When I began watching Showtimes, “I’m dying Up Here” I thought the tone of a show about comedians too despairing and similar to the Tom Hanks/Sally Field film, “Punchline”. In Punchline, the impulse to do stand-up seemed more like a curse than a freedom. The comedians were sufferers; unable to lead a normal life because they were addicted to the rush of performing. Too many times in these kinds of true-to life shows about comedians are depicted comedians as only “on” when hit the stage and then, post-performance; collapsing in some sort of destructive/drunken cocoon in the corner.
The success of “I’m Dying Up Here”, though is that it successfully shows the comedians have three dimensional lives on and offstage. When not performing, There are numerous exchanges where each comic is just standing around shooting the shit and being normal knuckle-heads. Other shows about comics also fall lazily into familiar templates; comedian as detached funny commentator (Gaffigan) or being a bottom-rung comedic pee-on (“Crashing”). “Dying”, instead, presents a solid close-knit band of “working” comedians. There are no break-out performers (save for the occasional visiting celeb or A-Lister). By in large, each comedian is a-work-in-progress, honing their craft, and- aside from the inevitable jealousies- generally supportive of each-others success.
The show is full of talented real-life comedians and actors. A stand out in the cast for me is the club owner, Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo) who resists the greedy/grumbly stereotype and, though thick-skinned maintains a good. mature working relationship with her comics and a sporting interest in their careers. As the series progresses, it will be good to see more of her personal life take center stage…she might even get the itch to pick up the mic.
I also like the fire-cracker energy of Adam Proteau ( R.J. Cyler) He is not as guarded as his contemporaries and has more raw vital presence on the stage and is interesting to watch and set him apart from the other comics.
Finally, Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor) shines as the show’s only female comedian. The show’s writers do not make her cast as a typical salty/sassy Joan Rivers or Bette Midler over-sexed clone. In fact, she disdains stock material in favor of a richer, more personal and confessional brand of humor that should yield rich dividends later on.
So far, in my review of “Dying”, I haven’t mentioned that the show is set in the 70s and that is, in large part, because I really don’t find the time frame to be that relevant to the show’s atmosphere. The show is cast in the 70s because that’s when stand-up was king. If people wanted to see comedy, they had to leave their homes to see the likes of Pryor or Carlin since there was no cable/internet outlets. I think a strength of the show is that it doesn’t beat you over the head with 70s references or slang that takes you of the action. The 70’s setting is just atmosphere, man!
One of the show’s few negatives for me is the heavy-handed backstories. The writers of “Dying” can’t seem to resist the temptation to make each comic the product of a bad home life. Every comedian’s dad apparently drank too much and beat them up. Yipes, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the audience at Caroline’s on Father’s Day ! Thankfully, though, the back-stories take a back-seat to the rich and realistic stand-up and the tight-knit relationships of the comedians.
Now that I’ve given this show a pretty great review, I thought I would temper my analysis with a little reality.
Although the writing and acting are first-rate, Here is why I feel the show might get cancelled.
Nobody On “Dying” is a Zombie, vampire, or otherwise living-challenged Individual
By comedian standards these guys are relatively normal earth-bound dudes. nobody is drug-addicted (at least not violently so, sticking up a 7/11 at 2 in the morning to get enough money for “blow”).
The Lead actress is not a sex-pot- Though attractive and talented, the lead actress is more interested in her career, than trying out out experimental, cinematically pleasing sex positions.
Nobody gets wacked every week– Shows like Sopranos, True Blood, and Boardwalk Empire tended to like to sacrifice a different character every week to keep everyone interested and guessing. Stand-up comedy, although competitive, is not exactly a blood sport.
Nobody is mentioning Trump or politics- Trump and political commentary are hogging the airwaves this summer with all the Russian/collusion shenanigans. To me, my interest in Russia really peaked with Rocky 4. But, This show with its occasional references to news or pop culture, (Billie Jean King V Bobby Riggs anyone?) seems miles away from being topical.