‘I’m Dying Up Here’ Premiere Recap: Comedy Plus Showtime Equals Drama

Ari Graynor as Cassie and Andrew Santino as Bill in I’m Dying Up Here. Showtime

I have been doing stand-up comedy for roughly ten years. I have experienced a moderate and relative level of success. During a blurry smear of my life from somewhere around 2009 to somewhere around 2013 I lived in an apartment complex with a dozen or so other comedians. All of us were young, at least career wise. We were figuring out how to tell jokes while simultaneously figuring out how to live. It felt like an adult adolescence that centered around a ritual where we would perform stand up in bars and comedy clubs. We fell in love, got in fights, threw up, died, bought things, got jobs, drank, quit drinking, played board games, got on TV, drank, broke up, drank, learned lessons, drank, had sex, and drank. At some point during this time, Louie came out. Louie was a monolith. We would gather around in living rooms to watch as this comedian who was experiencing a near perfect career epoch utilized French new wave film techniques and a Red Digital Camera to darkly and cryptically tell the story of his life. It was the first time anyone had done this, at least on this level, at least that we knew about.

Some of us went on to commercial success, some of us quit, some of us died, I have commitment issues so I’ve never fully been able to pull off any of those things. Most of us at some point decided that the story of our time in this apartment complex was worthy of a series. I tried to write it. Everyone else tried to write it. The closest it ever came to a reality was when a production company filmed a sizzle reel for what would probably have ended up as a reality TV show. Then over the course of the next half a decade it seemed like every comedian who struck it big claimed their right to produce an autobiographical show about the sordid inner lives of their younger comedian selves. It was an attractive idea. No one I know would have turned down the opportunity. It’s sort of a natural end to the path of what a comedian is. That being said, I’m glad I didn’t. I think we’ve explored this concept and I think the world has changed in such a way recently that the personal is no longer as compelling as the world at large. There is a reason art tends to work in movements. We just experienced our comedy grunge 1990s and Louie was Nirvana. Now it’s time for nu-metal or hip hop or Napster or something. I don’t know, this isn’t a perfect metaphor. I’m not that good of a comedian. There is, however, no way for me to write about this from a purely objective point of view. Here are my thoughts.

I’m Dying Up Here is a Showtime series. Showtime for some reason produces things that are consistently almost relevant. It is a Jim Carrey produced adaptation of a non-fiction paperback history of stand up comedy in 1970’s Los Angeles. Here’s the twist though: It’s a drama about comedians. The story follows a core cast of fictional comics working at a thinly veiled stand-in for The Comedy Store called Goldies and frequently references actual 70’s comedy titans like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, and Andy Kauffman. There’s a lot going on here. I turned on the first episode intending to roast it to a smoldering crater. I, as a comic, am defensive of what I do. There has almost never been a good depiction of the inner workings of stand up comedy on film or in television. It seems like a fundamental impossibility. It’s like trying to see the back of your own head. You can take a picture of it but you can’t see it. You can’t write a show about stand up because you’re going to spend all of your time and energy constructing the plot, and then just assume you can shoehorn in the scarce minutes of monologue where the comedian is on stage by writing the stand up act in Final Draft and having an actor perform it. This flies in the face of the fact that comedians work for years to get those minutes of material as tight as possible. This is where these shows always go wrong. I’m Dying Up Here kind of gets this wrong and kind of gets it right. I’m conflicted. Sometimes the right stories are told the wrong way. Here’s the plot.

A comedian named Clay Apuzzo sweats and focuses as he prepares to perform on Johnny Carson’s TonightShow. He takes the stage and kills with autobiographical material. We quickly transition to a Scorcese-esque cinematic introduction wherein he celebrates his post-show victory by strutting into a hotel in 1970’s big shot clothing and checks into a room to watch his own set. He orders room service and tips heavily. Meanwhile, the camera still in full cinematic mode, glides around a comedy club where we meet a cast of comics living in a Boogie Nights 1970’s comedy club dimly lit dream. The lighting is right. The feeling is right. We watch these people grind, bust on each other, and gather round an old antenna television as their friend Clay reaches the apex of stand-up comedy at the time. We slowly learn that Cassie, an LA transplant from Texas has a connection to Clay and is working in the “Cellar” section of the club that night. I’m a New York comic and may be getting portions of this wrong but this appears to be a reference to The Comedy Store’s different levels of rooms, which are the Belly Room and the Main Stage. The difference between these sorts of stages is that you sort of level up from open micing, to the Belly, and then to the Main Stage. Details aside, this is true to the game and exists in one form or another at every venue and in every avenue of stand up. Cassie deals with hecklers, which happens over and over in this episode. We’re establishing some themes and devices. Unless you’ve been unplugged for the last five years, you’re aware that there is sexism in comedy. The heckling is maybe an overused device, but I get that the show is trying to get across the struggle of these comics against the ignorance of the time and the business itself. Still I wonder if it’s going to reach an Aaron Sorkin-level of device abuse. Clay get’s called to the couch after his set. This, on Carson, meant he approved of your set. It was the highest honor in comedy at the time.

