We’ve been getting a fair few period dramas that delve into the underbelly of American art.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip dissected variety television, Vinyl ripped the 70s music industry apart, Roadies immersed itself into rock touring roadshows (notably all three were not successes). HBO is lining up The Deuce to do the same to the porn industry.
Showtime takes aim at the world of stand-up comedy in the 1970s in I’m Dying Up Here, a comedy / drama inspired by the book by William Knoedelseder. Produced by Jim Carrey, it is written by Dave Flebotte (Masters of Sex, Raising Hope, Dirt, Men in Trees) and directed by Jonathan Levine (50 / 50, Warm Bodies).
Steeped in the smoky, beer-stained carpets of a comedy club managed by ruthless broad Goldie (Melissa Leo) -and yes it’s politically incorrect throughout- I’m Dying Up Here is full of sad, sometime angry clowns, busting for their shot at fame.
The ultimate prize from Open Mike night is a gig on The Tonight Show which young comedian Clay (Sebastian Stan) manages at the top of the series. His envious peers are amazed when Johnny Carson (Dylan Baker) invites him to the couch after a successful debut. But the night doesn’t end well for Clay who watches his performance alone in a hotel room before being hit by a bus (is that a pun in the title?).
This unravels his surviving friends, who each have their own demons, ambitions and punchlines to peddle. Amongst them are ex-girlfriend Cassie (Ari Graynor), resentful Bill (Andrew Santino), emerging Boston comics Ron (Clark Duke) and Eddie (Michael Angarano), Vietnam vet Ralph (Erik Griffin) and struggling black comedian Adam (RJ Cyler).
Paying the rent is tough. So is getting a break in the main room, managed by Goldie. Female comedians have to be doubly-good to survive the “show us your tits” heckling. But even Adam, hoping his manager (Alfred Molina) will book a paying gig, will find seedy ways to pay the bills. And there is a surprising reintroduction of Clay which struck me as unnecessary.
I’m Dying Up Here revels in its period flaws. Misogyny, nudity, language, drugs and racism are all along for the ride. While the humour takes a back seat to the drama, the character actors deliver, notably Melissa Leo and Ari Graynor. But the ensemble is top heavy and the opening lacks a central character for us to hang off. The first episode also includes lovely cameos by Robert Forster and Cathy Moriarty.
While this isn’t as bleak as bios of tragic comedians such as Andy Kaufmann, Freddie Prinze or John Belushi, I’m Dying Up Here, is no walk in the park. Knoedelseder’s original book detailed a strike by comedians who protested at a lack of compensation against Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore who was in cahoots, as they say, with Tonight Show producers.
That augurs well for where this series could go, provided you are happy to maintain the rage.
Episodes 1 & 2 of I’m Dying Up Here, are now available on Stan.