I’m Dying Up Here is a fictionalized version of the 70s Los Angeles comedy scene. Based loosely on William Knoedelseder nonfiction book of the same name, Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here replaces Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Pryor, and legendary comedy club owner Mitzi Shore with composite characters.
While it accurately depicts the camaraderie and competitiveness among the Comedy Store’s regular performers, viewers looking for the late night wars’ prehistory will have to read Knoedelseder’s well-written and informative book.
(Full disclosure: The book I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy’s Golden Age, is in a box of books I will never give away. It’s next to Jay Leno’s ghost written autobiography, The Late Shift, and The War for Late Night. As someone familiar with the events fictionalized in the show, I expected to be disappointed and was hoping to be proven wrong.)
Comparing I’m Dying Up Here the series to the book does the series a disservice. The book is a comedy nerd’s textbook, while the series focuses on the seediness and drama surrounding the Comedy Store.
To truly give the series a chance, a viewer has to frame it as the Mean Girls to Queen Bees and Wannabes. Some parts are based in reality. Comedians fought for the chance to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. A brassy woman, Mitzi Shore renamed Goldie (Melissa Leo) for the show, actually owned the Comedy Store. And a woman had to fight to play the main stage. At the real Comedy Store, it was New Yorker Elaine Boosler, who is reimagined as Texan Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor) for the show.
As its own entity, the Showtime series suffers the same fatal flaw as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It’s a drama about a comedy. The drama aspect was made clear when a character dies at the beginning of his career and, in a poignant scene, his friends share funny anecdotes about his life. Not helping matters is that the little stand-up comedy shown isn’t funny, so there’s no respite from the everyday struggles of young comedians without any money.
I’m Dying Up Here also comes across as a study in character development. A large ensemble makes up the shows core because it’s character driven. In the pilot, the audience was introduced to at least a dozen people. Every time a new person was introduced, so was another plot. The only way to understand what’s happening in the show is to watch the entire series for clarification on the role everyone plays at the Comedy Store.
While I wanted to like I’m Dying Up Here, I am disappointed. The show is off to a slow start because too many characters have been introduced at once. Maybe, after watching another episode, the show will get better because the writers’ have plenty of material to adapt.