Like a lot of second, third, and fourth-tier attempts at prestige television, Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here might have looked a lot better a decade ago, before every cable network went after their own flagship scripted content, before the advent of streaming networks with their own flagship series, and before about half of these flagship series involved stand-up comedians in some capacity. That pre-streaming entertainment landscape now seems almost as retro as the one portrayed in I’m Dying Up Here, a fictional TV show based on a nonfiction book about the 1970s stand-up comedy in Los Angeles.
I’ve been covering the series for The A.V. Club since its premiere about a month ago, intrigued as I was by the eclectic cast (Ari Graynor, Melissa Leo, the about-to-turn-up Jake Lacy, R.J. Cyler, Clark Duke, and a whole lot of good character actors doing guest spots), the subject matter, and a second episode that improved upon the overstuffed pilot. But our weekly coverage is ending, and while it’s not this past Sunday’s “Sugar And Spice,” the series’ fourth episode, that officially curtailed the show’s weekly recap and review, the episode does provide a master class in how I’m Dying Up Here has been screwing up.
Sadly, some of what the show has been attempting to do is exactly what I want out of a TV show—at least in theory. While it does attend to some ongoing plotlines, I’m Dying Up Here allows its character focus to shift from episode to episode, and has yet to turn overly serialized. It would be easy enough to watch “Sugar And Spice” and basically understand it as a group of stories that stand alone; the previous episodes help, but aren’t strictly necessary for comprehension. This is an underrated quality, given how many hourlong dramas design their episodes as a mere slice of a 10-to-15-hour narrative that hardly anyone would care to watch if it were a movie and hardly anyone would care to read if it were a novel. The hypothetical novice viewer of I’m Dying Up Here would tune into “Sugar And Spice” and find accessible short stories about a female comic (Ari Graynor) fighting to be considered alongside her male peers as the famous tennis-court “Battle Of the Sexes” plays out in the background; a struggling male comic (Michael Angarano) hooking up with a seemingly unstable groupie; and a young black comic (R.J. Cyler) meeting his idol, Richard Pryor.
Several of these plotlines bring to mind episodes of some of TV’s greatest ever, usually to the show’s detriment. Even the least weighty subplot has echoes of perhaps the most famous stand-up comedy quasi-biography ever crafted: Angarano’s story about a “chucklefucker” who turns out to have some unusual kinks feels like a more explicit riff on a Seinfeld storyline, right down to the cutesy nickname. You can almost hear Pay Cable Jerry and Pay Cable George sitting in the diner, talking it out: “You’re dumping the chucklefucker? I thought she was great in bed.” “Oh, the sex is great—love the chucklefucking, no complaints about the chucklefucking. But the baby-play has got to go! What am I, running a daycare?” At first, the storyline plays out like Seinfeld with more raw contempt for female sexuality, painting the groupie as an aggressive, off-putting weirdo. Then the show reverses course and tries to get a little maudlin about the character’s desire to “express herself” in the manner of the comics she loves. It has it both ways, in the sense that the storyline’s two major characters manage to come off as both active irritants and self-pitying caricatures.
If I’m Dying Up Here was merely experimenting with that Seinfeld/Louie continuum between social farce and comic melancholy, these kind of trip-ups might be part of its charm. Other storylines about Angarano and his best friend Ron (Clark Duke) bumbling their way through the comedian underclass have been likable, at least, and that continues in upcoming episodes. But the show clearly has more ambitious aspirations, too, to say something about its time period. Running a historical thread through the background of a made-up TV episode is something achieved with rare grace and subtlety by Mad Men, which is damn close to my platonic ideal of a television drama, and also perhaps the least fair comparison point for any other television drama ever made. So while it’s not realistic to expect that I’m Dying Up Here would deploy, say, the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match with similar skill, it’s still frustrating to see it pause, however briefly, to hit its themes square on the nose.
