Book Review of 'I'm Dying Up Here' by William Knoedelseder

  Enlarge Photo    
By Stephen Reiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009


Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era

By William Knoedelseder

Public Affairs. 280 pp. $24.95

In April 1972, a moderately successful comic named Sammy Shore opened a small club in Los Angeles called the Comedy Store. Fellow comics would hang out, perform -- unpaid -- and often drink free.

At the end of the year, Shore left for several months to perform in Las Vegas and asked his wife, Mitzi, to run the club. Soon after he returned to L.A., though, the couple divorced and Mitzi got the Store. Over the next few years, her previously unrecognized talents as a businesswoman and impresario transformed it from what had been a hobby into one of the most important showcases for stand-up comedy in the country.

One thing she didn't change was the club's policy of not paying its comics. The Comedy Store was billed as a workshop, a place for experimenting and trying out new material. Shore's practice of putting on scores of acts over the course of a week provided lots of opportunity for both established names and newbies who wanted to test themselves on a real stage before a paying audience. (There's a taste of this onstage mixology in the new Adam Sandler movie, "Funny People.")

The roster of comics that Mitzi Shore helped develop is an impressive one by any measure: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler. (To be fair, we also have to lay Gallagher and his fruit-smashing act at her door, as well as her son, Pauly, of which nothing more shall be said.)

The Store's growing reputation attracted crowds -- both the public and industry insiders scouting for the next breakout star. Shore was making a bundle. The waitresses, the bartenders and the delivery guys were earning a living, too. The only people not getting paid were the comics. And eventually, they got fed up with starving for their art.

This conflict forms the core of "I'm Dying Up Here." The author, William Knoedelseder, was a young reporter covering the comedy scene for the Los Angeles Times when all this was going on, and his book, forthcoming at the end of the month, is full of dishy, I-was-there detail about people who went on to become famous -- and occasionally rich -- being funny on TV. (Budd Friedman, the owner of the Improv, hired Les Moonves, now president and CEO of CBS, as his first bartender! Letterman played power forward on a Comedy Store basketball team along with Jimmie Walker and Tim Reid!)

His account of a ragtag bunch of socially maladjusted comics trying to coordinate a labor action against a mother figure in the industry has an interesting resonance in today's world of unpaid bloggers who are desperate for the limelight and often willing to work free to get a share of it. Eventually, the comics were successful -- sort of. They got paid, but not as much as they had hoped. Friendships were sundered. And the petty reality of organized labor's jurisdictional issues wound up suffocating their fledgling organization. As everyone in this dysfunctional family learned, money can buy breakfast, but not love.

Unfortunately, Knoedelseder is so besotted with his front-row view that he misses the center of his own story. Mitzi Shore is a world-class piece of work, and the comics were both deeply indebted to her and dismayed that she wouldn't see the world the way they did. Recounting Shore's refusal to grant the comics' first bashful request for payment, Marsha Warfield ("Night Court") says, "It's like your mother told you she wasn't going to feed you anymore. You can't quite believe it, so you go back and ask again."

But the Shore of this recounting is a cardboard villain who snorts lines of cocaine with her no-talent cronies while innocent comic geniuses starve. It's comic-book characterization that isn't helped by the author's weakness for clunky language. ("They were brothers in comedy, embarked on a kamikaze mission to make it in show business and never look back.")

Equally distressing is his reluctance to explore some of the larger questions he raises. He notes Johnny Carson's refusal to book female comics on "The Tonight Show," for many years the premier showcase for stand-up, but barely touches on the differences between male and female comedy. We find out in tremendous detail how Shore booked nights at her club, but almost nothing about how a comedian workshops new material.

The focus on this one club and a labor dispute that even the author notes "didn't exactly rock the country" gives a distorted view of comedy at the time. "Saturday Night Live" is dismissed as a forum for improvisational acting, as opposed to stand-up. Bill Cosby appears only as a foil for Richard Pryor. Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin get only the most passing of mentions. Instead, we return again and again to the sad story of Steve Lubetkin (Who? Exactly.) and his failure to make it in stand-up.

Shore had a placard in her office that read, "It's a sin to encourage mediocre talent." It was very brave of the author to include that anecdote.

Reiss is a Washington Post editor for social issues and education.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company