How Showtime’s ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ Recreates ’70s Comedy Club Scene

I'm Dying Up Here
Courtesy of Showtime

Comedian Judy Gold appears in episode three of “I’m Dying Up Here,” the Jim Carrey-produced Showtime ensemble series premiering Sunday that fictionalizes the infamous early 1970s Los Angeles comedy scene, where a slew of real-life icons like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Elayne Boosler first rose to prominence and thousands of other young hopefuls followed suit on the heels of Johnny Carson’s decision to move “The Tonight Show” to the West Coast in 1972.

On the new show, Gold plays an aging comic named Judy Elder, who’s vying for a second shot at stardom on the stage of her childhood friend Goldie Herschlag—the tough-as-nails owner of an L.A. comedy club that bears a striking resemblance to The Comedy Store and its real-life proprietor Mitzi Shore.

Yet “I’m Dying Up Here” co-creator and executive producer Dave Flebotti says “Goldie has an entirely different energy from Mitzi’s.”

Loosely adapted from journalist William Knoedelseder’s non-fiction book of the same name, the series also stars Ari Graynor, Michael Angarano, Clarke Duke and Andrew Santino, as some of the fledgling young comics with big dreams and often equally large appetites for drugs, sex and alcohol.

“What was interesting to all of us when we were reading the book was the idea of a woman running a really hot nightclub on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s, but that’s really where the similarities start and stop,” says co-executive producer Michael Aguilar.

Gold, a Comedy Store alumnus who still performs there today, agrees but says that when it comes to her own character on the new show, it instantly reminded her of her struggles as a young performer in New York, more than a decade after the series takes place.

“Even though the role I play is much older than I was when I was starting out, I could easily relate to her,” says Gold, who first began performing stand-up in the mid-’80s and won two Daytime Emmy Awards for her work as a writer and producer on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” “I literally felt like I was transported back to another time, but my character could have just as easily been about somebody doing stand-up in 2017.”

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Others who took part in the Showtime series, like former “Daily Show” correspondent Al Madrigal, feel the same way. Madrigal’s been doing stand-up for nearly two decades. On the show he plays loose cannon Latino comic Edgar Martinez, and says he was “right at home with his character.”

“It doesn’t matter what the generation is or when this series takes place because we’re all bonded by the same war stories as comedians,” he says. “I’m very proud of the bits I wrote from that era. It was all about having the premise be a little more basic, but the beats are all the same.”

Whether or not it’s art directly imitating their own lives, even the comedians who don’t appear as comics on “I’m Dying Up Here” said they found themselves identifying with many of its universal themes.

“It was very surreal to be involved with this because of the hunger that’s evident and the experiences that some of these comics go through on the show is all in my past,” says comedian Cathy Ladman, who plays entertainment journalist Tish Norman in three episodes.

Though she admits she’s glad that she doesn’t play a comedian on the show, she says she still enjoyed her role, adding the way the lives and struggles of most young comedians are portrayed is accurate.

“It’s not a comedy show,” says Ladman. “It’s about comedians, many of whom come from dark places, and ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ really gets to the heart of that.”

Similarly, for veteran comedian, actor and screenwriter Rick Overton, who started performing stand-up in New York in the mid-’70s, it was as if no time had passed as he prepared for his role on the series playing “Tonight Show” talent coordinator Mitch Bombadier in six episodes.

“It was very exciting, bittersweet and nostalgic for me,” he says. “The bittersweet part is that it isn’t 1973 anymore, where the series begins. And it isn’t all possibilities for a kid with kid-sized dreams. Now it’s sort of the grown-up version where you know what limits to things are and there’s a ceiling because you either ran into it or you built it for yourself.”

By the same token, Paul Block, who served as a talent coordinator and segment producer on “The Tonight Show” from 1973 until 1978, approves of the verisimilitude of “I’m Dying Up Here.” “From the ambiance of the 1970s right down to the feel of how comedy was being done back then, for the most part they got it right,” he says.

Given that the show attempts to chronicle the era that gave birth to the rise of modern stand-up, Aguilar and Flebotte faced a delicate balancing act. “We see it as a drama, but it’s definitely a dramedy,” says Flebotte. “In other words, we want to infuse it with a lot of drama that also speaks to what’s behind the comedy.”

And while both agree about the importance of bringing real-life comedians into the mix, Aguilar says, “In terms of telling a story about what essentially becomes a family among this group of young comedians and the matriarch character Goldie, we wanted to create characters that could live on their own and give us license to explore different issues, but were still in the world of Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor.”

Adds Flebotte: “It’s a show about a family—a sort of dysfunctional family, but nevertheless a family—who has that desire to stand in a dark room with a microphone and make people laugh.”

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  1. tedsams@hotmail.com says:

    I really am enjoying the show. I hope it gets a second season. I had similar experiences as a fledgling musician in Tallahassee in the 80s and early 90s. When the right group of creative people bond, especially in their 20s and 30s, the mix is always interesting. Even well paid musicians would go to open mics to try out songs. One place paid a grouper sandwich and and two beers. You never forget that kind of experience. I think what the show projects is universal for creative types who have found a bond at some point of time in one city or another. Its happening somewhere right now.

  2. Barbara H. O'Daly says:

    I’m strictly writing with some authority and insight to the Stand Up Genre that became familiar with the A & E Stand Up Series “An Evening At The Improv” ;16 year run through the mid 80s and 90s. As co-creator, I can tell you that the show had an initial treatment that spoke to the making of Stars for sitcoms. This means to an end made history in the Stand Up Scene; and launched careers (not to mention proliferation of Stand Up Clubs!) Sadly, the portrayal of this hard core, selfish motivated ‘Goldie’ seems over the top. The personification of the Dark Comedian is one theme, but how about the handling of success and understanding all the elements that came to procure success. There were people that cared and made a difference in the business of Comedy; and this Mini Series and what seems to portray a one sided collective lament will not stereotype all Comedians as manic crazies. Many have handled fame very well and continue to be successful. Jim Carey should know this better than anyone. His brilliant stage presence and material was thrilling and belly laughs ensued. Carey’s positive career speaks volumes. The striving artist who really is good at making people think and laugh at the same time is a more important theme. I like that part that I’ve viewed in this Showtime Series but the berating of the Goldie personality should also tell us (if in truth this is from real experience) the merits and satisfaction in seeing Stand Up as a true art in its freedom to understand the positive and negatives of humanity. Making people think and laugh and react is an ART and the dedication to the endeavor should be ‘framed’ and then applauded.

  3. JohnnyCCDC says:

    The article gives me hope of a promising series that also promises to it deliver what I REALLY want. If done well, I’ll get the idea of the history, time period and culture while still seeing the historical people I grew up knowing from the era ala The Breakdown. That’s what I’m hoping for the series now. What I REALLY want though, is the true biopic/mini series accurately based on the original source material with fresh new talent depicting all of these stars from their early stages up to the famous suicide and strike that followed. I want the comedians who are alive today to be involved in the movie and allowing their input help ensure the information is spot on and well depicted. As a stand up comic fan and person who read the book, that’s what I really want and I’m sure many who haven’t read I’m Dying Up Here would thoroughly enjoy the story that book detailed on an accurate and larger scale.

    Alas, this will tease the appetite before the main meal is served I suppose. Jim Carey is involved so at least we know the quality is already starting on a high note!

  4. Carl E. Williams says:

    Enjoyed reading this first.rate preview of a new TV series that encompasses both drama and comedy. Looking forward to checking it out.

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