From executive producers Jim Carrey, Michael Aguilar and Dave Flebotte, the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here follows up and coming comedians in Los Angeles in the 1970s, who are mentored by Goldie (Melissa Leo), the comedy club owner who rules over her business and the comedians that perform there with a tough love approach. As these young comedians brave the pain of sharing their innermost thoughts and darkest secrets, hoping for a laugh, we learn about the individuals and emotions behind this group who are just looking to achieve success from following their dream. The ensemble cast also includes Ari Graynor, Andrew Santino, Clark Duke, Michael Angarano, RJ Cyler, Al Madrigal, Erik Griffin and Stephen Guarino.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, comedian and actor Al Madrigal (who plays comic Edgar Martinez) talked about just how difficult it can be to find success in being a comedian, how comedy has changed and evolved, why Twitter is a waste of time, the appeal of I’m Dying Up Here, his contribution to the writers’ room, what he’s most enjoyed about working with Academy Award winner Melissa Leo, overcoming bad nights on stage, and that his two recent comedy specials (Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy and Why is the Rabbit Crying?) are a good representation for what he does, if you want to check out his comedy.
Collider: This TV series shows just how difficult making a living at comedy can be.
AL MADRIGAL: Yeah, there’s a tremendous amount of sacrifice that goes into it. You’re jumping into something with no prospects or promise of success. It’s like saying, “Okay, I’m gonna do this and not get paid for three years.” Who would do that? Even with internships, they’re starting to compensate people. It’s an unpaid internship for three years, where you’re your own boss. Yuck! And you can’t just go through the motions. For an internship, you can just do menial tasks, like getting coffee. With this, you actually have to be creative. You also have to differentiate yourself amongst all of these different voices, at a time when most things have been done. It’s a lot trickier than people imagine.
Being a comedian isn’t like being an actor, where you can avoid reading reviews, if you don’t want to read them, because your audience is right there, giving you a review in real time.
MADRIGAL: Totally! You know right away, if something works or doesn’t.
You’ve been doing stand-up for nearly two decades. In what ways has it gotten easier, since you started, and how is it more of a challenge for you now?
MADRIGAL: I grew up idolizing Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano, and seeing those guys in a town where you could do sets and sets equaled a sitcom. That was the path. That was what you did. You did comedy, and then late night comedy, and then you got on TV. Now, there’s a myriad of outlets. I feel like what is challenging for me now is the Twitter of it all. I gave up on Twitter. I really feel like it’s a waste of time. I don’t see any value in it, at all. I get news alerts on my phone, from reputable news sources. I’m good, as far as my information delivery is concerned. Comedians are over-sharing, at this point. It all seems like promotion and bragging to me. I’d like it to be the old way where people discovered you, as a stand-up. There are some comedians that are still doing that, like Bill Burr and Brian Regan, who had success as comedians before TV, but now, a lot of the time, it takes a Netflix special to become famous.
When the idea for this series came your way, did you have to think about whether or not you’d want to do something like this, or were you all in, from the beginning?
MADRIGAL: I read the book, right when it came out, and Jim Carrey was producing. I talked to Dave Flebotte and Michael Aguilar, who were the executive producers, and I was in, right away. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on quite a few TV shows. People say this constantly, but we really lucked out. Dave Flebotte is one of the funniest people I’ve ever encountered, in my entire life. He’s very cool. I couldn’t ask for a better showrunner. And then, in terms of an EP, Michael Aguilar is a writer, himself, and a movie producer. He’s written so many screenplays. He’s in the room with us and he’s supervising, and he has great taste. So, I didn’t hesitate, at all. And then, I got to work on the show as a writer, as well, and be in the writers’ room, from the very beginning. It’s been a very rewarding experience, all around. I want to try my hand at dramatic acting, and this show allows us to do that. It’s awesome!
What have you most enjoyed about getting to work with Melissa Leo and sharing some pretty incredible moments with her?
MADRIGAL: I’ve had some cool experiences, just personally, with her. I took her to The Comedy Store and we got to hang out. She stayed from 7:30 pm until one in the morning. I showed her all of the rooms, and she watched me do a couple of different sets in different rooms. I introduced her to everybody and took her in the back and walked her around, and she really got a feel for that. And in terms of doing scenes with her, it really raises your game, as far as the acting and performance is concerned. Sitting across from Melissa, I’m putting everything I have, working as an actor with her, to attempt to be on her level, which is impossible. She’s just incredible. When Goldie is having a horrible day, she really is an incredible method actor. I’m thrilled to work with her.
There’s one point that Goldie calls Edgar “a goddamn lunatic.” Do you think that’s a fitting description of him?
MADRIGAL: I don’t think he’s earned it yet! He does pay somebody to shit in someone else’s van, but in real life, comics joke around. Someone said, “You never have to worry about Al Madrigal talking behind your back because he will absolutely say it right to your face.” I, personally, have a reputation for being brutally honest with people. I’ll be like, “What were you thinking?! That went horribly wrong! I can help you, if you want, but Jesus Christ, you really need to get your shit together!” Young kids walk into comedy clubs on coke, and I’ll grab them and say, “Dude, get your fucking shit together!” That’s who I am. I’m more of a big brother to a lot of comics, and I’ll help them on the business on. Edgar is more of a shit disturber, and I do that a little bit, too. It’s all an extension of who we really are. Andrew Santino is the acerbic dick. He’s not as bad as Bill, but he’s not too far off either.
Are there times where you feel like you have to put a filter on, so that you’re not quite so honest?
MADRIGAL: Being a comic ruins you for normal conversations. I have a very difficult time talking to dads at my kids’ school. Even with other comics, I’ll get in trouble because I’ll make fun of other comics without realizing that they’re sensitive. I feel like everybody should be able to take it. My wife is just appalled, constantly. It is a problem. You grow up around the funniest people saying some of the most horrific things that could ever possibly come out of somebody’s mouth in conversation, and then you forget that you’re standing there with the assistant principal of your kid’s school when you’re saying something just as bad.
When you’re a stand-up, everybody has bad nights. How do you overcome that and regroup and get yourself back out there again? Is that something that you can easily let roll off of you?
MADRIGAL: You definitely have to fail to figure this all out, and it’s tough to shake it off, especially when you really think it means something. When you’re first starting out, every industry showcase is the most important thing in the world. It takes you a good 10 years to realize that it just doesn’t matter. And then, you try your best and just walk away. It’s like acting, also. If you put the work in, with anything, and you really, really try, what else can you do? Sometimes younger comics are guilty of trying too hard. For me, everything has changed. My career has completely changed. On stage, I’ve rarely had bad sets, in the last seven years, or even longer. At one point, I decided to not let the audience judge me. I was judging them. There are all of these outside elements that are beyond your control. I knew I was good, so when I walk up on stage, I take control, immediately. I take a sip of my drink and I look at everybody, and then I decide how good they are. That’s the way to do it.
For people who aren’t familiar with your stand-up, but want to look you up after seeing you on this show, do you feel like your recent comedy special, Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy, is a good representation for what you do?
MADRIGAL: Oh, absolutely! I want them to check out both of my specials. I have one, called Why is the Rabbit Crying?, that came out on Comedy Central and that I feel like no one really saw because it was on at midnight. I think that one is just as good. I am a storyteller. It’s all real life experiences with a lot of jokes built in, and tangents and observational comedy built into stories, and that is exactly who I am. Everything hopefully means something. It certainly means something to me. Those are the types of comics I like, so that’s the comic I ended up being.
I’m Dying Up Here airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.