Clark Collis
June 02, 2017 AT 11:22 AM EDT

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Summer TV Preview issue, on stands Friday and available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

In Showtime’s new, ’70s-set drama I’m Dying Up Here, Melissa Leo plays Goldie Herschlag, the pioneering owner of a comedy club in Los Angeles. “Goldie is this woman who’s created this environment and is experimenting with the idea of laughter, and what’s funny, and when it’s funny, and how’s it funny,” says Leo, an Oscar winner for her role in 2010’s The Fighter. “She’s fascinated by ‘funny’ — that’s who Goldie is.”

I’m Dying Up Here is a fictional adaptation of author William Knoedelseder’s 2009 book about the L.A. stand-up scene and Goldie is inspired by real-life Comedy Store founder Mitzi Shore. “I’m not playing her,” says Leo. “But it is based on the story of someone who did something no one else had ever done before — and it changed the world. It had to do with the bridge from the old vaudeville days into what everybody in the world today knows as stand-up comedy. It largely happened in the ’70s, on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, in one room where the comic was the focus. It’s a great honor to play Goldie, it really is.”

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In the pilot, Leo’s character comes across as part den mother, part hard-nosed businesswoman. But the actress balks when your writer describes Herschlag as “harsh but fair.” “Everyone’s going to judge [her] with some kind of word like ‘harsh,'” says Leo. “Or maybe a harsher work like ‘bitch.’ Or all those kinds of derogatory statements [that are used] about women who have amazingly good ideas and abilities and are not afraid to put them into action in the world.” Uh, sorry? “I don’t mean to be hard on you,” she continues. “It’s just hard being a lady in this world!”

Leo’s costars include Ari Graynor, Michael Angarano, Clark Duke, RJ Cyler, Andrew Santino, Erik Griffin, Stephen Guarino, Jon Daly, and former Daily Show correspondent Al Madrigal, all of whom portray stand-ups eager to make their mark at Herschlag’s club, Goldie’s.

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So, which of Leo’s fellow cast members make her laugh the most? “Oh, you really want to get me in trouble, don’t you?” says the actress, laughing. “I couldn’t answer that question. But you will see that all of our actors are very capable of being funny — and by God, our comedians are very capable of being dramatic!”

One person who says she isn’t capable of being all that funny, at least on purpose? Melissa Leo. “I’m not a joke teller,” says the actress. “I’m overly serious — and sometimes that can be really funny!”

I’m Dying Up Here debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. Watch the premiere, available on YouTube, above.

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