Not quite midway through the first season of “I’m Dying Up Here,” Richard Pryor shows up and gives the entire enterprise a kick in the pants.
Pryor, played with live-wire energy by Brandon Ford Green, is not a major presence in the drama, it should be noted. Versions of real-life people are scattered throughout “I’m Dying Up Here” — Dylan Baker is a perfectly amiable yet chilly Johnny Carson, for instance — but the show is not, for the most part, a behind-the-scenes story about household names. The 10-part series, based on a non-fiction book by William Kneodelseder about the Los Angeles comedy scene of the ’70s, does boast Jim Carrey as an executive producer, but its characters are, for the most part, fictional composites.
And too often, a number of them are a good deal less interesting than the show’s version of Pryor. The series spends a lot of time on truths that are fairly well known — i.e., that standups are generally damaged, difficult people who have trouble with intimacy and both cheer and envy the success of their peers. But the show doesn’t spend quite enough time and effort on the kind of deeply textured character development that would allow it to stand out in a crowd.
Pryor hadn’t quite reached the highest levels of fame when, in the 1973 time frame of “I’m Dying,” he gives the budding young comic Adam (R.J. Cyler) an impromptu tutorial on how to connect with audiences. Don’t try to figure out what will please or placate the public, Pryor tells the younger man; Adam should be specific, deeply personal and bitingly witty when it comes to mining his own pain. Pryor’s advice is to be brutally efficient and to go for the jugular as frequently as possible. That’s sound advice for the show itself, which is amiable enough but padded with a number of superficial subplots; it rarely connects in the visceral, immediate way that truly brilliant comedy does.
It’s no surprise that the headliner on this bill — Melissa Leo — frequently electrifies the scenes devoted to her character, comedy club owner Goldie. Leo brings bracing depth and emotional nuance to the role of the iron-fisted entrepreneur, who could make or break a comic’s career.
Back then, the near-pinnacle of comedy success meant doing a solid five minutes on “The Tonight Show” and then getting asked to sit on Johnny’s couch afterward — a blessing all dared hope for but few received. Before even considering such heights, most comedians have to go through Goldie (who’s clearly modeled on The Comedy Store’s Mitzi Shore), and she’s a very demanding gatekeeper. She doesn’t pay her talent; she laughs at the idea of handing out money to those who are, in her view, attending comedy college. Journeymen comics and newcomers alike have to put up with her imperious ways, but Goldie can be loyal and generous when her minions least expect it.
In the first six episodes, most of the characters have fleeting moments that are either amusing or contain the kind of bittersweet pathos often glimpsed on tighter and more effective comic-driven shows like “Crashing” and “Take My Wife.” At Goldie’s club, the personal and professional mix in occasionally combustible ways, and after their sets, the comics frequently repair to Canter’s Deli to goof on each other’s failings and offer the occasional bit of solace. The deli scenes are often more deft than the more serious moments, in which the dialogue often tends toward the overwritten and exposition-heavy.
No one in their right mind would expect “I’m Dying Up Here” to boast a suspenseful plot, but the generally predictable storylines are meandering to a fault before the show adds a stoned junkie or two in the middle of the season. Still, there are some moments of energy, many courtesy of the salty and silly pair of comics played by Michael Angarano and Clark Duke. The drama may appeal to comedy nerds interested in the evolution of stand-up in the ’70s, and “I’m Dying Up Here” also examines the ways in which any comic who wasn’t a white guy had to fight twice as hard for half the opportunities (though its treatments of identity politics can be heavy-handed and repetitive).
All in all, like a comic in search of the perfect standup set — the “tight 15” Goldie frequently references — this rambling series would benefit from a dash of ruthlessness, a greater injection of originality and a good deal of relentless honing.