following last year’s ill-conceived HBO music drama series “Vinyl” – or as we soon learned to call it, “That ’70s No-Show” – the decade that style disowned has returned to our screens with Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” (Yes Oh, Tuesdays at 22:00, and Yes VOD).
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The show is inspired by William Knoedelseder’s 2009 book of the same name (subtitled “Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era”), which chronicled the burgeoning comedy scene in Los Angeles in the early 1970s.
Knoedelseder’s history focused on events surrounding a new club called The Comedy Store and the embarrassment of riches plying their trade on its tiny stages – including Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Richard Lewis and Michael Keaton. The Showtime series is a more scattershot comedy-drama about a group of (fictional) wannabe young comedians, all dreaming of honing a tight 15-minute set and landing a guest slot on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” (It was the talk show’s move from New York to Burbank in 1972 that triggered the comedy gold rush to California.)
The prerequisites for a cable TV show set in the ‘70s are all present and politically incorrect here: blow and blow jobs; strip clubs and diners; casual sexism and racism; tasteless decor and even more egregious wardrobes. Yet in truth, the period setting adds little to the show other than another zero to its budget and a way to differentiate it from HBO’s current stand-up comedy series, “Crashing,” starring Pete Holmes.
“I’m Dying Up Here” is at its best when capturing the peculiar, paradoxical world where camaraderie and rivalry happily coexist. As one particularly caustic comic notes, “Every laugh (another comedian gets) should feel like a sharp poke in your fucking eye. If it doesn’t, get the fuck out because you don’t care enough.” This is a world of extremes, where comedians are either killing or dying, destroying or bombing, where one comic’s killer set just raises the bar higher for the next performer about to take the stage.
Having read “I’m Dying Up Here,” I would have loved to have seen a dramatized account of Leno, Letterman, Williams and Co.’s high times in L.A. But that would have been a lawsuit waiting to happen, so instead of getting what Knoedelseder labeled “Comedy Camelot,” we get a group of fictional comedians conforming to one ethnic or comedy stereotype or another. There are nebbishy Jews (Joel Kelley Dauten’s Gabe and Michael Angarano’s Eddie); Hispanic guy (Al Madrigal’s Edgar); young African-American (RJ Cyler’s Adam); stoner dude (Stephen Guarino’s Sully); tortured artist (Andrew Santino’s Bill); and token female (Ari Graynor’s Cassie, who is that rarest of things: a Jewish Texan – or as she puts it, “There are more Jews at a Walt Disney dinner party than in all of Wink, Texas”).
Try putting all these characters into a joke (“Two Jews, a Mexican, a black guy, a stoner, a prima donna and a broad walk into a bar”), and you’ll get the sprawling nature of the show. These rookies all converge on Goldie’s, the fictional comedy club run by Jewish matriarch Goldie Herschlag – portrayed by Melissa Leo in such an over-the-top manner that even latter-day Al Pacino would advise her to dial it back a bit. It’s a jarring turn (including a wince-inducing speech reminiscing about a straight-talking grandma who was sent to Treblinka); I can only imagine creator David Flebotte was keen to establish a larger-than-life character who couldn’t be compared to the very-much-alive Mitzi Shore, the Jewish matriarch who ran the real Comedy Store in its heyday.
It’s a shame Shore wasn’t involved in the production (or the original book), because she sounds like quite the character: she called her daughter Sandi Cee (now add the surname); turned a 99-seat club into a comedy empire; and her desk featured a placard declaring, “It’s a sin to encourage mediocre talent” (which seems an ironic time to mention that one of her sons is comedian Pauly Shore).
She also refused to pay for comedy sets, which ultimately led to a legendary strike in 1979 when comedians started picketing The Comedy Store (“Bucks for yucks!” and “No money, no funny!” as the slogans went). That incident features down the road in the series, and there’s also a pivotal character who seems to be based on Freddie Prinze, the Puerto Rican-American who enjoyed overnight comedy success yet killed himself at just 22.
Throw in other showbiz players, various relationships and numerous scenes at the comedians’ post-show retreat – (the very much real) Canter’s Deli – and it’s clear there’s a lot going on over the course of these 10, one-hour episodes. The ultimate effect, though, is like hearing a shaggy-dog story that may or may not lead to a killer punchline. It’s engaging enough, but there’s nothing particularly new or fresh in the telling.
And then there’s the era itself. In a show like “Mad Men,” the modern audience is in on the joke about this outmoded world and the dinosaurs roaming its ad agency corridors. But in “I’m Dying Up Here,” it’s not clear whether we should be laughing at or with these comedians. Their comedy sets share the same problem as movies and TV shows about fictitious rock bands: they are ersatz, manufactured, not the real thing (not a problem ever encountered in the likes of “Seinfeld” and “Louie,” when the real-life comedians could simply perform stand-up sets as their alter egos).
Yet for “I’m Dying Up Here” to truly spark, we need to find these comedians as funny onstage as the faux audience clearly does. Otherwise, we’ll be cleaning out the tumbleweed from our living rooms for weeks – which is probably why the comedians’ material feels a lot more modern than their outfits.
Watching it, I was reminded of the superior 2016 film “Don’t Think Twice,” about a comedy improv group struggling to cope when one of their members makes it big on a “Saturday Night Live”-esque TV show. The warmth and authenticity in Mike Birbiglia’s indie film is what’s lacking here.
Despite that, as long as you’re not after authenticity, there’s enough in “It’s Dying Up Here” – with its excess-all-areas mix of white lines and one-liners – to keep you watching (and listening: the soundtrack, with its Bowie and Bacharach tunes, must have cost a fortune to license). Yet it’s still hard not to see it suffering the same fate as “Vinyl” and getting gonged off soon.