The star of Showtime’s ’70s-set drama steps into the spotlight and grabs that open mic by the horns
Ari Graynor is best known for appearing in comedic projects like the 2012 Sundance darling For a Good Time, Call… and the short-lived CBS sitcom Bad Teacher. But a couple of years back, the actress found that the roles she was being offered had stopped putting a smile on her face. “I had played a lot of these very big, broad characters that I loved, but I was really aching for something that felt deeper, and I didn’t know if that would come,” says Graynor, 34.
She resolved to shake things up by relocating from Los Angeles to New York City in September 2015 and was on the verge of doing so when she was approached about auditioning for Showtime’s new drama I’m Dying Up Here. “I couldn’t believe how much the script was everything I had imagined but ceased believing would show up,” she says. Once Graynor landed the part — she plays Cassie, the sole female in a ragtag group of ambitious comics trying to make it in the 1970s stand-up scene on L.A.’s Sunset Strip — she was already on the East Coast. “My first night in my new apartment in New York, my agents said, ‘It’s all set and done, the part is yours,’” she says. “Two weeks later, I went back to L.A. to shoot the pilot.” Well, as the old saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell us about your character, Cassie.
ARI GRAYNOR: She comes from Wink, Texas, and she went through a lot as a kid. She is funny, strong, vulnerable, sad, loving, and cool. And she’s got big balls! Her stand-up, in the beginning, is a bit of shtick — it’s personal, leaning into her Texas upbringing. She knows she has something to say, but it’s a process to figure out what it is.
Did you do any actual stand-up to prepare?
There was a weekend where [costar] Michael Angarano and I went around to a couple of open mics in L.A. It was, like, 3 o’clock on a Saturday at a coffee shop, and we did one on a Sunday afternoon in someone’s yard with a mic that was not hooked up to anything at all. I actually signed up under my character’s name and did her whole routine. I added some stuff and fleshed it out. I don’t want to say it killed, but it was not so bad that I was afraid to ever do it again. It felt like a badge of honor.
Several of the comedians on the show are played by real-life stand-ups, including Erik Griffin and Al Madrigal. What is it like playing a comedian with them around?
Man, you’ve really got to be on your best game. It’s one thing using your fall-back charms in a room full of people who don’t know anything about comedy, but when you’re shooting a scene with five working, brilliant comedians, it’s pretty intimidating.
This is obviously a question designed to get you in trouble, but which of your costars is the funniest?
[Laughs] That’s such a Sophie’s Choice question, my God! They all make me laugh in different ways—how about that?
Not good enough, I’m afraid.
Andrew Santino — we worked together a lot, especially in the beginning of the season — is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. He does an impersonation of [costar] Michael Angarano that is not to be missed. Most of the days are just spent making fun of each other. They’re all pretty good at that.
Have you taken inspiration from any real-life comics?
Elayne Boosler was an inspiration because she was in that world, and, similarly to Cassie, she didn’t want to be seen as a female comic; she just wanted to be a comic. And then, who doesn’t love Richard Pryor? His ability to be so emotionally naked on stage and so funny was definitely a source of inspiration for me. And I’ve been a longtime Bette Midler fan. I’m especially obsessed with her early stuff. She and Cassie are very different people, but watching her ownership of the stage lays the foundation for what it is to be an individual voice.
Jim Carrey is one of the executive producers on the show. Did you have much interaction with him?
Yeah, he was great. There was one day we were shooting in a Polish deli where we start doing some open-mic stuff, and my character gets up to do a bit. There was one joke we were trying to reconfigure and make better. Sitting around with Jim Carrey, coming up with bits is like beyond a dream come true.
What is the funniest joke you know?
This is the joke: I don’t know any jokes. [Laughs] I just got a panic attack — you asked me, and my heart started racing terribly. I cannot remember a joke for my life. That’s the irony of this — I have no joke recall.
I’m Dying Up Here screens on Showtime on Sundays at 10 p.m.