Levitt’s Review Of “I’m Dying Up Here” (A-) (Showtime, Sunday, 10-11 PM E.)

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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.

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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.rj

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Levitt Reviews HBO’s “Crashing” (B)

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HBO has a penchant for introducing shows with juicy premises (Hung-The life of a gigilo) (Big Love- Bigamy) yet killing the fun by casting a bland, moralistic protagonist which strips the shows of much of their edge or escapist appeal. “Crashing” continues this tradition with the most milquetoast New York comedian I have ever seen.

Pete Holmes is an earnest christian who, it seems, just woke up one day with the notion to try stand-up comedy.  Most stand-ups, while not traditionally attractive per se, do have or at least try and cultivate a distinctive look/stage persona to either stand our or relate to their audiences.  Physically, Pete Holmes (Played by Pete Benedict) resembles an amorphous, pudgy mix of Ray Romano and Thirty Rock’s Jack Mcbrayer and dresses like your average middle-school gym teacher.

Holmes also lacks the often shifty/restless comedic energy present in many New York Comics. Pete’s face reads complacency or resignation. Not the most compelling qualities for a stand-up.  Furthermore, he’s a practicing Christian so he naturally and enthusiastically eschews many of the trappings (alcohol, drugs, easy sex) which many comics wear like badges in their acts and mine for material. In essence, he’s a bland wet blanket. If the show continues to want to keep Pete “Pure”, I think it would be a good idea to at least add a couple of idiosyncratic vices to keep his character interesting. By interesting, I don’t mean to make Pete collect the occasional Plush animals or have a sweet-tooth for salt-water taffy.  Give him a nasty little internet porn addiction or something!

The quality of Pete’s stand-up material is predictably pretty bad ( consisting mainly of either under-ripe or overly labored “Observations”) but, then again, the jokes in movies/shows about stand-ups are always bad.  Its like writers are unwilling to have the comedian deliver their “A level “material for fear of piracy, or the material is so censored/PC to make it digestible for middle-america or the stray 12 year old who checks out the show.

I also am not crazy about the character of “Jess ” (Pete’s Wife).  Pete catches Jess in bed with another man in the first episode. To me,  Lauren Lapkus,  The actress cast as his cuckolding wife, doesn’t even manifest like she enjoys sex.  Her demeanor is too sweet and helpful. Rather than proudly cheating on her husband, Jill looks like a woman who sells jams at the local farmers market. As a side note, I like how the name of the guy Jess is screwing is named “Leif”.  In sitcoms and movies, women always have affairs with guys with exotic names, “Paco” or “Leif”.  You almost never catch your wife in bed with someone named, “Bill”.

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Whereas the central character of the show is underwhelming, I do enjoy the featured guest comedians: Artie Lange, T.J. Miller, and Sarah Silverman as well as several cameos by noted New York Comedians.   The comics who guest are encouraged to play their nutty selves on the show and their dialogue seems real and not overloaded by “bits”. In fact, one of the cool perks of the show is discovering crazy windows into the worlds of the guest comedians: sarah Silverman runs a boarding house and collects comedians)  T.J. Miller collects clocks which are all set to the wrong time, Artie Lange needs the bathroom door open when he takes a dump.  Sure, it stretches the bonds of credibility that every comic Pete meets wants to adopt/befriend the boring Naive Pete. But, it does also “humanize” the guest comics more by showing their generosity to their comic countrymen.

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I’m sure George Carlin didn’t just spontaneously erupt into his famous, “Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV” Monologue during his very first open mike appearance. But, sadly Most shows/movies about the life of stand-ups skip the  early “breaking-in period” like most people want to quickly gloss over their first awkward/brief sexual encounter. But I like that “Crashing” openly embraces the freshman comic and bottom rungs of the club circuit.  There are, for instance, numerous scenes of “barking” ( Ray hands out pamphlets in exchange for stage time), crashes at fellow comics houses, and plays to empty houses.  More bios of comedians should tackle this early period for it helps inform their persona, passion, and career longevity.

