Laugh? I Thought I’d Die

Showtime’s new dramedy series, I’m Dying Up Here, is definitely a product of its time.  The question is, what time is that?  Is it the early 1970s, when the series is set? Is it the mid-1980s, when any schmuck with a colorful shirt and a rap about bad drivers could get his own TV series?  Is it the late 2000s, when we all had to pretend to give a shit about the neuroses about people who didn’t have any real problems? Or is it 2017, when apparently all you need to green-light a series is access to period-appropriate outfits and a good hairstylist?

Look, folks, let me spare you reading this whole article and tell you right up front:  I’m Dying Here is bad.  It’s not a show you should watch; it’s not a show anyone should have made.  The whole rest of this piece is going to be about the special ways in which it is bad — and believe me, it is very specially bad — but if all you need to know is whether or not it’s worth your time, feel free to bail out now:  it isn’t.  The best thing you can say about it is that it gives paychecks to some talented people, but even they deserve better than to have their names associated with this self-important claptrap.

So, what’s going on?  I’m Dying Here takes place in the early 1970s, just after Johnny Carson packed up his shop and moved The Tonight Show to Burbank, resulting in, as the pilot takes great and obvious pains to remind us, every hack comic in America heading west.  (This situation has not changed, which is why the producers were able to cast the show so easily.)  It’s an examination of the damaged personalities, uncertain relationships, and self-sabotaging behavior of a small and insular clique of stand-up comedians, all looking for their big break at Goldie’s, the fictional nightclub run by a crazily over-the-top Melissa Leo.

The essential hook of the show is that it’s an insider’s look at how comedians — whose job it is to make us laugh — are, get this, actually kind of obnoxious, repugnant, mean, self-absorbed basket cases!  This is not news to anyone who has known a stand-up comedian, or spent more than two minutes in their presence, and even if it was, there are approximately six billion other, and better, shows they could have learned the lesson from, because Hollywood shares with comics the mistaken belief that the offstage lives of comics are endlessly fascinating.  This is deeply wrong, but it doesn’t stop producers from continuing to throw millions of dollars at the idea.

Another idea that is profoundly mistaken and yet incredibly prevalent amongst Hollywood types is that those freewheeling days of the ’70s and ’80s, when they were all getting bombed out of their skulls on coke, were super fun, exciting, and interesting.  This is nonsense, and again, everyone who has spent any time in the presence of cocaine addicts knows full well that it is nonsense.  The most recognizable effect of cocaine is to turn everyone who takes it into a hyperactive motormouth who thinks they’re incredibly funny but in fact is a contemptible egomaniac with a bad personality and a sense of entitlement — that is, into a standup comedian.  I’m Dying Up Here is crammed with scenes of pricks blowing ‘caine up their snoots and getting all manic, which is thought to be interesting to the ex-cokeheads who wrote and produced the show, but is in fact just as boring as hanging around with actual cokers.  At least heroin addicts are quiet.

I’m not the first person to point this out, but one of the biggest problems with I’m Dying Up Here is that it isn’t funny.  It’s a drama, but it’s at the very least supposed to be about comedians, and not only are the acts that they perform in the show utter duds, they don’t even seem to be all that funny when they’re hanging around with each other, trying to get a laugh.  The show’s creator, David Flebotte, has attempted to explain this by claiming he wanted to make the routines period-appropriate, and that what was funny back then probably wouldn’t fly with people who have more modern sensibilities.  This is news to anyone who is actually familiar with the routines of the prominent comedians of the era, and is especially compounded by the fact that, sprinkled in with the bad actors, there are a handful of genuinely talented comedians in the cast.  I can understand them not wanting to give their best material away, but the result on screen is the familiar sensation of seeing a fictional character we have been assured is a comic genius being unable to elicit more than a mild chuckle from the viewer at home.

About that cast:  the leads are Ari Graynor, a female comic who I’m not familiar with but whom I’m assured is talented, and Andrew Santino, who seems to be playing the typical beta jerk of such programming.  Graynor’s role seems to be getting yelled at and belittled by everyone in the also-familiar attempt to portray the sexism of another era that just ends up seeming like a bunch of creepy dudes emotionally battering the nearest available woman.  Leo is fine, as are old pros like Alfred Molina, Martin Mull, and Richard Kind in largely unsatisfying roles.  (For stunt-casting enthusiasts, Dennis Haskins — Principal Belding from Saved by the Bell — shows up as a corrupt priest.)  The excellent but bland Dylan Baker is inexplicably cast as Carson, and Robert Forster and Cathy Moriarty show up in wasted gigs as disapproving parents.  Among the younger actors, Sebastian Stan is the cream of the crop, but — spoiler alert — he gets hit by a bus halfway through the first episode, leaving the majority of the heavy lifting to actors who aren’t funny and comedians who can’t act.

I’m Dying Up Here is a very special kind of bad, the kind of bad that only the era of Quality TV could produce.  It’s a show made by people who looked at the rolling disaster that was Vinyl and said to themselves:  “I can do worse.”

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