The darker side of the funny biz

Comedy can be a dicey calling

It was an abrupt end to an impressive run.

The downbeat reception accorded to “Funny People” was daunting not only to Judd Apatow but also to the fraternity of comics that he has nurtured. It’s still unclear what impact all this will have on their careers — or egos.

I thought about the cohesiveness of the Apatow fraternity this week as I read a lively new book about an earlier band of funny men. In “I’m Dying Up Here,” William Knoedelseder chronicles the rise of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Robin Williams, and also their less illustrious brethren of that period — Freddie Prinze, Steve Lubetkin and George Miller, among others.

They were all part of a stream of comedic incorrigibles who migrated to Los Angeles in the ’70s to try out for the new comedy clubs and maybe even land a dream slot on Johnny Carson. It was arguably the “golden age of standup,” but many seeking their comedy Camelot also ended up mired in a world of blow and booze.

According to Knoedelseder, who covered the scene for the Los Angeles Times, Letterman and Leno were stalwarts from the start — focused and driven. Letterman arrived with his wife, two nervous kids from Indiana; he was timid about doing standup but felt it was the only way to land a lucrative writing job.

Leno, by contrast, not only exuded confidence but also was one of the “good guys” in helping other comics. By contrast, Robin Williams, according to the book, became notorious among his fellow comics for stealing their best material, always professing his innocence.

Most of the wannabe comedy stars had to scratch around for food and lodging while they awaited audiences with the likes of Mitzi Shore at the Comedy Store or Budd Friedman at the Improv.

Though the clubs began to pull in lines of patrons, the standups soon realized they weren’t getting paid — the chance to perform was itself the reward. Toward the end of the’70s, the comics found themselves caught up in a bizarre semi-strike against their employers — one that ultimately brought them some money but also broke up the sense of camaraderie, triggered a tragic suicide and sent some of the comics back home.

Knoedelseder reminds us that comedy is a dicey calling — not that Apatow and his friends need those reminders at the moment. I suppose that the lesson for Apatow is that, to most people, the business of being funny is not really a funny business.

Maybe not, but it’s nonetheless filled with vivid and talented characters, and they’re a show onto themselves.

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