‘I’m Dying Up Here’ 1×03: Tragedy Plus Time

RJ Cyler as Adam, Michael Angarano as Eddie and Clark Duke as Ron in I’m Dying Up Here. Showtime

I know I’ve not been kind to I’m Dying Up Here, but I’m starting to get hooked on it in the way that you get hooked on a soap opera or Top Chef or something. The thing that’s killing me is that the stories are compelling in a way but the dialogue and mood reminds me of what a 35 year old who drives a car covered in Bill Hicks bumper stickers thinks that their life is like. Comics are depicted as having frequent cerebral passionate monologues and arguments about the blood and fire they pour into their art. This is the way a lot of comics feel, but it’s not the way they talk. I’m watching this play out on screen while texting minions memes and barely legible insults back and forth with real live comedians. The contrast between the screen and the real thing glares. In the show’s defense, it’s a fictionalization, an adaptation of a thing. This is like if a book reviewed it’s movie.

Edgar drops into a bar venue called Teddy’s to do a spot. Teddy shows him around the place and explains that his spot payment includes free access to the buffet. Edgar performs and indulges in some particularly enticing cocktail shrimp. Goldie is catching up with her club’s headliner for the week, Judy Elder, played by Judy Gold. They clink glasses and say things like “ah, showbiz.” Edgar comes by and asks why he’s been bumped from the night’s show at Goldies. Judy, sensing tension, excuses herself from the room. Goldie busts him back down to private, scolds him, etc. for performing outside of the club. Edgar explains that he’s hungry and the free buffet really helps him out. Goldie explains that he owes her for letting him practice his craft at the club and working outside helps her competition. Edgar leaves in a huff after reminding her that he painted her club for free. Tension. Leverage. Power plays. Stand up comedy.

I don’t know the details of working at the Comedy Store in the 1970’s but I have experienced this sort of competition between bookers before. It was dumb then and it’s dumb now, but it exists. I’m actually glad that this sort of thing is being explored on this episode. There’s a lot of rattling between the swords of art and capitalism going on. I’m for it. I’m all about it. I don’t think it’s a story that’s told often enough and well enough in entertainment. That being said, let’s get back to the horribly scripted stand up. Cass is on stage bombing while trying to be dark and edgy by talking about death. Been there. The cast of comics lurk in the back of the room roasting her set to each other. Judy Elder stands is the sole laugher. She’ll later be revealed to be kind of a road hack who admires Cass for not being trapped in the creative prison you build around yourself by playing idiotic Vegas audiences as a career. She compliments Cass for being so brave and honest. Goldie retorts that she “should have been funny.” A comic named Steve the Ventriloquist roasts Cass obnoxiously through his puppet. I hate him. I think I’m supposed to hate him. There is an extent to which I’m aware that most people watching this show aren’t comics, so the general inside hatred of prop comics may not be that obvious. That would be why this character is turned up to 11. It works. He is Joffrey Baratheon. I want him to die.

Edgar tells the Goldie’s comics about the buffet at Teddy’s and they form a Scooby Doo gang sized union and burst into Goldie’s office to demand that she allow them to work at Teddy’s once or twice a week so they can eat. Goldie tells them to get day jobs. “This is a school. What school pays it’s students?” I’m so glad I live in the DIY age of comedy. Still though, this is a real problem. Whereas here Goldie’s is the pipeline to Johnny Carson with Goldie acting as gatekeeper, there are still other pipelines and other gatekeepers functioning in the comedy industry. I think the internet is eroding them, though. Anyways at the diner Cass sits alone and the open micers, Adam, Ron, and Eddie sit uneasily at their own adjacent table, aware of the pecking order. The rest of Goldies crew shows up and continues busting Cass’ balls about her overly dark act. In a way they are echoing my own criticism of I’m Dying Up Here’s insistence on portraying comedy as cool and gritty. Have I been watching this show so long that I am now in the show? This is like Russian nesting dolls.

What happens next is complicated. A bit of banter results in Edgar making a casually racist joke toward Adam. He responds and things go silent. No one is sure whether the two are really trying to hurt each other or whether they’re playing around. This is like when dogs smell one another and play fight. Adam’s response is this overly angry scatalogical racist depiction of something having to do with eating Edgar’s abuela’s ass or something. I couldn’t really keep up. He’s basically supposed to be doing “the aristocrats.” It’s weird and way too scripted and long and the camera zooms in like it’s this legendary insult that no one could possibly survive coming from the nerd to the bully. The result is a moment of tense silence before Edgar responds “I don’t know whether to fuck him up or order a milkshake with two straws.” Then everyone starts laughing and a bond is formed. As the internet drives us further and further out of our minds when it comes to language and social issues, a lot of people within and outside of comedy don’t understand what’s going on here. When you really respect someone and you have a friendship with them and a common understanding of the absurdity of language it becomes really fun and intimate to say what would normally be the worst and most offensive things possible to them. You’re taking the words that would hurt them the most and then rendering them meaningless, dead at their feet, like a friend. You should see my text messages. Anyways this concept is exposed beautifully, but the line itself is just bonkers. I want to find this actor and tell him “It’s not your fault. You are a good actor, this is just an impossible task.”

