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The 1970s were alive and well Wednesday night in Hollywood as the cast and executive producers of Showtime’s new series about the golden age of stand-up comedy, I’m Dying Up Here, celebrated its debut with a shag-carpet premiere at the Director’s Guild of America theater.
Loosely based on the book of the same name by William Knoedelseder, I’m Dying Up Here tells the story of a small group of fictional comics looking for their big breaks during the era’s comedy explosion on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. For the cast and producers of the series, it’s the perfect story to tell, as it was the dawn of modern stand-up comedy.
“I compare it to movements like the Seattle grunge scene in the ‘90s or the art scene in the Lower East Side of New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Johnny Carson moves The Tonight Show west in 1972, so all the comedians flock here,” executive producer Michael Aguilar tells THR. “It’s hard for people to understand, but the only way to be a successful comedian was to be on The Tonight Show. So they’re all here trying to be discovered. They’re all here hoping one of Johnny’s bookers is going to catch them in this club.”
For the cast, though, it wasn’t just about a comedian’s chance at appearing on The Tonight Show but also a shift in the definition of comedy itself.
“That moment in the 1970s, and particularly out here in Los Angeles, was a huge transition [that] was going on of what comedy had been back in Vaudeville and was now dying.,” Melissa Leo says. Erik Griffin adds, “The ‘70s was the start of really having a strong point of view, being political, Richard Pryor using the N-word, the cursing. It was the boom of that.”
In that boom, sacrifices were made as comedians went without pay while waiting for their chance at fame. It’s a sentiment that resonates with comedian Al Madrigal, who also stars in the series. “I think I’m Dying Up Here really captures what it’s like to be a comic in the ‘70s, in the ‘80s, in the ‘90s and now. Because it’s a desperate bunch, man,” he says. “The stakes are that we’re all sacrificing. Nobody makes money until three or four years in, and it’s not a lot. What other job has that?”
For most comedians though, it’s a job they would trade for no other. That includes executive producer Jim Carrey, who worked hard to bring the show to life. As someone who cut his teeth in the industry at the Comedy Store – which the show’s Goldie’s club is loosely based on – he knows exactly how special this period of stand-up is.
“It was an idea rolling around in my head for a long time, and I wanted people to see the comedy world as it was and the extraordinary experience I was lucky enough to have. And it was an explosive, inventive, alchemical invention coming from so many wonderful extraordinary souls and desperate, desperate motherf–ers,” he recalled when introducing the premiere screening. “It happened at a time following Vietnam, with Nixon and Watergate. What happens is when these extraordinary times politically happen, we were going through terror, and the fear of the end, comics are the last line of defense. We tell the truth, and we make something beautiful out of it.”
Given the tumultuous current state of political affairs, Carrey couldn’t help but see the similarities and sent out support to fellow comedian Kathy Griffin, who has been the target of criticism after taking a photo with a depiction of President Donald Trump’s bloodied head.
“Kathy Griffin: Hold up a severed leg. I don’t think the joke is the problem –- the subject of the joke is the problem,” he proclaimed. “Don’t worry for your existence. All this is meaningless. Seriously, everyone is very worried right now. I try to tell people that all of creation is just God’s fidget spinner. It’s really not important. What’s important is we’re all here, and I had such a glorious chance to be in this world of comedy. And to people who say, ‘Is the show too dark?’ Darkness is where diamonds form.”
With the ‘70s back for one night only, it seemed only appropriate that the after-party was held at Canter’s Deli, a place comedians have been going to for decades after their performances and which serves as a major location in the series. It was there that guests dined on breakfast food, pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup until late into the night.
I’m Dying Up Here premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
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