Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” is a fictional drama about the Sunset Strip stand-up comedy scene in 1973, and it’s full of revelations that it (wrongly) assumes to be fresh news to a cable audience in 2017 — first and foremost that comedians are often a deeply, emotionally insecure bunch, dragging around the darkest sort of personal baggage, which can only be soothed by a five-minute spot and the approval of an audience’s laughter.
Also, did you know how hard comedy is? Did you know about the abject poverty and chronic substance abuse? Did you know that the highest achievement in those days was to appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and that your fate rested entirely on whether Carson called you over to his couch once your act was finished?
Of course you know, but are you interested?
The woefully overwrought pilot episode of “I’m Dying Up Here,” created by Dave Flebotte and inspired by journalist William Knoedelseder’s 2009 nonfiction book, assumes that you’ve somehow missed the mountain of books, retrospectives and documentaries that have glorified this particular era of stand-up, along with all the pain and suffering that demystify the laughs.
Here’s a recommendation: Pretend that the show isn’t premiering this Sunday and watch next week’s episode instead. Or maybe jump in two weeks from now. By that point, “I’m Dying Up Here” has dialed down some of its unnecessary exposition and self-importance, becoming a half-interesting period piece about a business that prides itself on mutual cruelty.
By skipping Sunday’s premiere, you’ll miss a tediously rote launch that’s straight out of TV 101, as a rising comedian, Clay Appuzzo (Sebastian Stan), makes his “Tonight Show” debut. His envious peers (including Andrew Santino as Bill Hobbs) are watching on a TV in the kitchen back at Goldie’s, a popular comedy club run with an iron fist by Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo), who controls the comedians’ chances of getting on stage. She’s also their direct pipeline to Carson and bigger success.
After a seemingly victorious taping, including that approving summons from Carson (Dylan Baker) to have a seat, Clay checks himself into a nice hotel and orders a steak. After the show has aired, he goes out for a stroll and deliberately walks right in front of an oncoming bus.
His death sets up the show’s utterly cheerless recurring theme, which is that the world’s funniest people are also the most tortured. Leo, who can be so good in just about anything she tackles, has her work cut out for her to overcome a poorly-written role that treats Goldie as both nurturer and sadistic tormentor.
In this vintage world of stand-up, it’s worth noting that the jokes these folks were writing and telling sound outdated, as they should. Goldie’s stable of comedians take their cues from the day’s superstars (George Carlin, Richard Pryor) and are busily workshopping material designed to be provocative in that day. The minority comedians (including Al Madrigal as Edgar, a Latino who makes fun of Mexicans, and Erik Griffin as Ralph, a black man who served in Vietnam) face a particularly pathetic conundrum, trapped in a cycle of affirming stereotypes. Same goes for Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor), the lone woman in an overwhelmingly chauvinistic milieu. Rather than act as an ally, Goldie sentences Cassie to a purgatory of post-midnight turns at the mic in the club’s cellar. One of the show’s better moments comes when Cassie finds an unlikely source of inspiration in an older, Borscht-belt comedienne (Judy Gold) who arrives in a broken-down Toyota and symbolizes everything Cassie fears about her own future.
Both the cast and “I’m Dying Up Here’s” writers clearly get more satisfaction (and the viewers get more laughs) after the club closes and the comedians adjourn to Canter’s Deli, where they occupy a booth and trade white-hot insults. But the only people who seem to have any genuine fun on the show — and lend an almost heroic naivete to the proceedings — are two freshly arrived newbies, Eddie and Ron (Michael Angarano and Clark Duke), whose sense of humor hints at the ironic swerve that comedy will eventually take in the Seinfeld era. Faced with empty pockets, Eddie and Ron don costumes in an attempt to win big money on “Let’s Make a Deal,” but, in a hubristic moment, risk it all on the wrong door. The consolation prize (a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni) is seen as an incredible stroke of luck.
No shred of enjoyment goes unpunished here, however, in a show determined to be 80-to-90 percent cloudy. Speaking of sadness, it’s difficult for the actors and the audience to get past some of the worst-looking wigs in recent memory. In its imperfect stab at capturing the ’70s, the show never stops resembling a bad costume party, as if HBO held a fire sale after its extravagantly doomed record-label drama “Vinyl” was canceled and “I’m Dying Up Here” bought up the entire stock. It seems HBO threw in “Vinyl’s” structural and tonal problems free of charge.
I’m Dying Up Here (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.