Unlike probably any other critic who reviews the new Showtime series "I'm Dying Up Here," I'm actually at least tangentially familiar with what it was like to be a fledgling stand-up comic in Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 1970s. While I was in theory working towards a degree in political science, I spent most of my time in the mid 1970s writing spec scripts and trying to break into comedy at the long-shuttered Comedy Store in Westwood, Calif. But I also wasted a lot of late nights hanging at the main Comedy Store in Hollywood, which is the inspiration for this series.
It's difficult for people to remember how marginalized stand-ups were in the show business pecking order before the comedy boom of the 1980s. A decade before, you could count the number of full-time comedy clubs in the U.S. on less than two hands. If you were a comedian, you basically had one career path. Get enough of an act to work jazz and dinner clubs and/or colleges. And if you were real lucky, you were eventually able to get a shot on "The Tonight Show," which opened up things such as game show appearances and for the rare talents, maybe even a TV show of their own. But at the end of the day, stand-up comedians were generally lumped into the same category as magicians and impressionists: somewhat talented people who could kill time on stage until the headliner arrived.
All of that had started to change just before the events of "I'm Dying Up Here" take place. "The Tonight Show" moved from New York to Los Angeles, which meant the show's bookers needed somewhere to see the best West Coast comedy talent. Famed & feared Mitzi Shore took over ownership of "The Comedy Store" and made it into the best place to be seen by Hollywood's power brokers. And both Richard Pryor and George Carlin evolved from safely traditional club acts to counter-culture icons. There were suddenly paths for comedians that didn't just a year or two earlier.
But the Comedy Store wasn't an influence just because it was one of the few places in Los Angeles showcasing up-and-coming talent. It was also that Shore's legendary cheapness and petty behavior towards the comics she booked ensured that there was a constant churning of new talent. The Comedy Store was slightly managed chaos and despite Shore's efforts to control the comics (including the installation of a video camera so she could watch the stage from her office), audiences never knew who or what to expect when they walked into the club. Shore was often a petty and vindictive person and that chemistry seeped into every aspect of the club and its performers. Comics would throw chairs, get in fist fights and live a lifestyle that would make the late Keith Moon proud. It was an intense, fractured world where just about the only thing that ultimately mattered was getting the laugh.
That Comedy Store scene was the Cavern Club of stand-up comedy. A place where the talent and timing came together at just the right moment. It was magical and insane and it felt as if any moment your life could change. And I really wanted to see that passion and unpredictability reflected accurately in this show.
Part of the problem is that while the series is based on a non-fiction book about the
period, producers were forced to create fictionalized versions of a number of the comics. And based on the interviews I've seen, the versions were mostly filtered through the recollections of Jim Carrey and other comics who came through the Comedy Store ten years later. So the result is a version of the truth that seems vaguely off in a way that most viewers can't identify. It's sort of similar to doing a series about Woodstock and relying on the memories of musicians who played the Woodstock 10th Anniversary concert. It doesn't quite seem authentic, although you can't put your finger on just why.
It might seem an overly picky point, but the scene of the Comedy Store in 1974 was very different than the one just five years later. By the end of the decade, a number of performers had been plucked from the stage of the club to head up a TV show. There was also a contentious comedian strike that found veteran performers refusing to play the Comedy Store. That strike was broken in part thanks to the willingness of younger comics like Jerry Seinfeld, who were willing to cross the picket line in return for stage time. There were grudges from that period that lasted decades.
Why does all of this matter? Because what made that era of stand-up so special back then is that there were almost no rules. There had never been a career path like this for comedians and to a large extent, you made your success however you needed to. That self-induced pressure led to some conflicts that are hard to believe in 2017.
For instance, Robin Williams did indeed open the floodgate for comedians with his success on "Mork & Mindy." But it's less remembered that he had a bad habit of "remembering" hunks of other comic's acts & then using them on his show, rendering them useless to the comic who had originally written them. He paid comics who complained about the practice after the fact, but it also led to Williams being banned from being in the club until it was time for him to hit stage. All of this eventually led to a night in which a very angry, bearded David Letterman cornered Williams in the parking lot of the Store & threatened to kick his ass for using two of his jokes on "Mork & Mindy." That led to Letterman's casting on the show, which given Dave's lack of acting skills probably wasn't all that helpful, in retrospect.
That editorial distance also leads to some fundamental misunderstandings about the stand-up culture of that era. According to the series, there were almost no female comics in that era. But the truth was that while male comics were by far in the majority, there were plenty of women trying to break in. But Shore didn't believe women were funny and for a number of years the only place in L.A. they could work was in the walk in-sized "Belly Room" that was carved out of some old office space on the second floor of the Comedy Store. It was an all-female comedy ghetto, where audience members could only get in by walking around to a non-nondescript door at the side of the building.
And that's ultimately why the show doesn't quite work for me. "I'm Dying Up Here" spends entirely too much time focusing on storylines that are supposed to resonate with a contemporary audience. So the stand-up performances don't connect in the same way as they would if they were written by a comic from that era. The story lines have conflict, but it's the kind of conflict that seems forced and inauthentic. "I'm Dying Up Here" isn't terrible, but it never quite manages to capture a time when stand-up comedians were minor cogs in the show business universe instead of the major drivers of the industry that they are in 2017.
I'm conflicted about not giving "I'm Dying Up Here' a rave review, simply because it tries to tackle a challenging story and manages to not be terrible doing it. It's much better than "Vinyl'," HBO's failed effort to take a look at the 1970s rock era. But while "I'm Dying Up Here" is better than that show, it is ultimately a series that is most notable for the ways in which it doesn't quite live up to its source material.