Comedians will tell you that there’s little that’s funny about the life of a comic—that the struggle to find the freshest material and get the biggest laugh or the largest reaction can possess a person. So it’s fair to say that Showtime’s new series, I’m Dying Up Here, which premieres June 4, is very much a dramedy.
Executive produced by Jim Carrey, Dave Flebotte and Michael Aguilar, the series, a behind-the-scenes look at those attempting to make it big on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s, focuses on the fictional comedy club Goldie’s, run by Melissa Leo’s eponymous madam. An ensemble of well-known (Al Madrigal, Ari Graynor) and slightly less well-known (Clark Duke, Andrew Santino) performers pay homage to the brave souls who step up to the mic night after night and risk abuse in hopes of earning applause. The cast and producers joined journalists on Monday at Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif. to share more about the series.
The show faces the challenge of bringing the cadence of 1970s comedy to modern programming.
“It’s tough, because I have a really big comedy album collection, and not a lot of it holds up,” says Al Madrigal, who plays struggling comic Edgar Martinez. “There’s a lot of [material that’s] super hacky and horrible.”
“It’s so far away from what we do now,” says Andrew Santino, who plays fellow comic Bill Hobbs. Actor RJ Cyler was instructed to watch old Richard Pryor routines to prepare for his role.
Some aspects of the industry are still the same, though.
Erik Griffin and Ari Graynor, who play comics Ralph King and Cassie Feder, say issues of racism and sexism remain prevalent in comedy, despite the passage of time.
“But this new [presidential] administration is going to fix all of that,” Carrey joked.
Wait, so why is the series set in the ’70s?
“We always talked about doing it in this moment because it’s the birth of, to me, the most important era of stand-up comedy,” Aguilar says. “It’s when comedy went from set-up/punchline jokes to storytelling… This was the era. When [Johnny] Carson moved The Tonight Show from New York to L.A., that changed everything, and these guys were the kings of the Sunset Strip.”
The series is inspired by William Knoedelseder’s book, I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era, to which Carrey owns the rights.
Melissa Leo has minimal experience in the comedy world.
“At one point in New York, I was offered to come to an improv class, and it was terrifying to me and I did not return,” Leo says. “And the second time I was ever in a comedy club was when the fellas took me to the Comedy Store with Jim.”
Actor Dylan Baker plays Johnny Carson, despite the fact that he bears little resemblance to the legendary late-night host.
“The lookalike aspect is… never going to be the focus,” Flebotte says. “[W]e want the spirit of it more than specific look and that specific cadence.”
Carrey’s personal experiences ended up in the series, after a fashion.
“Jim would come in and tell us stories,” Aguilar says. “And there’s also big picture things about the emotions and chasing those dreams.”
(“I come in and I download,” Carrey says.)
“Oftentimes, it wasn’t who was funniest who was on stage,” Carrey adds. “It was who was funniest at the bar or in the parking lot.”
Want to see a comic before he or she was famous? Check out reruns on the Game Show Network.
“Andy Kaufman, Bob Saget—all these guys, back then… They went on any game show they could get on,” Carrey says, referring to a storyline in which two comics get on Let’s Make a Deal.
Has the Internet cheapened the experience of making it big as a comic?
“We’re always gaining or losing at the same time,” Carrey says. “It’s not just The Tonight Show now, there’s a lot of different avenues … At that time, [Carson] was the only way.”
The show is set in L.A.—for now.
“It’s primarily an L.A.-based show, but if we get subsequent seasons, we want to do something with them on the road,” Flebotte says. “Saturday Night Live came in in ’75, which is two years after we start. We want to address that. We’re looking at avenues that were open to comics for our guys to explore.”
The book details a strike as comics fought for proper compensation. This show won’t go into that, at least not yet.
“I think it’s something we definitely want to look at, but not so much for the facts that went into the strike, but [for] the relationships that get torn apart, the people who cross the line, the betrayals,” Flebotte says. “Those character things are what’s interesting about a strike, not so much the specifics… Right now, we’re all about building a relationship with our characters so that we can tear them apart when the strike happens.”
Carrey doesn’t plan to go on tour again any time soon.
“I’m in the process of shedding layers of persona at this time of my life,” he says.