[In addition to being a regular contributor here at Collider, Evan Valentine has also been doing stand-up comedy for the last decade. We asked him to review Showtime’s new comedy-focused series given his own experience and viewpoint as a comedian. There are some spoilers regarding the first episode.]
Stand-up comedy is a long, arduous process, a craft that takes years to master with little in the way of financial rewards for most. Why then do so many comedians go night after night in nearly empty bars, comedy clubs, and various other venues to attempt to catch a shooting star? Well that’s what Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here is looking to explore as it weaves a tale across the lives of numerous comics, club owners, wait staff and those who may be affected by their stand-up comedy choices. On top of the lofty premise, it also takes place during the 1970s, so the debate regarding the Vietnam war is in full swing, abortion has just been made legal in the United States, and feminism is on the rise. If this seems like a lot to digest for a television series, you’re not wrong. While Dying does manage to hit a few humorous and sometimes poignant beats along the way, the sheer weight of the numerous characters and their problems/flaws drags the show under water where it isn’t able to recover.
The first episode begins with Clay Appuzzo, a young comedian played by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Sebastian Stan, who has just achieved many comedians’ dream of being given a quick five minute set on the Tonight Show. Following a fantastic set, Clay is even called up by the late night host to continue the conversation, much to the adulation of his fellow comedians currently watching from the club, “The Comedy Cellar.” Soaking up the spotlight, Appuzzo decides that he has reached the “moutain top of Everest” and takes his own life by stepping in front of a moving bus. Needless to say, all of Clay’s friends are somewhat taken aback by this series of events, as he was a star on the rise in their eyes, but the secret depression that had haunted him had finally won. This is a very interesting subject to delve into: a comedian who spends most of their time attempting to bring happiness to an audience cannot find said peace for himself. In the creative world, and especially in the comedic one, this is very prevalent but here, it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves as the focus is on showing us only the world of stand-up comedy overall.
The main problem with I’m Dying Up Here is that it is just all over the place in terms of both characters and overall tone. It never gives you enough time to become fully invested with a certain character or theme before whiplashing you to another series of events. Clay’s ex-girlfriend Cassie, for example, is dealing with the death of her ex, the inability to get stage time on the mainstage of the Comedy Cellar, proving to Clay’s parents that he committed suicide, struggling with being seen as just a “hot girl” comic, and attempting to find her own voice in the 1970s era of free speech and identity. For this review, I watched the first six episodes of the series and what I just described is only from the first episode! Cassie, meanwhile, is sharing screen time with nearly twenty other characters that each have their own personalities, problems, and plots that are all vying for focus during the show’s running time. It is intimidating, and while I get what the show is attempting to accomplish, it just can’t manage to bear the weight of its own aspirations.
So what about the comedy? Well in that department I can confidently say this series — in its dealing with the lives of comedians — is indeed funny as it tracks the lounge lizards hoping for their big break in the hard life of standup. Each of these characters has a sharp tongue, and they manage to throw out zingers on a regular basis that will elicit a chuckle every now and again. But then you come crashing back to Earth when something heart-wrenching or just plain unbelievable takes place. Sure, great dark comedies have managed to walk the line between comedy and sorrow in the past and excel in it, but unfortunately, “I’m Dying Up Here” is not one of them. Let me give you an example: A young African American comic named Adam (RJ Cyler) is attempting to make money while aspiring to be a famous comic, and his manager, played by Alfred Molina, is getting him work babysitting for a nearby church. Having to babysit as a young, single guy in LA makes for a funny premise … but then it alll goes awry.
Instead of walking through a struggling comedian’s attempt at Adventures in Babysitting, Adam is offered a ton of money to take off his pants and fondle himself in front of several priests, one of whom is bedridden and near death! This must have seemed funnier on paper, because the way it’s presented seems disturbing and bizarre, wrenching you out of the show and asking yourself what on Earth you were subjected to this. In a show about the supposedly relatable struggles of comedians, throwing in bizarre one-off scenes like this just doesn’t work as well as it could. Dying needs to find its balance between comedy and emotional pain in a way that is entertaining first and foremost, and it simply isn’t able to do that adequately enough for me to recommend it. While the comedians’ jokes do manage to hit, their situational comedy simply does not, and the emotional beats don’t work because you can’t get invested in this sea of characters slinging one liners at you.
All is not lost, however, in terms of the overall series. The owner of the Comedy Cellar, Goldie, played by Melissa Leo, runs her venue with an iron fist yet also has a heart of gold. She looks at these comedians as her children and legitimately wants what’s best for them, but it’s tough love she gives them. Only after proving themselves with potentially years of service on the side stage do comics manage to be given the brass ring of main stage minutes. Seeing how Goldie makes her decisions is interesting, though again Cassie’s blackmail racket in the pilot was another strange decision for the series. She feels like the matriarchal figure of this tiny slice of Americana, and the comedians are her children. When presented with the idea that Clay’s death is putting the Tonight Show sponsors on edge due to comics’ penchant for depression, Goldie goes to bat for them; it’s a scene that could have been used as a template to make this series shine. Instead though, we are just bogged down by character after character that are too numerous to even namecheck.
As someone who lived through a decade of standup comedy, I can tell you that I absolutely get what this series is going for. The life of a comedian is certainly an interesting one, and peeling back the layers of that is rife for compelling storytelling. But I’m Dying Up Here never manages to find its footing amidst the challenges it created for itself, and audiences suffer for that. Only give this one a watch if you’re a die-hard comedy fan — but don’t expect to laugh.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
I’m Dying Up Here airs Sunday nights on Showtime