This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason While the show's broadcast premiere isn't until a couple of days after this post's publication, it's been available on demand since late May; we also got screeners.
Does I'm Dying Up Here Stand Up To Peak TV Scrutiny?
If you like damaged psyches, fragile egos, and the '70s, Showtime's dramedy may be worth the two-drink minimum.
What Is This Thing?
Based on William Knoedelseder's 2010 non-fiction book on the heyday of the Los Angeles comedy scene, this Jim Carrey-produced, ten-episode dramedy is about mostly neurotic mid-level stand-up comics trying to break it big as regulars at a club modeled after The Comedy Store.
When Is It On?
Why Was It Made Now?
That's a great question, because it seems like it could have been made at any time since the book was published. Maybe it took this long to wrangle the very large cast and to get a handle on a partially fictionalized version of L.A. comedy lore. Perhaps Showtime needed something to lighten the mood after episodes of Twin Peaks. Did nobody tell them that stand-up comedy life is inherently depressing?
What's Its Pedigree?
The book, from a former Los Angeles Times reporter, is well-regarded. Apart from Carrey, the show's creators and producers include vets from Desperate Housewives, Masters Of Sex, Boardwalk Empire, Copper, and the movie True Crimes. The pilot was directed by Jonathan Levine, who made 50/50 and The Night Before, as well as the less Seth Rogen-y Warm Bodies.
Like most stand-up comics of any era, the show's got issues. A lot of issues. So many issues that even at a solid hour with no commercials, episodes after the pilot feel both baggy and a little too packed with disparate storylines. Want a story about a comic with major daddy issues? We got that. About a young, ambitious female comic trying to break through the comedy club's glass ceiling? Check. Vietnam? Oh yeah. Drugs? We got plenty! Racism? Oh my fellow brown people, yes! The way that instant success has a way of breaking some fragile artists? That shit's in almost every episode!
The pilot episode is largely built around the story of one up-and-comer (Sebastian Stan) about to break through with an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and all the fallout that ensues at the comic's home club. There's jealousy, admiration, and eventually tragedy. That storyline pretty much props up the episode; introduces us to the many, many comedians we'll get to know better in subsequent episodes; and establishes Melissa Leo's character Goldie as the fierce matriarch who runs the club as mother hen, professor of comedy, and calculating entrepreneur.
It's the next few episodes that begin to feel a little overly ambitious trying to bite off enough story to feed so many characters.
And if you're weary of period dramas the lean a little too heavily into their era and continually try to remind you when you are, the '70s Los Angeles setting provides plenty of eye candy and a pretty obvious soundtrack, but it can also get a little much with all the Boogie Nights tracking shots (which were already borrowed from Scorsese), on-the-nose references to current events (Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs as a parallel to the male/female dynamics of the comedy club), and all the leisure suits that ever were. The worst of it is the show's opening title sequence, which features ugly jazz, grimy '70s-porn-style shots, and cackling laughter. But, smartly, the show stops pushing the decade so hard and gets more selective about those moments as it goes.
Some of it works quite well, largely due to a really phenomenal cast that is about 10 miles deep. Leo at first seems weirdly cast as an inspired-by-Mitzi Shore comedy hardass, but by the second or third episode (I saw the first six), she blends right into the dynamic, showy role, giving it the right amount of earned gravitas. Al Madrigal does nice work playing against his nice-guy image as a super jerky Chicano comic with a giant Cheech Marin mustache. Erik Griffin is cheerfully goofy, and later more seriously haunted, as a Vietnam vet who's been around the comedy block. Clark Duke and Michael Angarano have great chemistry as a pair of Boston comics who relocate to Los Angeles and are completely broke all the time. RJ Cyler mostly plays the newbie babe in the woods, but has one devastating monologue that is hilarious and brilliant.
The list of guest stars is ridiculous: it includes Dylan Baker (as Carson!), Robert Forster, Cathy Moriarty, Alfred Molina, Jon Daly, Richard Kind, Obba Babatundé, Jere Burns, Jake Lacy and so many others. You know you have a deep comedy bench when you can have comedian Dom Irrera just hanging around doing bits in the background.
That's a lot of people, but nobody shines brighter on the show than Ari Graynor, who plays Cassie, a Texas comic who is trying to transition from mainstream comedy to something more truthful. Graynor is note-perfect, bringing warmth, vulnerability, ambition and a thoughtfulness to the role that won't surprise anyone who is already a fan of hers. If the entire show were about Cassie's storyline, it would be very easy to recommend this show. Even when the camera is watching her watch other comics, you can see the wheels turning in her head as she absorbs how she can learn from each set. It's a great performance.
Surprisingly, for a show with so much stand-up comedy in it, the material is actually pretty good and the actors do a great job delivering it in distinct and differentiated ways. And when material is supposed to bomb on this show, boy does it combust like a turd bottle rocket. The show does a good job setting up the circumstances for why a great job might go bad due to scheduling or simply following a much better comedian. The off-stage banter and interactions can sometimes feel a little too scripted, but it's often profane and very funny.
Despite the acting talent, a lot of the plotlines are largely about who gets to be on stage at what time on what night, who's getting paid (pretty much nobody at this comedy club), and when each of these comics is going to make a commercial or artistic breakthrough with their material. There's lots of petty jealousy, unlikeable mansplaining comics who are way too far up their own asses with their cerebral material, and way too much time devoted to establishing what a big deal a Carson appearance was for young comics.
But one thing I'm Dying Up Here doesn't suffer from is feeling cheap. When it references Carson or the show Let's Make A Deal, it doesn't just mention them in passing; it recreates those sets and audiences to give you a real sense of what it was like to be on those shows. In the way it blends these fictional comedians with what was really happening at the time, it starts to seem natural that Richard Pryor can show up and befriend a young comic with an afternoon of cocaine and mentorship, or that a roster of female comics up for a TV show would include Cassie alongside Elayne Boosler.
I had access to the first six episodes, and after some initial misgivings, I ended up getting sucked in, watching all of them and wanting more. Characters who seem completely annoying and self-involved are given more dimensions after the pilot, particularly Goldie, who has lots of wisdom to dispense to her comedy students. Even as it includes a lot of clichés about stand-up comedy life, everything from "Chucklefucker" groupies to comedy-as-coping-mechanism, it also starts to develop enough interesting characters with whom you'll want to spent more and more time.
In other words, sit through the opening acts because headliners such as Ari Graynor are worth the wait.