June 3, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “I’m Dying Up Here”


I’M DYING UP HERE:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime – If Nothing Else Is On…

A stand-up comic’s set, especially if the comic is a newcomer, has to make its mark immediately if the audience’s attention isn’t going to wander.  That’s a lesson that Showtime’s new dramedy series about 1970s stand-ups I’M DYING UP HERE doesn’t seem to have absorbed.  The pilot hour mostly makes it clear that despite its comedy club setting, the series has little interest in being funny.  Unfortunately, its own interests aren’t particularly gripping, at least at the outset.

To reveal a first-15-minutes spoiler, the show’s title is much more literal than you might think:  the pilot, written by series creator David Flebotte and directed by Jonathan Levine, is more about death than comedy.  The unexpected fatality that kicks Dying off serves to introduce us to its milieu, a comedy club in Los Angeles circa 1973.  The inspiration for the series is a non-fiction book by William Knoedelseder, and although things have been fictionalized, the club is clearly based on The Comedy Store of that era, and its owner Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo) on Mitzi Shore.  In real life, Shore nurtured the careers of people like Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Freddie Prinze, Robin Williams and Sam Kinison during those years (not to mention Jim Carrey, who serves as a non-writing Executive Producer on the series).  The series, though, gives us an entirely fictional group of aspiring comics:  Cassie (Ari Graynor), Ron (Clark Duke), Eddie (Michael Angarano), Bill (Andrew Santino), and Adam (Ry Cyler).

The comics mill about, bicker and compete as they struggle to make ends meet, desperate to make the moves from Amateur Night to open-mike in the club’s Cellar annex, to the club’s main stage, and ultimately to glory itself, a slot on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show.  What’s depicted in the series is probably accurate in a general way–it’s just not very interesting, especially in a TV world that hasn’t lacked for stand-up comic stories since the days of Seinfeld, with Louie setting the stage for a hole new generation of the form that includes HBO’s Crashing and FX’s Legit, as well as Amazon’s wonderfully piloted upcoming The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Amy Sherman-Palladino.  By comparison, the characters on Dying feel indistinct to the point of being generic.  Goldie is a hardass, but damnit, she really cares about comedy; Ron and Eddie are the newcomers who end up having to rent space in a literal closet; and Cassie gets that stand-up story cliche, the bit where the comic who’s lacked an authentic voice finds it when she goes onstage after a traumatic incident in her life.  (There’s a much more appealing version of that cliche in Mrs. Maisel.)  By the time one of the characters has to engage in a particiuarly disturbing form of prostitution, we get the idea:  the world of comedy isn’t funny, and it isn’t fun.

The cast works hard, especially Leo and Graynor, and an assortment of colorful veterans like Alfred Molina, Robert Forster and Dylan Baker (not the world’s most convincing Carson) show up in small roles.  Levine loads the pilot with touches that recall films of the 1970s (smeary color out of California Split-era Altman, tracking shots that recall early Scorsese) and later films set in that period (showy camerawork a la Boogie Nights).  Flebotte’s script, though, keeps things superficial, and although he has a comedy background from shows like Raising Hope and Will & Grace, he provides little humor to provide ballast to the gritty drama.

I’m Dying Up Here is going to get very little ratings help from its Twin Peaks lead-in, and its first several episodes will air directly against two of TV’s best comedies, Veep and Silicon Valley.  Combined with its own shortcomings, this is likely to be a very tough gig.

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."