They came from New York, the Midwest, the Southern states, a great exodus of young comics traveling west in search of a few minutes with Johnny Carson. That's all it took to begin the migration: In 1972, "The Tonight Show" moved from New York to Burbank, and stand-up comedy's center of gravity went with it.
A shot with Carson could make a comic's career and lead to lucrative stand-up gigs, comedy albums and film roles. So they came to town by the hundreds, ambitious and penniless.
Tom Dreesen spent some of his first nights in Los Angeles sleeping in an old Nash Rambler parked in an alley, and ate the last steak in Jay Leno's refrigerator. Elayne Boosler arrived at age 21: "I can be broke anywhere. I might as well be broke where it's warm."
The focal point of the L.A. stand-up scene was the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip, a venue owned by Mitzi Shore. The comics lined up outside were like "immigrants being processed through Ellis Island," writes William Knoedelseder in "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era."
A remarkable wave of comedic talent emerged during the 1970s, much of it passing through Shore's nightclub: Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Freddie Prinze. When Richard Pryor came to work on new material, he drew an overflow audience from this next generation of comics, even as his presence onstage crowded them off the schedule. He was the master and they were hungry to learn.
The Comedy Store's power and mystique had much to do with the fact that Carson's scouts regularly found new talent there for "The Tonight Show," ready to "deliver a fast-paced, joke-filled, laugh-packed set no shorter than five minutes and no longer than six."
The comics faced boozed-up hecklers and intense competition. One night, Ringo Starr made the mistake of heckling a young Letterman. "Oh, that makes sense," Letterman sneered at the ex-Beatle. "You ruined your career, and now you've come here to ruin mine."
They also found friendships that have lasted a lifetime. As Dreesen once told Letterman: "Always remember that your fellow comics will get you more work than any agent or manager ever will."
Dreesen had his moment beneath Carson's blinding TV lights in December 1975, with the required "punch line every 30 seconds." Within days, he had a development deal and a $25,000 check. He put the Rambler away.
Despite his subtitle, Knoedelseder offers a curiously limited overview of an influential period in American comedy, offering only distant snapshots of Pryor, Williams, Steve Martin or anything east of the L.A. River. (New York had "Saturday Night Live," Woody Allen and the club Catch a Rising Star.)
He digs deep into the lives of Dreesen and Lewis, and finds a sad cautionary tale in Steve Lubetkin, who wrote and starred in the indie comedy "Dante Shocko" yet struggled desperately (and tragically) with his stalled stand-up career.
But more than anything, "I'm Dying Up Here" is a book about the Comedy Store (and, to a lesser degree, its rival, the Improvisation) and the shattered relationships that ensued when Shore refused comedians' demands that they be paid.
In 1979, they organized as Comedians for Compensation and picketed the Store, which Shore insisted operated as a "workshop" in which the comics, "not professionals yet . . . did not deserve to be paid." The club owner is depicted as a loving and angry mother figure, a connoisseur of comedy and cocaine whose encouragement and guidance was essential to many young comics.
A former entertainment writer for The Times, Knoedelseder saw much of this first-hand. He's no comic stylist, not like Bill Zehme writing on Andy Kaufman or Jimmy Breslin on Damon Runyon, but a straight reporter.
As the book slowly turns into the story of a labor dispute, he reveals nothing of the vivid interactions with Williams or Kaufman that he hints at in his acknowledgments. What's lost in that distance is a richer, more compelling tale.
For all his attention to the industry of comedy clubs, Knoedelseder frequently loses sight of the comedic art, all the stuff that makes it worthwhile and still draws Leno to the road. In the early 1990s, even Pryor turned up at the Comedy Store to perform from his wheelchair, cracking angry jokes about his multiple sclerosis.
And after nine years leading what became one of the top-rated comedies in television history, Jerry Seinfeld was back on tour, happily alone behind the microphone again, and hungry for the naked thrill that only stand-up provides.
"To actually do your creative thing right in front of an audience and have them judge it right there," he explained wistfully to Time magazine in 2007, "that's exciting."
Appleford is a journalist in Los Angeles.