August 14, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “I’m Dying Up Here”


I’M DYING UP HERE certainly wasn’t the worst show of the summer, but it did make one wonder how it had made its way through the development process and onto Showtime’s air.  Series creator Dave Flebotte’s take on the nonfiction book by William Knoedelseder was almost defiantly uncommercial.  The book detailed the 1970s LA stand-up comedy scene that had spawned giants like David Letterman, Robin Williams, Gary Shandling and Andy Kaufman, and there may well have been legal reasons why those figures couldn’t be characters in the series.  But rather than devise different sorts of memorable stand-ups, Flebotte populated Dying with nothing but comedy schleppers, the kind of comics who’d require a very late night and a lot of booze before they’d start to seem truly funny.

And of course they were one and all miserable human beings.  Bill (Andrew Santino) had an awful relationship with his father.  Cassie (Ari Graynor) was beset by lousy boyfriends (including Bill).  Nick (Jake Lacy) was a heroin addict who stayed self-destructive even after he was clean.  Ron (Clark Duke) and Eddie (Michael Angarano) were so poor that they had to live in someone else’s closet.  They all toiled in the club owned by the hard-boiled Goldie (Melissa Leo), sort of a Great Santini of comic whisperers, who ruled the set list with an iron hand, and whose most important rule was that her comics would never be paid.  (Goldie, too, had her humiliations when she was fired from the female-driven stand-up TV show she’d created with Cassie in the cast–a show that then failed, naturally.)  The stand-up comedy realm is hardly unknown on TV these days, but depicting it as almost devoid of laughs or likable characters was a new twist.  (Tonight’s finale, written by Flebotte and directed by Adam Davidson, threw viewers a bone by having Bill “get the couch” with Johnny Carson after a Tonight Show stint, but it was very little and very late.)  Add to that the decision to photograph the series in a smoggy style that evoked 1970s films shot by people like Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs but was dreary to watch in a world of darkened clubs, and there was very little fun to be had.

Within those constraints, everyone did their job quite well.  The actors were all game, and Santino and Graynor were particularly notable.  It was also great to see veteran character actor Obba Babatunde get a meaty recurring role as Goldie’s shrewdest competition.  The show’s stories were told smoothly, mixing episodic plots with continuing themes.  Once in a while Flebotte and his fellow writers would fix upon a genuinely interesting point about that moment in comedy, like Kaufman’s fracturing of what “stand-up” could be.  The period production design, costumes and make-up were first-rate.  Without a center, though, those pleasures weren’t enough to make the series satisfying.

The ratings for I’m Dying Up Here were terrible, but Showtime is the network that renewed Dice, so perhaps it will beat the odds and return.  If it does, it will have the same chance that every stand-up who bombs has:  to learn from failure.  Comedy is hard, but watching a series about comics shouldn’t have to feel like work.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."