Suddenly we flash back to Cassie and Clay in bed. Clay is spinning a metaphor about climbing Mount Everest and how you get “fifteen minutes” at the top before you realize that the whole point was the climb itself. Here I stopped to remind myself that I was watching a comedy. The romanticization of a comedian’s dark personal drive is kind of a trick. Suddenly I’m not that surprised that this show is produced by Jim Carrey. The thing where you make a show about comedy but write it as a drama is approaching hack at an alarming rate. I think we might be well aware of it as an audience. We get it. Tears of a clown, I am Pagliacci, etc. I paused to mock the screenwriting, to write the words “Comedy Vinyl” in my notebook, to imagine me and my dumb friends talking like this. Then I remembered that I have made this exact metaphor in this exact way before. Hell, I think had the same haircut as this guy when it happened. Maybe I’m wrong.

Cut to some young comics performing at a strip club in Boston. Ron, played by Clark Duke, is getting a hand job in the balcony while Eddie is on stage harping on his jewish background and dealing with, you guessed it, a heckler. Eddie barely evades actually being attacked by his heckler while panicking about his asthma. Ron cracks a bottle over the back of the guy’s head. Then in a diner back in Los Angeles, the club comics banter with each other in a way that I’m just not sure can be carbon copied from real genuine moments onto the screen. In both heckler scenes thus far and then in this diner scene the back and forth reads like Sorkin dialogue – too witty and fast to be believable. I get that we’re telling a story, but I’m not sure if this is reproducible content. That’s the problem with writing stories about comedians. The stories of their lives move from chapter to chapter based on jokes, and you can’t fabricate jokes fast enough to replicate these stories. That’s why these late night diner hangouts are so fun in real life. You hear jokes that are actually so funny that they are sacred moments of friendship between weird broke artists and will simply never happen again outside of that diner on that one night. Trying to write witty banter always comes off very transparently to me. You imagine the writer putting his or herself in the shoes of the person who delivers all the good burns. It’s dialogue written by someone on the drive home when they realized what they should have said in an argument they had an hour ago. It’s a fantasy.

Clay leaves the hotel and steps out into the street where he’s hit by a bus and dies. This is where I started to really like the show. There’s something inherently comedic about being hit by a bus. “Hit by a bus” is such a stock phrase in comedy. Especially in this world where everyone is constantly busting hecklers all the time. “Hey pal why don’t you go step into traffic and get hit by a bus.” It’s funny that a comedian would die that way. Maybe this show is smarter than I think. The comics gather at the club, Goldies, for an Irish wake regarding Clay’s untimely death. I’m going to be honest here. I love Al Madrigal’s performance as Edgar Martinez, the Mexican comic who happens to still be on acid that he took before Clay died. I’ve met Al and I’ve also taken acid and I relate to this character way too much. A B-plot starts to unravel regarding a one year open micer named Adam who wants to get passed at the club. He argues with his manager and with Goldie about how ready he is to perform on the main stage. I have no idea if this is inside baseball or if people can relate to this. He needs money to keep climbing the proverbial mountain and he takes a high paying job masturbating in front of a dying priest. There is a bone dry moment of comedy when he asks that they put the crucifix away while he does this.

Ron and Eddie road trip to L.A. to stay with Clay, who they had met previously, only to be confronted by Cassie and Clay’s parents freshly grieving and making funeral arrangements. They end up moving in with Arnie and learning some extremely true to life lessons about acting like a big shot and living in a closet with a litter box in order to survive. Sully, an extremely 1970’s looking comic deals with cheating on his pregnant wife and jokes about his ring. The dialogue between him and his mistresses, as well as in his act, is funny but suffers from the aforementioned impossibilities. It kind of works though, when you remember that these are struggling comics. Also, a lot of these people are real-life stand-ups and have the chops to bring to these characters. Furthermore, we’re dealing with 70’s comedy so if it sounds a little hokey, it probably was a little hokey. All of these factors help curb my skepticism.

