While not as trendy right now as the 1980s, the Me Decade of the 1970s is still fertile ground for drama on the small screen. But Showtime’s June 4-debuting I’m Dying Up Here is just not that alive and kicking. Despite a dependably strong effort by Oscar winner Melissa Leo as the L.A. club owner who mentors (and hopes to profit from) the fictional Tonight Show hopefuls that make up the series, Dying, as I say in my video review above, is an ensemble pratfall in slow motion – and I don’t mean that in the good way.
Set in 1973, the year after Johnny Carson moved the late-night show out West, the series executive produced by Jim Carrey and created by Dave Flebotte spotlighting the City of Angels’ stand-up scene sadly reeks of the same shortcomings that crippled Cameron Crowe and J.J. Abrams’ now-canceled Roadies: One, assuming that attaching big names is a gateway to quality; and two, going by the often-flawed belief of many greenlighters that viewers want to know more about what it’s like in the trenches of the industry regardless of whether the story is any good.
Based on William Knoedelseder’s eminently readable 2009 nonfiction book, I’m Dying Up Here revolves around a chummy but competitive group of comedians who optimistically frequent the stages at Leo’s Goldie’s. Co-starring Ari Graynor, Jack Lacy, Andrew Santino, R.J. Cyler Erik Griffin, Al Madrigal, Michael Angarano, Clark Duke and Marvel alum Sebastian Stan, there’s a lot of late-night hanging out at Cantor’s Deli, plenty of one-liners and trying to grab that golden break, dealing with insecurities, deal-making, and dealing with a manager with issues played by a name-dropping Alfred Molina.
While I will say that amidst its surprisingly stiff onstage routines at Goldie’s and tired monologues of what life is all about (another trait it shares with Roadies), the 10-episode I’m Dying Up Here does improve deeper into its run. However, even with a fatality or two, some sadly still-topical themes of sexism and desperation in Hollywood, and celebrity cameos to ground you in the era, there is a lingering sense that the some of these characters aren’t going to make it, which makes it difficult to connect to them — sort of like the show itself.
The fact is, during a time when the very notion of what was funny was being pushed to new heights by geniuses like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, and two years before Lorne Michaels launched Saturday Night Live with the Not Ready For Primetime Players on the East Coast, I’m Dying Up Here acts as if the sad lives of many funny people isn’t something we haven’t seen before. With little new to say and scant insight to add, its just an old joke with a very weak punch line.
Click now on my video review to see more of my take, then check out the pilot episode Showtime put online last week. I think you’ll see what I mean.