BINGE-R #53: I'm Dying Up Here
I’M DYING UP HERE S1
Streaming Service: Stan
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
I’m Dying Up Here, Stan’s new series about the stand-up comedy scene in early 1970s Los Angeles, makes a crucial mistake it struggles to recover from. It confuses a distinctive or historically valuable scene with a compelling premise, and for every pithy or pungent element that the show draws upon the translation is strained or simply not compelling. HBO’s Vinyl, set in a crumbling New York City on the eve of punk, had similar issues last year that proved to be inescapable, and based on the first three episodes here a similar one season and done fate is the punchline awaiting these comics.
Their world revolves about Goldie’s, the L.A. stand-up club whose best acts make the career-making leap to network television via a slot on The Tonight Show and the benediction of host Johnny Carson (Dylan Baker, playing one of several famous real life figures). When Clay Appuzzo (Sebastian Stan) achieves that, his contemporaries are divided between excitement and jealousy. When he celebrates his achievement by stepping in front of a bus, his contemporaries are divided between grief and jealousy. No-one is a tougher crowd, it turns out, than a fellow stand-up.
Stern and loving in turn, the mother figure for these mouthy mutts, is club owner and comedy impresario Goldie (Melissa Leo). She counsels the bitter, impatient Bill (Andrew Santino) and urges Cassie (Ari Graynor), who is Clay’s ex, to find her own voice before she gets her shot on the main stage. Whether mourning or making moves, the various stand-ups congregate together to bat lines back and forth – they’re always on, which in some cases is as appealing to watch as it would be to endure in real life. The idea that comedians have troubled souls is not new, but in this instance it’s treated with a measure of unlearnt profundity.
Creator David Flebotte (Desperate Housewives), with an assist from executive producer Jim Carrey (who played the L.A. comedy clubs in the late 1970s), gets some things right, including a genuine feel for how audiences react to stand-up comics and the simple fact that with so many comics as characters funny lines will feature. But the petty spats and backstage blues outweigh any sense of contrasting comic philosophy or a believable depiction of how inspiration takes hold. Maybe in that era a wronged comic really did get a homeless man to defecate in his rivals’ car, but it’s still far from illuminating to watch it recreated now.
Director Jonathan Levine doesn’t help by smothering the pilot’s exterior’s in period grain and then getting his Goodfellas Steadicam on to explore Goldie’s. One of the things you discover is that not all of the humour from the 1970s is particularly appealing, but when it comes to the crunch the show’s latent bitterness is overwhelmed by sentimentality. When aspiring comic Adam (RJ Cyler) is summoned to Goldie’s house to do some handyman chores, you can be certain he’ll learn why it’s empty and where Goldie’s daughter is. The bookers and agents keep demanding “a tight 15” from the comics – their best set – but whatever the hour long drama equivalent is, I’m Dying Up Here doesn’t have it.
>> Bonus Binge: For a far better show about hustling artists and their handlers trying to master their milieu, ditch 1970s comedy for contemporary hip-hop and watch Donald Glover’s terrific, subversive comic drama Atlanta on SBS on Demand [full review here].
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