See the young struggling stand-up comedian playing bad sets after midnight and doing empty-room open mics, becoming familiar not with laughter, but with the loud silence where laughter should have been. She isn’t great yet, our struggling stand-up. But she is getting better. That’s what I’m Dying Up Here is about, and that’s what I’m Dying Up Here feels like. It’s a show finding its voice, one lame joke, haphazard idea, brilliant line and complex idea at a time.
Showtime’s new series recreates the ’70s comedy scene on the Sunset Strip, casting real comedians and reputed actors as young stand-ups with pre-viral dreams of Johnny Carson-adjacent glory. It’s loosely adapted from William Knoedelseder’s nonfiction book of the same name. “Loosely” is the vibe of the pilot, which hangs a bunch of characters around a wildly unconvincing plot contrivance. We meet a moody-tough Boston-Italian named Clay Appuzzo, played by Sebastian Stan. I like Stan fine in his lane – Bucky Shmucky, he’s Gossip Girl’s Carter Baizen for life – but if he’s a tough moody Italian guy, then I’m Sebastian Stan.
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Fortunately, Clay sticks around just long enough to give a symbolic speech about Mount Everest. Then he goes on Carson, has a great night, and (SERIES DEFINING SPOILER ALERT) gets run over by a bus in an accident that’s probably a suicide. Clay’s mourned by his whole comedy community — a crew of misfits, wannabes, dreamers, and maybe a couple future Late Night hosts. I’m Dying Up Here‘s comedians all hang out at the Cellar, a club owned by Goldie (a majestic Melissa Leo, going full McShane). Some characters pop. Clay’s ex-girlfriend Cassie (the ludicrously dependable Ari Graynor) is a female comedian who’s already tired of being a “female” comedian. Adam (RJ Cyler) is a rookie with chutzpah. Challenged by the one of the older comedians, he unleashes a minute-long joke about sexual congress with the comedian’s mom, a gag that becomes a soliloquy and the first clip for Cyler’s Emmy reel.
There are a lot of other comedians, and their friends and family. The show sprawls like Los Angeles, with Hollywood icons popping by to say hello, and a running plot-theme about the plight of funny women, and a sincere attempt to bear witness to the fall and rise of showbiz generations, and jokes that either aren’t funny or are not supposed to be funny. The show’s ambitious: Surely we need a series that gives our comedy-besotted moment its own creation myth. In the first episode, there’s a throwaway line that could be a statement of purpose: “Yeah, we can all hold hands and buy the world a f—ing coke,” spits Goldie. Is that a wink at the Mad Men finale – a show set in the ’70s picking up the baton from our defining modern image of the ’60s? Or is it even a bit of a sneer, a sarcastic assault on those sad-sack advertising executives by comedians working every day for a solitary laugh?
I’m Dying Up Here is messy, at first. It feels like a show being reconceived on the fly. Stan pops up as a taunting ghost, and then doesn’t. Alfred Molina makes a big introduction as Adam’s manager, then seems to disappear. The dude comedians start to fade together, just one beard after another, but the season’s fourth episode playfully mixes the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match and Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” into a casual snapshot of women in show business circa forty years ago to now.
But I found myself returning to I’m Dying Up Here for a simple reason: It’s a good hang. The show captures the peculiar tense camaraderie and striving oneupmanship of young comedians. After hours, the comedians flee to a local diner, commiserating, confessing, insulting and laughing. “We’re all in this together!” they seem to say, and also: “Stay out of my way!” B+