Showtime's new series, I'm Dying Up Here, is attempting to pull the curtain back on the Los Angeles comedy scene of the 1970s. While viewers will certainly get an insider's look at what it was like to try to hit the big time in stand-up back then, the show might make more of an impact if we could really connect with the characters we follow.
I'm Dying Up Here, which comes from creator David Flebotte (Desperate Housewives, Masters of Sex) and executive producer Jim Carrey, and is based on the William Knoedelseder book of the same name, looks into the lives of a group of up and coming comedians trying to make it in L.A. in the early '70s while dealing with all the personal and professional issues involved with trying to establish themselves. The comedians congregate nightly at Goldie's, the eponymous club run by star-maker Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo), who pushes the talent to find their true voices before she lets them into the main room and gives them their own headlining show.
The series follows Cassie (Ari Graynor), who's still trying to find her sweet spot on stage, L.A. newcomers Ron (Clark Duke) and Eddie (Michael Angarano), newbie Adam (RJ Cyler), who feels forced to take what must be one of the ickiest day jobs ever created, and veteran stand-ups who still haven't hit the big time Ralph (Erik Griffin), Bill (Andrew Santino), Edgar (Al Madrigal) and Sully (Stephen Guarino).
When one of their own comes closer to hitting the big time when he gains a spot on The Tonight Show and actually gets to sit down and talk to Johnny Carson after his set...well, I'd like to say that madness ensues, or tensions rise, or...anything, really. But, the truth is that this big event, the comedians watching someone they've toiled with in the club getting a national spotlight, doesn't really set the story off the way it should. Sure, some of the other comics are jealous, but they admit it and move on. Which a) seems like behavior that's way more mature than this group should be able to manage and b) shuts down what could be a major font of drama.
Instead, the story supposedly really gets moving once tragedy befalls one of the comics. Again, though, while we get to see them bond over what happened and try to find a way to laugh through the pain, and watch Cassie and Goldie deal with the aftermath in more direct ways, the narrative of I'm Dying Up Here still doesn't offer up any real dramatic payoff. The only thing that really comes from this tragedy is that Cassie, in the final moments of the episode, finally seems to really find her way on stage. But, even that victory feels hollow, and it's mostly because of another issue I had with I'm Dying Up Here.
Obviously, even in a career where you're determined to make people laugh, not every aspect of that job is going to bring the comedy. But, when we see the comedians of I'm Dying Up Here on stage, it makes total sense that when the audience is laughing, we should be laughing at home, as well. Unfortunately, that didn't happen once for me with anything any of the comics said while they were performing in the show. So, when Cassie has her big moment on stage at the end of the premiere, I understood what it meant for the character, but because the material wasn't actually funny, I didn't really care that she was having a breakthrough.
I found it hard, in general, to care about what the characters were going through in this show, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they don't stand out much. By the end of the episode, even though Cassie was basically the lead, I couldn't have told you what her name was, or the names of any of the other characters, with the exception of Goldie (and that's mostly because her name is on the club they work at). The basic personality of all the comics is trying-really-hard-to-become-a-famous-comedian, which just isn't enough to make the ensemble worth watching on a regular basis. I would rather the show focus on one or two characters with really well defined personalities and personal struggles, than a large group that I can only distinguish by race/gender/bad '70s hairstyles.
A good way to describe what I've seen of I'm Dying Up Here would be dour. And while I know that the opening deals with some pretty heavy issues, at least some of the performances should have helped to lighten the load, but they don't. Speaking of performances, the actors all do well with what they're given, with the real standout being Leo's work as Goldie; though it's almost unfair to pick her out of the cast since she's the only one who gets a real tour-de-force scene in the pilot.
I'm Dying Up Here debuts on Showtime, Sunday June 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.