Alfred Molina and Melissa Leo.
Alfred Molina and Melissa Leo.
Justina Mintz/Showtime

Again With the Sad Clowns: The Missed Opportunities of I'm Dying Up Here

I’m Dying Up Here premiered June 4 on Showtime.

Mythologies are built on pain. It’s why nations remember the invasions they’ve suffered better than the ones they’ve perpetrated, why religions celebrate their martyrs, and why Disney princesses — among the most privileged individuals in their respective kingdoms — sing about wanting more. Comedians have their own mythology, too — one that has fueled an explosion of TV and movie projects comparable to the proliferation of plastic bags in the Pacific. Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here is the umpteenth story to treat as a blazingly original epiphany the idea that the people who make others laugh for a living are frequently sad and unpleasant. If an inadvertent objective of the 1970s-set drama is to convince us that we don’t want to spend any time with its comedian characters, Dying reaches Carlin-Cosby levels of success.

The joyless receipt of oral sex in a parking lot encapsulates the glum self-pity with which creator David Flebotte and executive producer Jim Carrey approach their group portrait of the L.A. stand-up world of 1973. That scenario plays out twice in Dying’s first six episodes. The rest of the show — a museum exhibit dedicated to dysfunction — is just as morose, its characters just as insufferably self-absorbed. In terms of craftsmanship, the series’ dramatic foundations are quite sturdy, with a thoughtfully assembled cast that offers a variety of perspectives on the prevailing misery. The dialogue is frequently punchy and sharp. (“Since when did models blow guys by swimming pools?” “Since always.”) The jokes are good, their delivery even better. Melissa Leo and Ari Graynor impress as usual, as does newcomer R.J. Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). But all of these assets are drowned out by the monotonous proclamations of how difficult and important it is to tell jokes: “All funny guys are damaged.” “Making people laugh is a gift ... like healing people.” “You create pleasure from pain, and that is a virtuous gift.” An actual hero — Harriet Tubman, say — could only dream of hype like this.

Graynor’s Cassie is the only woman among the herd of combative comics at the Cellar, a fictionalized version of the Comedy Store that Leo’s Goldie runs with a firm but maternal hand. Dying boasts one of the worst opening-credit sequences in the history of television, with a grating duet between a lugubrious trumpet and a 95-year-old recording of a woman’s screeching laughter, but it has a saving grace: The two actresses get first billing. Too bad, then, that the shallowness of Cassie and Goldie’s characterizations makes for one more wasted opportunity.
The only other woman in each other’s daily lives, Cassie and Goldie are united by mutual suspicion. The otherwise uninspired pilot features a fierce and fascinating debate between the aspiring woman who just wants to be treated like one of the boys, and the well-connected kingmaker who believes that her protégé will find her real voice in “women-appropriate shit.”

Dying is interested in the struggles that female comics face: bias, harassment and, in Cassie’s surprisingly non-eye-roll-inducing case, the problem of being a beautiful blonde. Phyllis Diller made herself ugly for the stage, Cassie rails, so the audience would actually listen to her words. Among her colleague-frenemies, Cassie has not yet arrived at the middle of the pack, but she’s also the most forward-thinking. After being told to “open a vein and fucking say it” about an ex’s abrupt death, she attempts to mine humor from personal tragedy, à la Tig Notaro, in the only example we see of a stand-up workshopping a routine. And so it’s disappointing that the writers continually yoke their only young female character to romances. Dying outruns Tinder by having the Cellar’s Smurfette embrace three love interests in six hours.

Leo has less to do: Goldie is usually seen counting her money or swinging her big dick around as a constant reminder to the men that that they underestimate her at their peril. When her comics make noise about wanting to be paid or doing their act at another club, Goldie informs them that they’re free to exit “the only runway to [Johnny] Carson” — but they’ll never be able to get back on it. Economic anxiety is not as much at issue as you’d think for black vet-turned-TV-writer Ralph (Erik Griffin), Chicano dope-slinger Edgar (Al Madrigal) or ginger-bearded electrician Bill (Andrew Santino). (Brittle Bill, who declares that every laugh another comic elicits “should feel like a poke in your fucking eye,” seems to exist to prove that some men’s genetic lines stop with them for good reason.) New dad Sully (Stephen Guarino), homeless newbie Adam (Cyler) and closet-renters Ron (Clark Duke) and Eddie (Michael Angarano) suggest that comedy is often just a shit-eating contest. (Author William Knoedelseder’s historical account, on which Dying is based, focuses on how L.A. comics of the mid-1970s fought to be paid.)

The series puts itself in an eventful year: Watergate blew up, the Vietnam War headed toward its end, abortion was legalized nationally, and Billie Jean King routed Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. Dying notes these milestones but fails to conjure the electrifying Comedy Camelot that produced the likes of Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman. Despite the paisley-heavy fashion, the occasional antique slur and the exceptionalism that surrounds Goldie and Cassie, the series could practically be set today. Sure, the Playboy Mansion is much less glamorous in 2017, but Dying never generates Mad Men’s shock of the past.

The jokes and the character interactions toe the line for 2017 sensibilities, too, so that Dying neither finds the rougher edges of yesteryear nor comments on today’s PC debates. Thus it drifts toward the middle of our pop-culture’s polluted ocean, one more hunk of artifice floating along with the piles of warped nostalgia, self-indulgent prestige dramas and obsequious idol worship. Say what you will about plastic bags, but at least they aren’t convinced of their own greatness.

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