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‘I’m Dying Up Here’ Loves Comedy — Just Not Comedians

Jim Carrey’s ’70s-set stand-up series works fine as TV. But it’s far more interesting for what it says about the genre of comedy-about-comedians.

(Showtime)
(Showtime)

The average television viewer knows how awful a drunk and hostile comedy club audience can be. They know what it’s like to pitch jokes for someone else’s movie. They even know what it’s like to have a pushy agent or manager who just doesn’t get you. The only profession it’s possible to learn more about from the confines of your living room is “New York City homicide detective.” That’s because we’re in a time of both Peak TV and Peak Comedy. Cash-rich distributors (Netflix, Amazon) in television and low-barrier entry points (podcasts, Twitter) in comedy have come together to form an ever-expanding Venn diagram: Peak Comedy TV.

The autobiographical sitcom has been a small-screen fixture since the first comedy boom of the 1980s and 1990s, when stand-up clubs proliferated around the country and networks gave out development deals like candy. The shows (Seinfeld, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and not-about-a-comedian-but-headlined-by-one shows like Roseanne) followed a simple template: soundstage plus laugh track plus star. This second wave is more accommodating of stylistic tweaks, incorporating the influence of quirky improv temples like UCB and uncompromising auteurs like Louis C.K. But the shows all feel strikingly similar, subbing in another formula: angst plus cringe comedy plus visual flourish. Shows like Maron, Baskets, Take My Wife, Difficult People, One Mississippi, BoJack Horseman, and Crashing all tell the same kind of story about the same kind of comic, with a little bit of room for variation on the margins.

On Sunday, Showtime threw its hat into the Peak Comedy TV ring with I’m Dying Up Here, the logical progression in the genre from “dramedy about comedian” to “prestige drama about comedy. Executive produced by Jim Carrey, I’m Dying Up Here offers its own version of the comedy show: It’s a thinly fictionalized ensemble drama rather than a thinly fictionalized personal dramedy, an hourlong period piece instead of a half-hour contemporary vignette, and an origin story in place of an individual narrative. Where Peak Comedy TV is about people who just happen to be comedians, I’m Dying Up Here aims to be about comedy, with a secondary focus on the people who helped move it forward. On its own, I’m Dying Up Here is a clumsy hagiography that deliberately (and counterproductively) shortchanges specificity for breadth, character study for bird’s-eye-view history. In conversation with other series, though, it’s a foundational myth — an earnest attempt to explain and justify the phenomenon it’s furthering. That historical bent doesn’t make for great television, but I’m Dying Up Here’s approach suggests that Peak Comedy TV is entering a more ambitious phase: one where creators start to stretch their legs, pursue different genres, and try out new punch lines.

I’m Dying Up Here is not technically about legendary Los Angeles club the Comedy Store in the 1970s. But I’m Dying Up Here, the 2009 William Knoedelseder book the show is based on, is a straight cultural history of that very establishment, and the show is compelling when it pursues that sociological tack. There are other crucial moments in the evolution of comedy — Del Close’s improv gurudom; the proliferation of a more naturalistic “alt” style stand-up in the ’90s at New York venues like Luna Lounge — but the Store remains the only venue hallowed enough for an adjacent party house to merit its own oral history. Comedy fans are well aware of seminal moments in Store history like the Leno-led 1979 strike that finally got performers a token payment, but a more general audience likely isn’t. I’m Dying Up Here has found a way to make those dry factoids palatable to a bigger crowd: wrapping them in one sepia-toned, paisley-bedazzled package.

The show’s timeline is still six years away from that strike, though Showtime’s trigger-happy renewal policy suggests I’m Dying Up Here will get the chance to show some picket lines eventually. But even before it reaches the greatest conflagration in the Store’s tempestuous early days, I’m Dying Up Here works as a serviceable history lesson. Labor disputes and persona shaping and late-night bitch sessions are useful background information on the comedians we are invested in — the real-life products of the Store era dramatized here. But the series sees itself as more docudrama than fiction, more concerned with relaying onetime issues du jour than inventing new scenarios. Relinquishing originality is meant to pay tribute to the history of comedy. Instead, I’m Dying Up Here’s archival strategy does the show a disservice.

I’m Dying barely makes an effort at concealing its inspiration: Goldie (Melissa Leo) is a transparent analog for Mitzi Shore, the Jewish owner-matriarch who won the Store in her 1974 divorce from comic Sammy Shore and turned it into a training ground for the likes of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Sandra Bernhard, and Marc Maron. Goldie even uses Shore’s preferred metaphor to justify not paying the entertainers who ultimately put bodies in seats: both Goldie’s club and the Store are schools, and schools don’t pay their students. Prickly and contradictory, nurturing comics while she exploits them, Goldie comes the closest to being a full enough character to shoulder an entire show, but Leo’s been saddled with a distracting Borscht Belt accent. Even the subplots intended to give her shrewd businesswoman a softer side are strikingly heavy-handed: She’s estranged from her daughter, so the comedians she grooms become her surrogate children.

Shore is a worthy object of character study, even if her more caricaturish qualities — to say nothing of cameos like a coke-snorting, fuck-spewing Richard Pryor — can feel a little on-the-nose. While Goldie has a real-life source, though, her flock is a collection of composites who feel more like animated concepts than human beings. As much as Ari Graynor’s Cassie complains about being tokenized as the only female comic of her peer group, that’s exactly what I’m Dying Up Here does to her. Every tiresome debate with Goldie — and there are many — about sex appeal and point of view sounds like it was pulled directly from a “Misogyny in the Entertainment Industry 101” PowerPoint. Edgar Martinez (Al Madrigal) is every comedian who’s leaned on their ethnicity as a crutch or relied on stereotypes for cheap laughs; Bill (Andrew Santino) is the raging asshole whose attitude threatens to get in the way of his talent, the kind audiences have grown to know well through hundreds of hours of Maron’s podcast. Goldie’s may be a specific place, but its denizens are an assortment of generic archetypes.

That dichotomy speaks to the priorities of I’m Dying Up Here, which wants to tell the broader story of an institution rather than the particular stories of a set of people. In order to tell that broader tale, the cast’s quirks have largely been ironed out to help the writers make points about Big Comedy Ideas. I’m Dying Up Here spends most of its time focusing on comedy’s social value, the ironic depressive tendencies of its practitioners, and the sacrifices required to make great art.

The bulk of the dialogue comes in the form of misty-eyed pronouncements the jaded cynics who give them should find intolerable: “You guys are alchemists. You create pleasure from pain,” one character admires. We might believe that sentiment, too, if I’m Dying Up Here showed that process rather than telling us about it at great volume and length. No cliché goes uncovered in the first quartet of episodes, from the comedian as philosopher-king to the dark and gloomy side of professional funny men (and one funny woman). One comedy lesson the show hasn’t internalized: the more hackneyed the delivery, the less effectively the point comes across. A great show about the history of comedy needs interesting, dynamic characters, and deeper insights about the art, and the people who make it. Here’s a tough joke: I’m Dying Up Here’s bland fictional comics can’t hold a candle to the dozens of Store disciples churning out new series each year.