These themes connect to the central conflict between Cassie (Graynor) and club owner Goldie (Leo), over whether Cassie should stay in her prescribed lane as a female comedian, or demand treatment equal to her male counterparts. In the most recent episode, the argument expands to whether the same treatment is even desirable, or if it will leave her treated like “one of the guys” socially while still languishing professionally. Graynor and Leo both play this material fine, but the show’s attempts to humanize them feel diffuse. Goldie gets a 1927-set opening flashback that gives her an origin story not unlike Krusty The Clown’s, while Cassie is reduced to weeping at a friendly tailor who sees her as feminine and makes her feel beautiful. It’s all a bit schematic; what could be an affecting short story about two women in showbiz becomes more like a diagram. Goldie secretly nodding in approval at Billie Jean King at the end of “Sugar And Spice” isn’t nearly so interesting as watching her destroy her ex-husband (Jere Burns) by putting his regressive comic stylings on right after Pryor (and, less amusingly, watching him assert his dominance even when he’s down).
“Sugar And Spice” ups the historical-cultural ante further by also including the kind of historical figure Mad Men consistently and wisely side-stepped: the on-screen presence of legendary consensus choice for best stand-up comic of all time Richard Pryor, as played by actor Brandon Ford Green, turning up to provide wise guidance for Cyler’s Adam. This is a format-breaker for the show. Its previous three episodes include comedian characters played by real comics and in some cases possibly inspired by real comics, but no depictions of famous real-life comics beyond Dylan Baker’s low-key non-impression of Johnny Carson. This has struck some comedy fans as perverse, given that the nonfiction book it’s based on covers the early careers of Robin Williams, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Andy Kaufman, among others. These fans must not have stopped to consider what it would be like to have an ersatz Richard Pryor drop in on an episode.
The answer is mostly discomfiting—an awkward way of conferring coolness upon Adam (who was already a likable character) and also repeating the show’s favorite and perhaps only advice for struggling comics: that authentic autobiography is the best way to find your voice. Goldie said something similar to Cassie, only to frequently criticize her newer sets for not being hilarious enough—which either shows complexity the show doesn’t quite know how to grapple with, or inconsistency in the writers’ ability to square Goldie’s behavior with the one truism up their own sleeves. Regardless, here’s Richard Pryor preaching authenticity again in “Sugar And Spice,” an intended touch of reality that only makes the show feel more synthetic.
The Pryor appearance may be the saddest of Dying’s failings, because it speaks to both the show’s ambitions and its limitations all at once. Despite the passing similarities to shows as great as Seinfeld, Mad Men, and even Boardwalk Empire, in my coverage of I’m Dying Up Here, I’ve been unable to resist making comparisons to Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, the gold standard of terrible shows about show business. But Dying isn’t a product of pure, insane arrogance. Its stand-up routines may sound, by turns, too weak and too contemporary to make sense on the Goldie’s stage of 1973, but it never imagines that, say, one of its characters is such a singular comic genius that he could produce over an hour of grade-A comedy on a weekly basis with almost no help from anyone else. If Sorkin doesn’t really know how to write about (or even recognize) genuine failure, I’m Dying Up Here has almost too much failure to choose from. Faced with so much dysfunction, it often turns up the melodramatic intensity, as with an ill-advised (and yet weirdly convenient) detour into the horrors of Vietnam in the upcoming fifth episode (going online at the end of this week before airing next weekend), or resorts to repeating itself. To the latter point, upcoming episodes once again address Cassie breaking into a boys’ club, Bill’s dad not understanding his son’s life, and Goldie alternately fighting for her comics and telling them off whenever they want to get paid. Even the introduction of Jake Lacy essentially revives the Sebastian Stan character killed off in the pilot.
Some of this repetition conveys the grind of a comic’s life. A plot motif of the fifth and sixth episodes, where various comics find work and practice spaces in unconventional locations—an open mic at a deli, a convention of airline pilots, even an AA meeting—has juice lacking from many of the scenes at Goldie’s. But the dramatic ambition of I’m Dying Up Here often overwhelms its scrappiness, like Richard Pryor looming over a talented nobody. Studio 60’s Sorkin identified too closely with the supposedly brilliant creator he created, and it seems possible that the Dying crew feels kinship with these characters, too, struggling nobly for that moment of transcendence, however brief, and not reaching it, even when it seems like they do. As it turns out, this elusiveness—at least so far—may be the most poignant thing about the show. It’s also what makes it hard to picture any further changes on the horizon.