I’m Dying Up Here was on my to-watch list for a long time before I took the plunge. I’m sorry I hesitated, because it’s exceptional television. It’s American comedy-drama television series created by David Flebotte and set firmly in 1970s Hollywood. It was made for Showtime in the US and picked up in the UK on Sky Atlantic (exactly where you’d expect quality imports to pitch up). It has comedy pedigree in its backbone as it’s based on a book by William Knoedelseder detailing the excesses of soon-to-be household names such as Jay Leno, Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman on Sunset Strip in the 70s. It’s also executive produced by Jim Carrey, and at the time of writing, the less said about him the better.
While based in reality, this is a fictionalised account of the premier Los Angeles comedy club, and the denizens who inhabit it, honing their craft to make it to the big time. That way real-life anecdotes can be revised, tweaked and magnified, much like the way a stand-up takes real life and makes it funny, constantly revising their act.
The comedy club is Goldie’s, owned and run by businesswoman and matriarch Goldie Herschlag (played by Melissa Leo, and loosely based on Mitzi Shore the founder of The Comedy Store). She has very little tenderness in her heart and is all about business. She cares for her comics in a way, but is very strict with them, and this tactic has proved extremely successful. What she says goes (even insisting one comic change his name after daring to play in another LA club). Goldie’s is only place where the talent scouts come from Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’, the big coast-to-coast American talk show. That slim chance at stardom is what keeps her comics loyal.
This show charms you instantly because it looks fantastic. There’s that famous golden light that you only get in Southern California, shining down on the brown and olive-green tones of 70s fashions. The cars, the outfits, the hair and all the interiors, right down to the tableware, is precisely dated. The director loves the long tracking shots of the comics making their way past the bar, the kitchens, through backstage and all the way up to the microphone in front of the audience. Each time someone takes to the stage it’s very tense. Being so close to the action you can feel the nervous energy through the screen.
Thankfully, for a show about stand-up the jokes are all there and they’re very funny. Each act is distinct and we see how they evolve and change over the series. Big themes of racism and sexism are handled deftly from various angles – being black, being Hispanic, defining yourself as a female comedian. Goldie insists blonde Texan Cassie (Ari Graynor) needs her own voice before she makes it to the big stage. Cassie argues that she’d never say that to her male peers. There’s no simple answer, as they’re both right. For context and nostalgia the episode that deals extensively with feminism is bookended by the famous Billie Jean King vs Bobby Riggs tennis match. All these questions about oppression and privilege are still very relevant to identity politics and comedy of today.
Stand-ups are famously not good people to be friends with; morose, difficult, introspective, egotistical, always looking for someone to flatter them and prop up their crippled sense of self. I’m looking at you Bill Hobbs (played by Andrew Santino) – acid tongued and self-sabotaging miseryguts. He says he loves having a comedian as a girlfriend and in the same breath he’s happy to blame his shortcomings on Cassie for not being a ‘proper’ supportive girlfriend. Somehow despite all these character flaws being very true, we find ourselves caring about this bunch of misfits, however badly they treat each other and themselves. In the pilot episode we’re reminder decisively that success is fleeting and not everyone can handle fame. A sudden death within the group makes them reevaluate what they’re doing and whether all the trappings of ‘normal’ family life they’ve had to give up is worth it for stardom.
The youngsters working their way up through open-mic night are probably my favorite characters, with the most to prove and the least to lose. Ron (Clark Duke) and Eddie (Michael Angarano) arrive from Boston with big dreams and literally living in a closet. They all shine in ‘The Cost of a Free Buffet’ when they come up against a racist ventriloquist, hiding his prejudice behind his puppet – it’s not me saying it, it’s the puppet! Oh do fuck off with that pathetic old schtick. Adam’s (played by RJ Cyler) unremitting take down of Edgar Martinez (the wonderful and almost unrecognisable Al Madrigal) is exceptional – racist stereotypes as comedy that actually works. Proving it’s all about context, and whether you’re punching up or punching down. Adam is out on a limb but is pretty sure he can get away with baiting Edgar as Edgar’s own routine is all about being Mexican. He’s way too savage for a paying audience but his fellow comics lap it up.
A word about the opening credits – awful. I know everyone wants to do clever-clever stuff these days in a sort of montage of what you can expect from the show but disorientating shots of LA and close-ups of people’s open mouths set to what can only be described as a jazz tribute to The Last Post makes for a very unsettling experience. It’s a real shame too, because as you’d expect from a drama set on Sunset Boulevard in the 1970s music is a really big deal and used skillfully throughout.
As I might be banging on about how good this show is a teeny bit, Mr H asked me if I thought I’m Dying Up Here was better than GLOW, a similar nostalgic look at LA’s entertainment industry. Yes, I think it is. There’s more depth and breadth here, with no one main character to have to focus on. This is a true ensemble, with great acting and each character has a fascinating personal story. Comedy historians assure us we are supposed to be able to spot who each character is based on, but not being able to make those connections doesn’t reduce the enjoyment or make it any less vivid. The jokes are properly funny, and the acts are varied. We see the comics progress the same set over time, and thanks to the incredible way the actors deliver the lines, each time it’s different – jokes play differently or fall flat on a bad day or in front of the wrong audience. The stand-up experience is 100% authentic.
As I’m compulsively binging season 1 I’m very happy to report that season 2 has been given the green light and will be aired in the USA next year, despite not attracting a wide audience. Hopefully we can expect to see it here in the UK soon after.
I’m Dying Up Here is available to catch up with on your Sky box, or on Now TV