The dark side of stand-up comedy is always lurking behind the jokes, and “I’m Dying Up Here,” Showtime’s drama series set in Los Angeles’ ’70s comedy scene, aims to bring it to light. Tracking a group of comedians working a club on the Sunset Strip, the first episode slowly teases a tragedy meant to bring everyone together – even if the premiere feels unwieldy prior to the introduction of every member of this large ensemble.
An hour-long drama about the lives of comedians feels a tad antithetical even before you start counting expendable plot lines, but “I’m Dying Up Here” only exacerbates the fixable issues seen in the pilot.
What works best among the many ingredients at play is first how producer Jim Carrey and showrunner David Flebotte highlight the serious side of a world made to look lighthearted. Second, and more simply, is Ari Graynor as Cassie, who gives a strong, unintentionally meta performance as a female comic buried by an unfunny patriarchy. But we’ll come back to her once we start running through the characters.
It’s the drama that’s of primary interest, given that the subtext of self-effacing routines and braggadocio performances has often related back to insecurity, with Louis C.K. perhaps best describing the fuel for (some) comedians’ fires in the sixth episode of “Louie”:
“These guys, comedians, me — they don’t have a life. Their days are shit. They don’t have many friends, they don’t have families, they have this. The only good part of their lives is the 15 minutes they get to be on stage, maybe once a week, sometimes once a month.”
“I’m Dying Up Here” highlights this idea to differing degrees. Andrew Santino plays Bill, a club regular who’s getting fed up waiting for his big break. When the group gathers to watch their friend and peer Clay (Sebastian Stan) do a set on “The Tonight Show,” Bill blows up in jealousy. He can’t understand how everyone can claim to be happy for Clay when they all want to be up there instead of him. This moment alone tells you all you need to know about Bill, and it’s not good. Future episodes try to evoke empathy for the jealous white comic who loves being an asshole a little too much, but there’s no room in our hearts or this show for such misplaced pity.
Clay, the guy he’s jealous of, isn’t particularly lovable himself, but he is interesting. Introduced checking into a hotel with a six-pack of Budweiser and no luggage, we watch Clay catch his Carson appearance, all alone, sitting in his bed. The way he drops a bottle cap from his balcony and listlessly holds his cigarette may convey accomplishment, but there’s no excitement in him. He’s acting depressed when he should be celebrating. It’s a gripping, quiet encapsulation of a character the rest of the series fails to emulate as succinctly or effectively, and Clay’s memory drifts from the narrative far too fast.
Tinges of obsession shade the rest of the characters as well, even if they’re a bit more amiable. Two Boston-born comedians (played by Michael Angarano and Clark Duke) make the trip to L.A. in search of fame and fortune, spending every last dollar they have just to be in the city where “The Tonight Show” shoots. R.J. Cyler (“Me and Earl and The Dying Girl”) plays Adam, a comic constantly pushing his so-so manager (Alfred Molina) to get him a real gig and — in a bizarre, inexplicably loaded example of his desperation — agrees to a disgusting task just to make some money (and later agrees to more morally questionable activities for murkier reasons).
And then there’s Cassie, an experienced stand-up talent who’s butting against the “next level’s” glass ceiling. She wants to be on the main stage at Goldie’s, but the club owner (Melissa Leo, devouring scenes as though stealing the spotlight gives her life) doesn’t think she’s ready. The two go back-and-forth over the role of a female stand-up, debating what’s expected of them to succeed in the business and what Cassie wants to do for herself. She likes who she is onstage, knows she’s as good as her male peers, and actively rejects the idea of branding herself toward women. If men don’t have to brand toward men, why does she have to cater to gender?
It’s a progressive conversation, especially for the ’70s, and an admirably touchy subject for the series to tackle head-on, right away. But they’re a little too satisfied with the premiere’s climax, which has all the trappings of a happy ending — uplifting music, smiling faces, a laughing crowd — without any of it earned. Cassie’s gray areas are interesting, but too much black-and-white is forced upon them. Her relationship is absolute garbage, and evident as such immediately. Some of the lessons she learns about the challenges facing female comics prove blunt and prophetic to the point of implausibility. But Graynor handles it all in stride, covering up the character’s weaker moments with added poignancy. She performs as well off-stage as on it.
The same can be said for most of the actors playing stand-up comics. I’m rather partial to Angarano, perhaps because he was another highlight from Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick,” or because of an above-average affinity for anyone with a Boston accent. But the sure-to-be-fan-favorite has a perpetual sense of calm about him that helps make his character feel the most natural (even when his accent makes him stand out from the pack).
That being said, the jokes showcased from the stage aren’t evocative of the humor necessary for us to believe in these comics. Sure, the ‘70s setting helps quell expectations, or at least forgive familiar material, and that the show’s primary genre is dramatic means the quick wits depicted in day-to-day life don’t have to elicit guffaws so much as smirks. And yet you are expected to buy into the feeling in the room — that special moment when a comic connects with an audience; with his or her material; with the moment provided to them by a stage, spotlight and microphone.
The intended magic isn’t there often enough, and — worse yet for Showtime — this kind of camaraderie-fueled goodheartedness combined with multiple wackadoo sex scenes evoke memories of the network’s recent disappointment, Cameron Crowe’s “Roadies” — and “I’m Dying Up Here” is harder to watch. Granted, I kind of liked “Roadies,” but there’s a lot of clutter in the stand-up comic version that never gets sorted (not through six episodes, at least). A majority of the characters are either unlikable or uninteresting, and the show’s attempts at relevancy lack a fresh edge. For as much as it wants to parallel the present with candid stories on sexism, racism, and more material covered by the era’s edgiest comics, “I’m Dying Up Here” still feels stuck in the past.
“I’m Dying Up Here” premieres Sunday, June 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. You can stream the first episode now for free.