Cass discovers a postcard that indicates that Clay committed suicide, which creates a core theme and plotline. He then starts popping up Dexter style in scenes with her and offering commentary directly to the camera on their relationship to and the mystery of his own motivations. Hell, with what’s going on at House of Cards and The Handmaid’s Tale I guess devices like this are anyone’s to use. She brings this information to Goldie and Goldie offers some sage wisdom about how Clay’s parents are Catholic and telling them that he committed suicide would only bother them. Goldie’s character comes into focus as this tough maternal type that cares for her comics. I found this true to life in that she’s not portrayed as inherently good or bad, just a survivor with a job. She delivers a gut-punching monologue about her family history with surviving the holocaust and I’m forced to try to remember if the bookers in comedy are ever this tortured or if I’m watching a dramatization of something that isn’t actually that dramatic. Then I remember the industry members I know who are indeed brilliant trainwrecks. Cass shows Clay’s dad the postcard anyways and upsets him. He’s from a bygone era and betrays a lot of complicated feelings about his leisure suit clad cold dead son. I kind of dig this. Later, at Goldies, the comics hold a private open mic/wake with the Apuzzos in attendance. Ron, Eddie, and Adam make moves to get in. We wonder if they are motivated purely or are maneuvering for booking spots over the lifeless body of a comedy hero. These are genuine questions in this world. I know it. I wonder if the rest of the audience knows it. Eddie takes the stage and delivers a simultaneously mournful and bittersweetly funny anecdote about Clay. He explains that he got into comedy after Clay confided in him a tragic and twisted desire to be vulnerable in front of strangers in night clubs since he can’t be vulnerable around anyone else. Clay’s father can’t handle what these hep cats are doing with his son’s memory. He calls them all children and leaves in a huff. He clearly doesn’t understand why they take this artform so seriously. Either that or he also thinks we have enough white male brooding protagonists in prestige television.

In the movie Punchline, there was an egregious anachronism where the comics were depicted as retiring to a locker room Top Gun style after their respective sets. It’s hilarious and is widely known about in the comedy community. As this episode reached its climax I waited for a locker room moment to appear. Cassie confronts Goldie about a rumor she correctly heard that Carson’s booker wants to ease up on giving spots to younger talent, given what happened with Clay. Cassie announces that she’s aware that the Tonight Show is going to be “laying off” young comics. I think this is the locker room moment. Comedians don’t use words like “laid off” because comedians work freelance. Television writers sometimes use words like “laid off” because they work in jobs where there is enough job security to begin with, to where you can be laid off. Locker rooms aside, Melissa Leo’s performance as Goldie does live up to mythic status of her obvious source material – Mitzi Shore. She’s old hollywood and brassy. She’s a mentor and a gatekeeper. You can’t quite figure her out. She fights with Cass about performing in the main room, and eventually acquiesces to give her one of those sought after opportunities that they hold over your head when you’re new like Cass. Dead Clay appears and tells her to go on stage and open up a vein. I, again, wonder if I am watching a show about comedy.

Cass performs on the main stage and starts to bomb. She folds a little as the light and focus of playing a real audience makes her autobiographical act suddenly so obviously hacky and green. I’ve seen this happen so many times. Usually when it’s happening I’m in the back of the room raising my eyebrows at other comics. Then, in a dramatic moment, she breaks from her act, loses words, and is almost pulled from the stage before opening up that vein and digging into some real vulnerable and funny thoughts leftover from her relationship with her dead boyfriend. She uses comedy to work navigate her way out of the hellmouth that has swallowed up her life. In her catharsis she simultaneously proves to Goldie that she is capable of becoming a writer with a point of view and she illustrates the immortal ringing truth that a comic is only really funny when they are vulnerable and willing to rip their ribcage open and show you their guts in all their weird crooked glory. It’s a perfect climax to a story about the artistic process of inside out clowns. “WE GET IT!” I belt out, bored, at my laptop screen. The thing is, though, I TOTALLY get it.