On a cavernous soundstage in an industrial park in Culver City, a rising star on the Sunset Strip comedy scene sits at a horseshoe-shaped booth. The comic is meeting with an agent in the kind of dimly lighted, anonymous space where for generations, mythology has it, showbiz careers have been bought or sold over a round of drinks.
Speaking in a conspiratorial growl, the agent promises only he can do what it takes to bring the comic to the next level. "You say jump," he says, a note of wickedness curdling his voice, "I say how hiiiiigh." Midway through the conversation, he says something dismissive about '70s teen idol Shaun Cassidy, and the scene is called to a halt.
Around a monitor in the next room, where rows of fake drinks of all types wait in formation on a nearby table, Michael Aguilar and David Flebotte — executive producers of the new Showtime series "I'm Dying Up Here" — are reconsidering the line in the scene, which features Jake Lacy as the comic on the rise.
After some research on their phones, they realize the show's 1973 Los Angeles setting predates Cassidy's success by about three years. A few other names are bounced around ("Leif Garrett?") but nothing sticks. "Yeah, I don't like that joke," Aguilar agrees, and it's scrapped.
Timing is everything in comedy, and it's equally crucial for "I'm Dying Up Here," which chronicles how, when and where modern stand-up comedy was born, with guidance from some real-life regulars at the Comedy Store like Jim Carrey.
"Nowhere else you could go where you would see Richard Pryor and Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy and everybody who's anybody showing up and baring their soul. It was phenomenal," says Carrey, who also serves as an executive producer on the series debuting June 4.
Years ago, the veteran comic and actor purchased the rights to the bestselling 2009 book of the same name by William Knoedelseder. The book— framed by some of the stars Carrey mentioned as well as Andy Kaufman, David Letterman and Jay Leno — examined the real-life, sometimes tragic stories around L.A.'s Comedy Store, which even today feels haunted by those ghosts.
"It's the only club I've ever been to in the country as a performer that is painted floor-to-ceiling black," says "Dying" star Andrew Santino, a regular at the Store, chatting between takes on the set late last summer. "But they've made a symbol that kind of represents comedy in Los Angeles, the roots of it at least."
Carrey does not appear in "I'm Dying Up Here" but the dues he paid as a young comedian helped shape the series. While the 10 episodes were being written, the "Ace Ventura" and "Truman Show" star would occasionally visit the writers room with what he described as "downloads" of his experiences.
"I have a head full of characters that no one could make up, you know?" said Carrey, curled over a small table in a hotel bar, earlier this year. "I just wanted to spew out as much stuff that I could remember."
One detail in the series — two struggling comics (Clark Duke and Michael Angarano) arrive from Boston and wind up living in a closet — was mined from Carrey's move here as a rising star in Toronto but a nobody in L.A. "The first time I rented my new closet I woke up the following morning and found a girl with no pants on making bacon," Carrey said.
While the true stories of the Comedy Store feature their share of comedy and tragedy, the makers of "I'm Dying Up Here" opted to go their own way.
The series hinges upon a similarly darkened club called Goldie's, run by a character played by Melissa Leo of "The Fighter." Though it may be tempting to look for parallels with the Comedy Store's Mitzi Shore in Leo's performance, Goldie is her own woman, and the Oscar-winning actress bristles at any effort to pigeonhole her character.
"In playing Goldie I find I'm getting an opportunity that I have begged [for]… which is to play a woman that I can believe," Leo says, sitting on a folding chair in the shade outside her trailer. "She's a unique individual. And she gets funny."
"Comics are smart alecks — vulnerable, delicate smart alecks. And Goldie knows them better than she knows herself."
Prior to this show, Leo says she had little experience with stand-up comedy apart from working with the likes of Williams, Richard Belzer and Louis CK, who cast her for an episode-stealing turn on FX's "Louie."
But "I'm Dying Up Here" gains an additional layer of authenticity with a cast that includes real life comics such as "Daily Show" alum Al Madrigal, "Workaholics'" Erik Griffin and Santino, whose character Bill Hobbs seems pitched more toward the darker-tinged comics like Bill Hicks and Marc Maron.
