‘I’m Dying Up Here’ 01×04 Recap: The Riot Games

There is a lot to unpack this week. Most regarding gender, some involving Richard Pryor, and still some has to do with… I’ll get to the sex stuff in a minute.

The cast of I’m Dying Up Here. Showtime

There is a lot to unpack this week. Most regarding gender, some involving Richard Pryor, and still some has to do with… I’ll get to the sex stuff in a minute. We open on a flashback to Goldie’s childhood. She’s sewing and her life is an old world social hellscape of men yelling and women doing what they’re told. We flash forward to the present and she’s sewing I’m not sure what, a comedian’s blazer or something? The parallel tells us that this episode is going to tackle something in the realm of feminism, gender roles, or perhaps just the craft of upholstery. An old gray haired wiry comedian named Sid comes up to her asking for fifteen minutes of stage time. He thinks his manager can get him on “Merv,” if he sees him kill at the right venue. I don’t understand why his manager isn’t sold on his act yet, but I’ll let that one go. Goldie, playing characteristically close to the vest as always, rebuffs him without looking up from her comedy club arts and crafts project. He mentions 20 dollars he gave her a long time ago for a pair of shoes. Suddenly everything turns very film noir. She breaks for a moment, mentioning that the shoes were 17 bucks and the rest of the money went to stockings and lunch. She tells him she’ll think about it. On the phone later, Teddy calls Goldie and tells her he sent Sid that way when he asked about stage time. It’s revealed that Sid is Goldie’s ex husband.

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At the open mic, Eddie is on stage killing for some reason with a chunk about how Jewish women make the worst prostitutes. Bill says to a mysterious young woman, “Goldie thinks he’s the next Carlin.” I can’t tell if this is him talking Eddie up to try and get him laid or if the characters are really supposed to think that this is groundbreaking material. I’m sure it’s the former, but it really doesn’t read that way because everyone in this show is so damn dire and serious all the time. Eddie is approached after his set by the young woman, Toni Luddy, who hits on him hard. Ron tries to spit some corny 70s comedian game at her but she’s clearly interested in Eddie. Eddie and Toni playfully throw Ron under the bus and from across the room Bill sees this and mutters “fuck him.” Ron isn’t even mad about it. I do not understand why Bill does comedy. He thinks and talks like Batman or a cop whose partner died and it was his fault and he’s very torn up inside about it. Then again, I do not understand why a lot of real comedians do comedy.

Cassie approaches Goldie about doing more spots on the main stage, implying that she’s not getting as fair of a shake as the men in rotation. Goldie replies that she’s thinking about putting together a ladies only show in the Cellar, which Cass finds condescending and in keeping with the un-woke gender roles of the times. Goldie has none of it and informs her that she’s speaking to someone who burned bras in the 60’s and had it way worse. Interestingly, the famous bra burning protest that this refers to never happened, so we have a bit of a historical anachronism here, but it’s such a commonly believed story that it still works as dialogue. People do refer to bra burning in this way all of the time and the point is still intact (in reality they just sort of threw the bras in the trash and a reporter, intending to compare them to draft card burners, came up with the image of bra burning). Whatever the case, Goldie tells Cassie she’s not ready, and that just because they fart in front of her she shouldn’t assume she’s “one of the guys.” Oddly, this farting thing is going to come up again.

Later, at the comedian frat house, Eddie and Toni are having sex. Toni is screaming like, comically loudly. If this was The Office, Eddie would be staring into the camera mouthing “what the fuck” at us. At the breakfast table Maggie, Arnie, Steve the Ventriloquist, and Ron stare in the direction of the noise, mouths agape. Arnie and Steve educate Ron on the concept of “chuckle fuckers,” aka comedian groupies. I am not happy to report that this is indeed a thing. Not the idea of groupies, necessarily, those are just human women that like to have sex. What is unfortunately a real thing is that there are people who refer to the women who have sex with comedians as “chuckle fuckers,” and not “humanitarians.” I’ve also heard them referred to as “gag hags” by lonely middle aged men who sell t-shirts for a living and territorial women who are ironically also trying to fuck a bunch of comedians. I guess this is a point for I’m Dying Up Here’s realism. This is a show about comedy, warts and all.

Speaking of warts, what happens next is unsettling. During sex, Toni starts talking like a baby. Then she heightens it into a whole baby roleplaying thing and asks Eddie to put a thermometer in her butt. He eventually gets weirded out which causes her to do what all women do on this show, storm off in a huff. This thing is 90 percent comics busting hecklers and women storming off in a huff. Anyways, regarding the whole age play thing she was doing, I really don’t want to kink-shame, and lord knows I live in a glass house, but that was messed up. I was genuinely uncomfortable. I guess I was supposed to be. I can’t knock the show for taking risks and pushing taboo boundaries, odd as it is to see this sort of thing played out in the 70s.

At the diner, everyone mocks Sully’s new haircut, and as the men drool over the new waitress, Cass ruminates on Goldie’s remarks about the boy’s club. Later, while making out with Bill, he pulls his face away to start riffing on the Sci-fi movie playing on TV. In typical Bill fashion, the riff is wooden and milquetoast. She, of course, storms off. Check your bingo cards if you had “Cass storms off.” I would have stormed off too if he had started doing stand up at me. She explains, though, that she’s throwing herself at him and he’s barely interested. They make up, he farts in front of her (a call back go Goldie’s advice), and she leaves again. He eventually makes it up to her by acquiring them an invitation to a party at The Riot House, a hotel where Led Zeppelin parties. Cassie goes to a tailor to have a dress altered for the party. The tailor pines on about beauty and heart attacks. She stands in front of a mirror and cries. I’m not sure what the narrative is here, but I am happy to be watching a scene that isn’t shot through the toaster Instagram filter. Everything on this show is light brown.

