'I'm Dying Up Here': TV Review

I'm Dying Up Here Cast - H 2016
Courtesy of Showtime

I'm Dying Up Here Cast - H 2016

More expansive when it doesn't overreach.

Showtime's look at the Los Angeles comedy scene in the 1970s has a strong ensemble (featuring Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor and Jake Lacy), lots of potential and at least one awful early episode.

After a spring that brought us the low-key charm of HBO's Crashing, the no-charm blandness of TV Land's Nobodies and Amazon's lively and clever pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Showtime is hoping the public's appetite for behind-the-scenes explorations of the world of comedy is big enough for the angsty hourlong perspective of the network's I'm Dying Up Here.

The show is loosely based on I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak & High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era, William Knoedelseder's nonfiction book about the 1970s Los Angeles stand-up scene. Rather than following Knoedelseder name-dropping approach to future superstars like Jay Leno and Robin Williams, the series — developed by David Flebotte (Masters of Sex) with an off-camera Jim Carrey among the executive producers — builds a fictionalized ensemble of aspiring jokesters. Their dreams of the spotlight create a well-acted sprawl that soars when it mines meaning from the boozy, smoke-filled desperation of its milieu and bombs when it tries to shoehorn themes in artificially.

Goldie (Melissa Leo) runs the hottest comedy club in Hollywood circa 1973. Half caring den mother and half vindictive microphone-withholding autocrat, she boasts that unpaid gigs on her stage are the most direct route to Johnny Carson (Dylan Baker). Proving her right is Clay (Sebastian Stan), who gets his big Tonight Show appearance in the pilot as friends watch in pleasure and unrestrained envy. Among those waiting for their own break are increasingly bitter Bill (Andrew Santino), Vietnam vet Ralph (Erik Griffin), hot-headed Edgar (Al Madrigal) and Cassie (Ari Graynor), a Southern transplant still looking for her voice. Newcomers include RJ Cyler's Adam and, fresh off the bus from Boston to see their pal Clay, Eddie (Michael Angarano) and Ron (Clark Duke).

The admirably deep talent pool on I'm Dying Up Here also features W. Earl Brown as a rival club owner, Alfred Molina as an ineffective manager, Robert Forster and Cathy Moriarty as one comic's disapproving parents and Richard Kind as a network executive. There's so much cast coming-and-going that Jake Lacy, a cast regular as a comic returning from the Playboy circuit, doesn't arrive until the fifth episode.

The show's cast indeed is so big that one marvels not at individual performances so much as the meshing and chemistry of the whole. Graynor is probably the standout as Cassie begins to realize the limitations in how her colleagues and the customers view female comics. Stephen Guarino, as family man Sully, adds sweetness to the conflict between wild-and-crazy comedy and the need to put food on the table. Santino, back in my good graces after his role in the trainwreck that was ABC's Mixology, brings a welcome dash of grumpy misanthropy. And Angarano and Duke, often off in their own wacky fish-out-of-water storylines, bring a more relaxed humor to the mix, especially in an early visit to Let's Make a Deal. I also particularly appreciated how Leo and Griffin, both working from initially outsized personae, find ways to start broad and occasionally cartoonish and then dig deeper.

The pilot was directed by Jonathan Levine (Snatched) and is a fantasia of oversaturated '70s excess, with enough gauze and smog infusing every frame to nearly obscure the bellbottoms, feathered hair and afros. It's stylish, vibrant and proudly showcases influences like Boogie Nights and The King of Comedy (or Goodfellas, since it's gunning to be Scorsese-esque probably more than Altman-esque). It's also one of those pilots that establishes a template none of the increasingly flat subsequent episodes can match. Even if I'm Dying Up Here suffers from steadily declining flair, the pilot hooks viewers on the gap between the world of glitzy indulgence these characters are aspiring to and the grimy world of open mics, unpaid quickie sets and dead-end second jobs they're living in.

The thing I'm Dying Up Here does best is actually the hardest thing for shows like this to achieve: It takes a foreign situation that audiences might not inherently empathize with and at least makes us believe that the stakes are real for these characters. It sets up the triumph of getting summoned to Carson's couch, the stomach-growling allure of a complimentary performer buffet, the crushing disappointment of finding your name removed from a setlist and the claustrophobia of taking up residence on the floor of a closet to save money. Once it does that, the show is able to explore the shifting face of comedy, smartly illustrating the transition from Yiddish theater to the Borscht Belt to the ways in which Richard Pryor, a character in one episode, rewrote the rules. And the routines themselves are very much in keeping with the transitional comic voice of the moment, just hacky enough to be believable and just funny enough to be watchable. An environment in which people speak without a filter is also an organic way to explore struggles for female and minority comics that are still part of the conversation today, as well as the limitations of comedy in a time in which "political correctness" didn't exist.

When I'm Dying Up Here uses comedy as a vehicle to be about something more, it succeeds, but when it forces matters, it fails ugly. The fourth episode is a clumsy and frequently hypocritical effort to glom onto the Women's Rights Movement, utilizing Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs' Battle of the Sexes tennis match, cornball musical cues like "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" from Annie Get Your Gun and a crazy, sexually perverse groupie storyline that made me yearn for the comparative subtlety of Showtime's Roadies. [The episode also wedges in a poorly motivated Vietnam PTSD plot.] When you get this clunky with your take on feminism, you force me to search credits to observe that none of the first six episodes sent to critics were directed by women and only two, the fourth not included, were written by women. The bad taste from this episode lingers a bit, even later, when Cassie's enthusiasm for a potential CBS women-in-comedy showcase delves into similar material much more deftly.

The smoother storylines of the earlier episodes and an ensemble with no sore thumb pieces kept me watching through the rough sections and left me with hope that even though TV's need for another show about comedians is nonexistent, I'm Dying Up Here might continue with an approach that's different enough and expansive enough to be worthwhile.

Cast: Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor, Michael Angarano, Clark Duke, Andrew Santino, Erik Griffin, RJ Cyler, Al Madrigal, Jake Lacy
Creator: David Flebotte, from the book by William Knoedelseder
Premieres: Sunday, June 4, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)