Comics in ’70s LA: “I’m Dying Up Here” Just Misses the Punchline

The cast of I'm Dying Up Here: Stephen Guarino as Sully, Brianne Howey as Kay, Jon Daly as Arnie, Michael Angarano as Eddie, RJ Cyler as Adam, Ari Graynor as Cassie, Andrew Santino as Bill, Melissa Leo as Goldie, Clark Duke as Ron and Erik Griffin as Ralph. Photo: Showtime.

On paper, the new series I’m Dying Up Here, about struggling stand-up comics in LA in the early 1970s, currently on Showtime, has the earmarks of a surefire hit: a mostly capable cast led by Oscar-winner Melissa Leo; an intriguing premise set against a turbulent and transformative era; critically acclaimed source material based on the book by William Knoedelseder of the same name; and a prestigious behind-the-scenes pedigree with executive producer and co-creator Jim Carrey, no stranger himself to the landscape portrayed in the show.

In practice, unfortunately, the show drastically comes up short. Unlike last year’s HBO misfire Vinyl, about a drug-addled NYC music executive and set in the same anarchic jungle of the ’70s, I’m Dying Up Here isn’t all over the place genre-wise. It’s clearly a dramedy or a seriocomedy — choose your appellation. And although there is a plethora of subplots focusing on characters who congregate at Goldie’s — a stand-in for the real-life Comedy Store, legendary launchpad for so many famous comics — most of them are thankfully coherent, taking up an episode or two without threatening to overtake the entire series with excessive narrative bloat.

That doesn’t mean some of these subplots haven’t fallen prey to clichés. One of the worst offenders, by episode four, touches upon Bill (Andrew Santino), the ginger stand-up with a massive chip on his shoulder. His inferiority complex is apparently attributable to his having an irredeemable bully, Warren (Glenn Morshower), for a father. The scowling patriarch and Bill’s downtrodden sister Susan (Amanda Quaid) visit Bill and stay at his place when the latter thinks he’s finally going to land his big break via a gig on TV’s The Midnight Special. Snarling and frothing at the mouth at anything and everyone (except for a female comic spouting dated one-liners, in a Judy Gold cameo), Warren saves his special brand of vitriol for Bill. Seriously, if you hate your son that much, why are you visiting?

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Then there’s Bill’s girlfriend, fellow comic Cassie (Ari Graynor), who’s trying to make a name for herself in a bastion of male predominance. None of the comics are getting paid for their acts — Goldie insists her club is a showcase for fledgling talent to hone their skills — but at least they (including Bill) score regular bookings on the main stage and not at the witching hour, like poor Cassie. Graynor does manage to shine amid the triteness and evoke her character’s raw vulnerability, especially when she’s bombing on stage experimenting with material far too risqué and cutting-edge for that time.

Playing the eponymous owner of Goldie’s (a fictionalized version of Mitzi Shore, co-founder of The Comedy Store), Leo is a gruff, no-nonsense mother hen unafraid to dispense tough love to her pack of hungry, desperate charges while dangling a carrot in the form of her connections to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For all of them, nabbing a spot on that fabled late-night TV talk show is what they most covet, rightfully seeing it as their ticket to stardom. Leo’s fine in the role, but right now she has very little to do other than wear a dour expression, wag her finger at those recalcitrant comics and bark orders to underlings.

So far, her best interactions have been with seasoned real-life stand-up Al Madrigal as needy Edgar Martinez, a hot-under-the-collar Latino comic tired of working the circuit with no payoff. Blackballed by Goldie after he has the temerity to appear at a rival establishment (which he did to take advantage of their free all-you-can-eat buffet), Martinez is desperate to get back into his erstwhile benefactress’ good graces. Eventually she relents — but only if Edgar changes his name, which she insists is necessary to set him apart from the turncoat who betrayed Goldie by appearing at a competitor’s space. The scene, particularly Madrigal’s repertoire of hilariously evocative expressions, is pure comedy gold. I’m Dying Up Here needs more of that levity.

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In addition to uneven writing, there are other weak links. The characters of Eddie (Michael Angarano) and Ron (Clark Duke), two Boston transplants looking for fame and fortune in the City of Angels, may be charming and funny, yet way too contemporary in look and attitude. It’s as if they were accidentally plopped into the show via HBO’s Silicon Valley; what’s missing are their iPhones.

I did get traumatizing flashbacks of Vinyl’s tacky propensity to flood each episode with dumb celebrity impersonations when Brandon Ford Green materializes to play a very sanitized, tepid version of iconic comic genius Richard Pryor. Green’s lame impersonation of Pryor, free of the latter’s edgy brilliance, is mercifully brief, confined to mostly advising Adam (RJ Cyler), a young, budding black comic, on how to improve his material.

I’m Dying Up Here could use some tweaking, given its various rough edges. But, unlike Vinyl, it does hold a lot of promise. In the same spirit, let’s hope that promise isn’t squandered.