Edgar delivers a monologue about remorse for having given it all up for the shrimp until the camera reveals that it was more of a dialogue (he was receiving felatio). Back at Arnie’s house, Ron and Eddie meet Steve the Ventriloquist at the breakfast table. Arnie has a mild role in booking at Goldies and Ron is furious as to why Steve is getting booked in The Cellar. Arnie plays like there’s nothing he can do, and Steve continues to insult everyone through his puppet. I am amazed that this person is being portrayed as a sane cool-talking Iceman type because every puppet act and comedy hypnotist I’ve ever met has just been a walking American tragedy of a human. These are not generally charismatic people. Back at the club, Goldie gathers everyone around the bar to show them their half drank leftovers from the night before, and as an obvious reaction to the “buffet issue” she announces she’s cutting off their open bar privileges since they clearly don’t appreciate how good they have it at Goldies. I have to agree. These people had an open bar every time they did spots? Maybe things were better in the 70’s.

At the car shop where Sully works, he balks at his boss when offered full time employment that might hinder his comedy aspirations. He lets his dad down when he tells him the story. Similarly, Bill clashes with his own father when he finds out that pop’s either left or been laid off from his job back in the Detroit auto industry. Old man Hobbs has some insightful thoughts about the Japanese and the Saudis and has a Hobbs style meltdown about it. Bill placates him by hooking him up with tickets to Judy Elder at Goldies, of whose he apparently owns an album. Adam gets a surprise bump up to The Cellar and finds out he will be following Steve the Ventriloquist on the night’s lineup. When he meets Steve, he’s treated to a hacky racist onslaught of bad jokes delivered through the puppet and in a parallel to the diner scene, he detects that this isn’t fun ironic racism. Steve is actually racist, and like most racists, he thinks he’s just being a truth teller. Adam tries to warn Arnie about it and is rebuffed. Meanwhile Sully and Judy talk about parenthood while he fixes her car. Sad music plays and she pines on about the damage we as artists do to the ones around us in our pursuit of a selfish dream. Every time people in this show start talking like this it just reminds me of the worst comics on Earth giving one another pep talks on Facebook after bombing. Nothing is this serious.

Speaking of not serious, suddenly we’re treated to a brief cameo by comedian Ian Karmel, who’s just sort of randomly on stage talking about being fat. I start laughing and am taken out of the show for a second because I’ve met him and for some reason him playing this 70’s character is very funny to me. Later, Arnie talks with Steve and is sort of coyly dead eyed while Steve demonstrates his hack faux truth-teller philosophy on race (which makes it obvious that he actually just sucks.) Later we see Edgar lurking around the club, before Bill shows up with his dad and sister and they watch Judy perform. Judy’s act is old timey Don Rickles style corny punchy jokes. Everyone hates it except for Bill’s dad and me. Down in The Cellar, Steve is called to the stage and suddenly can’t find his dummy. Him and Arnie interrogate the open micers about it and they’re pleasantly surprised but not seemingly guilty. He leaves, unable to perform without his puppet, and Adam, Ron, and Eddie steal his stage time. They improvise a game show about racism critiquing Steve’s act and have this minorFreaks and Geeks sort of victory for the day.

Back in the office, Goldie lets Judy down gently about how her act is too old school and she probably won’t be working again at Goldie’s. When Bill offers to buy his dad a drink, old man Hobbs first notices that the drinks should be free for Bill, then becomes offended about being offered charity. One thing about this open bar plot line that baffles me is the idea that any group of comedians anywhere would not consider free alcohol to be a grave matter of life and death. Judy and Cass smoke outside and relent to one another about their respective sides on the coin of hack. Judy an old road act getting paid but not getting work anywhere fulfilling, and Cass a far too risky art freak digging herself a grave as a starving artist. Sully talks with Bill and Ralph about parenthood at the diner.

One time when I was living with a bunch of comedians someone bought a huge TV and we spent 3 days straight getting wasted and watching Degrassi. It started out as a joke and then after a few hours everyone was silently transfixed. A few more hours and we were arguing about the merits of Jimmy Brooks’ dating strategy, etc. The entirety of modern cinematic storytelling is based on the concept that if you structure a story in a certain way, people will become emotionally invested. There are screenwriting books about this. I am furious with aspects of this show, but the magic is working on me and now I have opinions about the merits of Cassie’s dating strategy. I truly enjoy discovering that Arnie, the hard ass comic/booker unsure of his own safety in rocking the boat politically, turns out to be the person who secretly stole Steve’s puppet and sabotaged his racist act without ever telling Adam. After that, Goldie informs Edgar that she’s making him change his name to Manny Martinez. She orders him repeat it over and over until it feels natural. This seems controlling and harsh until she reveals that Manny Martinez will be working at Goldies, while Edgar will be free to work at Teddy’s where he can eat as many free shrimp as he wants. Arnie and Goldie both find themselves in positions where they can only do the right thing in almost complete secrecy. They’re like Snape in Harry Potter. Characters overcoming the cold mechanical workings that drive the business side of comedy in order to help one another survive is a thematic sunburst in a time when most television (and probably most of the rest of this series) is nothing more than a meaningless examination about how sometimes white dudes can feel complicated and empty on the inside. I want more comedy business episodes. I want to get wasted and watch Degrassi.