Before there was a 500-channel universe, before the Internet and before Netflix, there was a culture-shaping little world anchored in the comedy clubs of Los Angeles.
The year was 1973. An odd but critical moment in pop culture had just happened – The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson had moved from New York to L.A. and in the usual way of American culture, things drifted westward. In the mid-seventies in L.A., there existed what amounted to a golden age of standup comedy. In the clubs on the Sunset Strip you'd find George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, David Letterman, Albert Brooks, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams and others.
I'm Dying Up Here (Sunday, The Movie Network 10 p.m.) is a drama about that era – its strangeness, intensity, successes, feuds and failures. Made for Showtime, it is loosely based on William Knoedelseder's book I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak & High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era. Jim Carrey optioned the book and the resulting adaptation, which he helped produce, is fiction – an ensemble of aspiring standup stars roughly approximate to the period but not the real superstars who emerged from the scene.
As such, it's a highly peculiar, occasionally murky drama about funny but often very troubled people. It is very uneven. The first episode is startling for its sour, shocking ending. Later episodes wobble when they try to attach social meaning to the style of comedy being developed, but some soar when they depict the blossoming originality of the comics looking desperately for that big break.
It is very much an ensemble, too. The single most emphatic character from the get-go is Goldie (Melissa Leo) who runs the hot comedy club. On the surface, she's a sort-of den mother and beneath that, in this toxic world of egos, booze and drugs, she's a viciously manipulative boss. Her club is a direct route to The Tonight Show and she knows it. A few minutes on The Tonight Show means national stardom and all the angry young comics know that too. In the opening hour, Clay (Sebastian Stan), a young unknown, gets his Tonight Show appearance as his friends and cronies watch with a painful mixture of envy and admiration. Then, what happens next, is a mind-warping twist.
A problem for the series is building on that strong opening. The first hour is lavishly made, giving us a vivid picture of L.A. at the time – the intensely small world where a big break is a minute away but everything can disappear in the haze of drugs. It's also wonderfully revealing about how sexist and racist much of the comedy was in those days. The character of Cassie (Ari Graynor), a young woman from the South trying to make it, is very much representative – the sexist spite aimed at her is disquieting in today's context and we are meant to want to follow her search for a feminist voice to transcend this macho, circumscribed arena.
Yet, after the first hour, it becomes hard to focus in whose journey we are meant to follow. Edgar, a temperamental new voice, is played with aplomb by Al Madrigal, an actor and comic who is now a veteran of The Daily Show and other productions. He does best with standup routines, in contrast to some of the younger actors who clearly don't have the rhythm and style of true standup comedians.
Mind you, there are scenes that are gripping and unnervingly raw in the first batch of episodes. The arguments about comic style are fierce and one does get a sense of a cultural shift – the template of standup comedy is being smashed and some of these guys – it's mostly guys – are careening toward a humour that would dominate TV and film for several decades. As we see in the series – and it seems bizarre now – there were great, original comics who went on The Dating Game and Let's Make a Deal just to get their faces on TV, even while they were revolutionizing American humour.
At a media presentation at a comedy club near L.A. in January, Jim Carrey talked about his devotion to getting the series made.
"For a very long time, I have wanted to do something about this era. And for me, I have the greatest respect and love and admiration for the people whose ministry it is to free the world from concern. And I think it's really important to recognize it. And at that time [in 1973] there was a beam that could catapult people to the stars, and that was The Tonight Show. And we all came out and gathered around the heat of that and were hoping for the best.
"I had so many incredible experiences, you know. I'm lucky to be alive really. I lived in a closet when I first came to L.A. I met somebody at the Improv who said they had a room, and it turned out to be a closet. So for the first year or so I was here, I lived in that closet. And I woke up the very first morning that I lived in the house to walk out in the kitchen and find a beautiful young girl making bacon with no pants on. And I went, 'Wow.'"
It's a story Carrey cherishes. But it seems now to be one of those "you-had-to-be-there" moments. I'm Dying Up Here has a great, highly recommended first hour. After that, it has moments of fun and insight, but a lot of sourness that isn't funny at all. You had to be there.