It’s a cliché, albeit a tragic one at this point, to suggest that comedy and depression go hand-in-hand. As chronicled by Dick Cavett in connection with CNN’s recent series on “The History Of Comedy,” the late Robin Williams would aim to keep audiences laughing only to walk backstage and say, “Why can’t I be that happy?” The story of the stand-up comic has been documented in many forms, and the song is usually the same in terms of both clinical diagnosis and the hunt to be the next great success story. The brainchild of executive producer Jim Carrey, the new Showtime series, “I’m Dying Up Here,” takes us back to the 1970s comedy scene and the family of comics who make up the hottest club in Los Angeles. The pilot has the production value of “Vinyl” and the ensemble make-up of “Roadies,” but offers up greater potential from its first hour than either of those hyped one-and-done series.
In 1973, Clay Appuzzo (Sebastian Stan) is stepping out onto “The Tonight Show” stage. He has a great set and his friends (and competitors) at The Cellar watch with glee and trepidation as he “got the couch” from Johnny (a perfectly cast Dylan Baker). That night, after having a steak dinner at his hotel, Clay walks in front of a bus and dies. As speculation looms whether or not it was an accident or an intentional act on his part, his fellow comics, under the watchful eye of club owner Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo), prepare a memorial for him.
His former girlfriend, Cassie (Ari Graynor), is struggling to make sense of his death while trying to garner the favor of the main stage at the club as the only female comic in the group. Bill (Andrew Santino) is balancing the line between professional jealousy and grieving a man who may have been less than decent, particularly to Cassie. Adam (RJ Cyler) is an outsider hoping to gain entry into the good graces of Goldie. Eddie (Michael Angarano) and Ron (Clark Duke) are also up-and-comers moving to L.A. only to discover that their in-road just got hit by a bus.
Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “Warm Bodies“) quickly introduces us to (most of) this sprawling ensemble using nods to “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas” as the camera weaves throughout the club, showing us not just the characters but the segregation of the stages between big-time and small-time. The period detail of the production design is exemplary. The jokes may still have a modern feel since observational humor about race and the sexes are not discriminated by time, but the setting is a reminder that the public language of those jokes may be on the precipice of an overhaul. Unlike a number of films with actors portraying stand-ups, the jokes on stage here are actually pretty funny thanks in part to contributors like Erik Griffin (“Workaholics“) and Al Madrigal (“The Daily Show“), who have experience in the burning spotlight.
While this is undoubtedly an ensemble piece (that may be leaning towards Graynor’s character just a bit), it is Melissa Leo’s Goldie that is certain to draw the most heat. The character is clearly modeled on the infamous Mitzi Shore (though Leo refused to acknowledge her name at the post-SXSW screening seemingly out of disgust), who refused to pay the comics who performed at the Comedy Store. This was documented in William Knoedelseder’s book from which the series was based, and it will be interesting to see if it goes in this direction. Given Leo’s monologue-laden portrayal in the first episode, she appears to be more of a tough-love nurturer (she refers to the comics as her “kids”) rather than an intern-exploiting superior. Her comparison of comics knowing the truth about their situation to a relative’s experience during the Holocaust, though, may provide a bit of insight into extreme views that likely would have been skewered on Twitter back in the day, and still may be.
Robert Forster (who had a heck of a SXSW with appearances in “Small Town Crime” and “Small Crimes” — yes, two separate films) plays the dead comic’s grieving father and puts a cap on what the series may be exploring underneath the laughs with a speech about the necessity people have to use humor to mask pain. It is not a monologue in favor of such catharsis given that the problems most likely still exist once the laughter stops. There is a tightrope to be walked between stating the obvious and falling into outright pretentiousness, but “I’m Dying Up Here” appears willing to make that effort. The dialogue is often sharp, and it has no qualms about striking up harsh truths. How the show will balance the history and the histrionics remains to be seen, but this is a solid setup to a series that takes itself seriously enough for the jokes to have greater power than a momentary chuckle. [B+]