The b-plot is equally ambitious. At the club, Adam overhears a familiar voice talking about shitting one’s pants. He rushes over and discovers it is indeed Richard Pryor. Not only that, but Pryor’s manager was in the audience during Adam’s epic heckler takedown. Mr. Manager tells Richard to be back at the club in time for his set, and Richard decides to take Adam with him as he goes out to get into some trouble. A scene later, Pryor is doing lines of coke in a booth at a bar across from Adam, asking him about his act. Adam talks out some material and Richard listens, but asks Adam if his dad ever hit him, and why that sort of thing isn’t in his act. He’s coked up and seriously into getting to the bottom of what comedy is. He tells Adam to be like Muhammad Ali on stage. I was skeptical about this actor’s task in becoming someone as mythic as Richard Pryor but I kind of dig it. The scene culminates in Richard pointing to a group of old men laughing around a pool table, where he advises Adam to take inspiration, explaining that the guy isn’t talking about something mundane like the weather, he’s talking about something that almost got him killed, and that’s why everyone’s laughing. Adam asks how he can tell, and Richard responds with old truth teller comedian wisdom.

Toni and Eddie have dinner and she apologizes for freaking him out. They immediately have sex and she decides to put on “Lime in the Coconut” and starts singing loudly to it while initiating sex. This turns into more screaming and eventually she’s strangling him with her ankles wrapped around his neck and he freaks out and asks if they can just do “regular fucking.” She storms out again and as he catches her in the hallway she opines about how hypocritical it is for him to call her weird when he get’s up on stage and begs for acceptance, becomes vulnerable, and so forth. I’ve had this conversation so many times. It really speaks to the flaw in the show’s thesis. People think comedians are such dark, brooding, twisted up figures, and I mean, some of us are, but this is generally not true. We do stand up because we saw a great special growing up and decided to try our hand at it. We got addicted to the craft of it, and now we have to spend the rest of our lives having conversations in hallways about how we’re supposedly addicted to being vulnerable or something. This would bother me more, but these words aren’t coming from Eddie’s mouth, they’re coming from Toni’s. This show is very meta in both insisting on this view in it’s narrative but also having the comics in the show disagree with it sometimes.

At the Riot House, Cassie wanders into a bedroom where a topless woman is tied to a bedpost. She panics and attempts to help her out of the situation before realizing she’s on acid and this is just run of the mill foreplay before hooking up with with Jimmy Page or something. The woman talks about vampires, some guy shows up for sex, and Cass storms out. Drink. Adam and RIchard Pryor return to the club. Adam is drunk and Pryor’s manager instructs Richard to go to the bathroom and “freshen up” for the show. Obviously this means cocaine. Adam talks to the manager about his own representation and career aspirations and is informed that his management should be getting him jobs. He’s also treated to a soliloquy on Pryor’s flawless high velocity once in a lifetime B-Line through the artform of stand up into high art. He’s compared to a meteor, a splintering man, and someone who doesn’t so much tell jokes as he talks to ghosts. I know I just accused this show of being too dramatic but I enjoy this. Richard Pryor is a piece of history. It’s cool that he existed.

A little bit of montage helps wrap up the story as we’re informed through the club’s bubble television that the legendary Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is going down in real time during the events of this week’s story. Riggs is on camera spewing misogyny, Billie is planning her victory, and Goldie is smirking silently. Bill Hobbs takes out more of his angry self involved dude rage on Eddie and falls just short of a fight with Ron, while Toni talks to a new guy. Cassie finds out she got bumped from the lineup that night and confronts Goldie, who informs her that she was the most bumpable, and that she got bumped for Richard Pryor. Ever mercurial agent of chaos Edgar Martinez informs Cassie that she didn’t get bumped for Pryor so much as she got bumped for Sid. Sid, who got the 15 minute set he was asking for, finds out shortly beforehand that he will be following Richard Pryor. For those uninitiated, this is an impossible thing to do. I’ve seen comics follow Louis CK and Dave Chappelle drop-ins. There’s nothing you can do with the situation except comment on how underwhelming you are in comparison to the star power that just exited the stage. It’s a set you can get through, but if you’ve invited management out to watch you, or you’re trying to get a tape together, this is the worst possible scenario. Goldie clearly orchestrated this. Sid bathes in anxious red light backstage while Pryor kills. Fake Pryor is actually kind of funny. His kill doesn’t read as a heinous bomb with a laugh track, as so many other sets do on screen. Sid follows him and bombs hard. It reminds me of the end of Lenny Bruce’s career when he was losing his mind and freestyling about the government. One thing I will give I’m Dying is the cinematography really captures these moments. The red light, the barely visible faces of the audience, the lonely blinding spotlight – these things tell a very personal and specific story. After his bomb he rushes into Goldie’s office and slaps her clean in the face. She drops a pile of money and slowly picks up a 20 dollar bill, which she hands back to him. 20 dollar bills, Bill’s farts, there is a lot of symbolism at play this week. Sid leaves and it is revealed that Cassie is standing in the doorway. She silently helps Goldie pick up the money and once again we understand that we should have trusted Goldie’s wisdom. Cassie wouldn’t have wanted that toxic post-Pryor spot. The episode winds down with a newly inspired Adam drunkenly firing his manager over the phone, Cassie returning to the tailor for some reason, and Goldie smoking and sporting a black eye while watching Billie Jean King defeat Bobby Riggs as the lyrics to “Anything You Can Do” drive the point home hard.

‘I’m Dying Up Here’ 01×04 Recap: The Riot Games