In time, I hope the show relaxes Pete’s uptight image and, while keeping him essentially a good guy, lets him explore and indulge in a comic’s sketchy lifestyle with gusto.  If he lets himself go, I think his character and plot-lines will more vividly capture the comedian’s lifestyle. Who knows, he might even get laid.

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Levitt Reviews Sit-Coms

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I grew up with situation comedies.  Tuesday nights I would watch the Happy Days, Laverne Shirley Block.  In the 80s it was Cosby (pre-Gloria Alred) and Family Ties. 90’s it was Seinfeld/Friends/Cheers etc.  If I ever felt nostalgic/needed a palette cleanser, I could always watch Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart on reruns.  Of course, my favorite sit-com of all time would have to be All In The Family.  Its re-runs are still brilliant and laugh out loud funny.

Sitcoms were always easier to watch than Dramas. They don’t require as much focus on plot, the characters are always wittier than your classmates/workmates (no offense) and their characters don’t, like real life people, fall into periods of long moroseness and self-involvement (always fun to be on the receiving end of one of those phone calls/text chats).

The proliferation of gritty dramas about crime scenes, hospital rooms, FBI stakeouts, and of course reality shows has, through the years, made sit-coms an endangered species. I, myself, find that choose to watch more drama and reality shows than sit-coms because of the action, acting, and ever increasing sensationalist storylines (How To Get Away With Murder) or sexy subplots (Masters Of Sex, The Affair) that keep you gripped week after week.

But, endangered or not, there are still at least 8-10 Sit-Coms currently on air that deserve attention.  So, here’s my list of the worthy and the not so worthy.

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The Big Bang Theory-  On for nearly 10 years, the show is now about half as funny as it used to be. I think the point at which the show “jumped the shark” to use a Happy Days term was the addition of Amy Fowler (no offense to Mayim Bialik). her joining with the show’s most nerdy member finally solidified the more domesticated/normalized nerds and made the much more like every other sit-com on TV and removed a lot of its outsider, satirical bite. Many complain that the characters are too much alike now and the show is more and more like “Friends” every day.  All that is true but,  Its instead my firm contention that, generally speaking, characters who are getting steady sex and involved in productive/satisfying relationships are simply just not very funny.

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Two Broke Girls-  This show is, to me, probably the funniest right now of the workplace comedies.  Sure the banter is wittier than people, given their situations/background should be allowed and this show features more raunchy insults and pop culture references than you can shake a stick at and sure, the accents of some of the characters (sophie and Oleg) are like nothing else in nature but for sheer volume of put-downs, one-liners, and sheer ridiculousness, this show probably wins all categories. Def worth a check out.

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Mom- Mom is my favorite sit-com on the air right now.  It has just the right blend of heart and humor to make most of its half hours truly satisfying.  The characters are not cookie cutter sit-com types.  Nearly each character is suffering from addictions so the usual preachy or condescending tone of a lot of family comedies is gone.  Instead, is very self aware characters (Bonnie- Mom, feisty, flawed, and largely amoral) played by the great Allison Janey and her more ethical/neurotic daughter (Christy) played by the no-slouch-herself, Anna Farris.  The two main characters have an atypical, sparring relationship that only goes to mom/daughter things when it needs to and never beats you over the head with anti-drinking platitudes.  When the characters do relapse into addictions, they do so semi-believably and hilariously and can always bounce off each other for ways to cope.  Chuck Lorre is expert at these Odd Couple, two and a half men blendings to mine for humor and pathos and the chemistry here of Allison Janey and Anna Farris is as good, if not better than anything else on sit-coms today.

Other honorable mentions:

Impastor- novel premise, likeable lead and supporting characters. has promise but doesn’t have quite enough satirical bite to be a good comedy about religion. More like a middling one like Amen with Sherman Helmsley.

Younger- Thin premise.  Woman pretends to be younger than she is to land a job. Isn’t that pretty much everyone, men too? Also  There’s really not that much of a generation gap between 27-40 that a good coloring job and some pop culture references can’t hide. The actress is likable and perky enough but physically cannot pass for younger than 35-37 on a good day.  Supposedly a comedy but lacks any real funny lines. Only the lead actress is really made into a 3 dimensional character so far.