For the comics, the challenge has been to perform material that isn't their own, but stays true to their characters and the time. "The dust has settled in terms of finding out who these people are, onstage-wise," says the shaggy-haired, red-bearded Santino. (His one-hour special, "Home Field Advantage," will air on Showtime on June 2.)
"We know what [our characters] sound like now, which takes a real stand-up years and years to perfect. It's the hardest thing in the world to do," he says. "I'm 10 years in and I feel like I'm very comfortable with my voice. Offstage, I'll never know who I am," he adds with a grin.
"I wouldn't do comedy the way [my character] Ralph does comedy even though it is still somewhat me," says Griffin, another Store regular who also has a special coming to the network July 7. "I actually prefer not doing any stand-up on the show. To me the other stuff is really what's rich."
Therein lies another challenge for "I'm Dying Up Here": It is immersed in comedy but — with story lines that draw from addiction struggles, jealousy and suicide — far more often resembles a drama. At times, the trick was to remain faithful to the narrative despite the comic potential. "It's amazing how quickly you fall into the trap of trying to make it funny," says Aguilar, who was working in the Boston scene as the bubble burst and comedy clubs began shutting down in the '80s. "You get a couple of comedians and you start laughing at a bit and you're like 'Oh my God, it's a great scene.' And all of a sudden you're like, 'Wow, is that our show?'"
"We look at all the different ways that comedy is used and what it services in people's lives and, for the comics, what they're avoiding," explains showrunner Flebotte, who worked on "Desperate Housewives" and "Will & Grace." "We kind of go deeper and deeper and we still try and keep it really funny."
"Dying" also carries the patina of a serious cable drama. With its cinematic look, nocturnal atmosphere and fetishistically detailed design (think lots of macrame, broad lapels and earth-tones in the costumes along with a remarkable on-set re-creation of a period-specific Canter's Deli), the vibe of the show recalls that of late-period "Mad Men," or HBO's canceled classic rock series "Vinyl," which had the difficult task of casting actors to portray near-legendary figures. "I'm Dying Up Here" has a few of those as well, with peripheral appearances by Richard Pryor (Brandon Ford Green) and Johnny Carson (Dylan Baker).
"We can't have a comedy world that doesn't reflect the people that were impactful in that time period," says Flebotte. "There's always that thing of where they don't look alike but, I'm sorry, I watched [FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story"]. Loved it. Cuba Gooding Jr.? Never for a second [did I think] O.J. Simpson. Didn't [care]. It was more the spirit of it."
Though the era-specific similarities between "Vinyl" and "I'm Dying Up Here" are coincidental, they share a spirit of re-creating a pivotal time for popular culture.
"It really felt like the comics were rock stars," Aguilar says of the fertile period. "The spotlight was here, everybody was moving here. It's a moment when stand-up changed, it went from the legendary joke tellers we all love to a little more storytelling. Almost more [like] therapy."
That was something akin to the on-set experience for Ari Graynor, who plays Cassie, a young comic finding her voice at a time when the comedy world was far harsher toward women. Known for roles on "Fringe" and "Bad Teacher," the Boston native was immediately thrust into the mind set of a comic with the first scene she filmed — an onstage confrontation with a heckler.
"You think, 'Well it's stand-up, and it's a show, so it's pretend,'" says Graynor, who had been hoarding mints to fight off the effect of the stage cigarettes she was smoking on set. "But when you're standing up in front of 50 or 100 people with three cameras hidden around the room, man, it feels pretty real.
"I had this experience where [the heckler] yelled something out that was really dirty, a different kind of dirty, and I wasn't expecting it, and I completely froze," she admits. "And no one yelled cut, and I'm just standing there, and that thing where the sweat starts coming ... it was scary in a way, but in a weird way it felt like an important experience to have on the first day."
"You feel really embarrassed but you realize embarrassment won't kill you," she says.
Graynor survived, just as every neophyte comic does — and must become comfortable, to a point — in the dead silence of bombing. She says the show has taught her about the frame of mind that separates actors from comedians. "Actors, our makeup, is naturally a bit more 'Love me, love me, what can I do to get you to love me?' and I think stand-ups have a natural makeup that is a bit more '… you for not loving me,' " she says with a laugh.
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