There have been plenty of shows and television programs about comics, some good (Seinfeld, Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Garry Shandling’s two programs) and some very bad (we don’t need to talk about Punchline again). But it’s been interesting to see that in recent years, the focus has been to show the world the dark, painful side of stand up…almost as if there’s been a push within to show the public their profession is an artistic venture.
But with that comes an almost fetishized view of the tortured comic in these works, someone not only to admire for how they overcame, but who other stand ups should aspire to be like. And I can’t think of a show or film about comedy that wades through the muck more than I’m Dying Up Here. I don’t mean to say this show about comics is a drama…I mean this drama’s go-to tone is more often than not, just miserable. Not since Thirtysomething have I seen young people whine about their lives as much as we get in this show. Yes they’re comics, but the creators make it perfectly clear…there’s nothing funny about being a stand up in the gritty, dark 70s.
Well, maybe a couple of times things are a little fun. The young comics seem to enjoy milkshakes and staying up late to watch bad old movies (usually while drunk or stoned), and ragging on each other under the watchful eye of Goldie (played BIG by Melissa Leo). Leo, the big name in the show, has clearly taken inspiration from the classic mob-wife characters from projects like Goodfellas and The Sopranos, both of which feel like inspirations on I’m Dying Up Here… although both are arguably funnier and use comedic catharsis to greater effect. Six episodes in, I can honestly say catharsis is one thing still missing in this show. Characters yell, scream, breakdown, fight…but it’s hard to feel moved by any of it when so few of the characters feel like real people. That’s probably the reason why the most interesting aspects of the show are the nuts and bolts of the changing comedy business, rather than the personal lives the show focuses on.
A big problem with the show is its overdependence on big speeches and dramatic moments in a series which is already pretty dramatic. Because there are so few sincere moments of levity (with the exception of Clark Duke and Michael Angarano’s characters, although their shenanigans rarely get the laughs they intend), the only moments that really stand out are the heavy-handed moments which leave you feeling like you’ve met a scam artist trying to manipulate you. Even the stand up isn’t very good, although this might be intentional because these are the young comics we’ve never heard of, but we’re constantly seeing them getting HUGE laughs which seem out of whack. All this made the show hard to sit through as I realize, that after six hours, I’m not absorbed in the lives of these characters. I notice the overly designed 70s exterior of the show, choices of music, references to popular culture, and cinematography. I notice when there are some good performances (comedian Erik Griffin and RJ Cyler both have a couple of really good scenes), although at least early on, there’s a kind of formal, intense stiffness from the actors which almost seems like it had to be an intentional directorial choice. But mostly I realized that I care so little about these characters anyone of them could meet the fate Sebastian Stan did in the pilot and it probably wouldn’t impact me as a viewer.
After watching the first six episodes I remembered something by Robert Brustein in his landmark essay The New Hollywood: Myth and Anti-Myth (1959) in which he called kitchen sink dramas “little more than a gimmicky fad meant to appease the guilt experienced by the white, suburban youths who wanted to escape (therefore its own form of escapism) from their drab, privileged lives, much as the glamorous films had offered escapism from the harsh conditions of life during the depression and World War II.” The desire to be seen as an artistic profession has led people to treat stand up with the same gritty claims of “realness” those 50s film had, cry to be taken seriously by outsiders. But despite the desire, this show still feels artificial, posed and stiff as it confuses dark and gritty for quality…and exposing an insecurity the creators probably didn’t want to shine a light on. When comparing the gritty “realness” I’m Dying Up Here claims to have to another Showtime series like Shameless, it’s hard to understand why they choose soapy melodrama over dark comedy.
There is a reason we mix drama and comedy, and it isn’t just to trick comedy awards into giving prizes to dramas. We do it because most lives have a mix of both (sometimes simply to cope with life), and the swings from big laughs to high drama give those reactions even more impact. The creators of I’m Dying Up Here aren’t wrong to make their series more of a drama than comedy, but they are simply too heavy-handed with the material for a show about stand up comics. Despite the number of times the writers try to show their pain and torment as the root of their artistic pursuits, as a viewer, you can’t help but realize the misconception that misery doesn’t make a comic. It’s about finding perspective on their pain and struggles, and that never seems to come into play here despite setting the show 40 years ago and the nostalgic quality to the exterior elements. When the show has a character shout “you have no idea how hard this is?” you feel like the writers are talking to a frustrated audience at home; at this point I have to say, no, we do know how difficult stand up is…audiences really don’t need to keep being told.
I’m Dying Up Here premieres on Showtime on June 4, 2017. You can watch the first episode now, for free, here.