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‘I’m Dying Up Here’ review: Showtime comedy a downer

Melissa Leo stars as club owner Goldie in

Melissa Leo stars as club owner Goldie in "I'm Dying Up Here," premiering Sunday on Showtime. Photo Credit: Showtime / Justina Mintz

THE SERIES “I’m Dying Up Here”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

GRADE C-

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Goldie’s is the hot Los Angeles comedy club of the early ’70s, where standups come to get their shot at a guest spot on “The Tonight Show.” But to get to Goldie’s, they’ve first got to get past Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo), who runs the place. The resident standups, including Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor), are thrilled when one of their own gets his shot at the big time. A couple new guys from Boston, Eddie Zeidel (Michael Angarano) and Ron Shack (Clark Duke), just hope to get their shot at Goldie’s stage. The series is based on William Knoedelseder’s 2006 nonfiction account about the early days of L.A.’s Comedy Store, “I’m Dying Up here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era.”

MY SAY Shows about show business are brave outliers, and occasionally foolhardy ones as well. The Industry cares how the sausage is made, viewers much less so. Satires such as “30 Rock” or “Episodes” got around this by turning the sausage factory line into its own unique form of insanity. Series such as “Entourage” mostly ignored it all together. Cameron Crowe mastered the movie-about-the-biz formula (“Almost Famous”) but not quite the TV series one (“Roadies”).

But unlike these, “I’m Dying Up Here” has nowhere to hide. The fictional standups of “Dying” have gotta prove themselves eventually up there on Goldie’s fictional stage. If they make the fake club audience laugh, they’d better make the one at home laugh, too. They don’t, but — hey — caveat emptor. Look at the title.

Maybe our memory of the legendary comics they are supposed to generically portray has grown hazy. That seems unlikely, however, given who they were and are — Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Garry Shandling, Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler, Robin Williams, Jimmie Walker, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison and so many others. Knoedelseder had the benefit of fact, but for some reason “Dying” decided on fiction. That eliminated both the original stand-up material from all those years ago, along with any reason to care. That’s a shame because there is an engaging story here — the true one.

Goldie is a thinly disguised version of club owner Mitzi Shore, who was a huge and controversial force in the ’70s comedy scene. She refused to pay her standups by reasoning that the occasional trip to “Tonight” was payment enough. When they went on strike in the late ’70s, the most egregious form of showbiz servitude outside the porn industry came to an end. “Dying” ignores this, and instead establishes Shore — or rather Goldie — as a tough-love club matron with a good heart, keen eye and copious appetite for drugs. And in a rare misfire for Dylan Baker, his interpretation of “Tonight” host Johnny Carson resembles a pasty funeral parlor director.

But “Dying” isn’t terrible as much as grimly determined to tell a familiar story about a stock figure we think we know: the comic with the tragic soul who lives hard and dies young (or grows very rich). You’ve seen it before, read it before. Too bad “Dying” passed up an opportunity to tell it in an exciting, engaging new way.

BOTTOM LINE A downer.

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