15
Apr
14

The Serious Side of Funny: I’m Dying Up Here by William Knodelseder

I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era

I’m Dying Up Here – William Knodelseder (PublicAffairs)

A few weeks ago, I read a story in Vanity Fair about Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show and relocating it back to New York. I think the story’s subhead was “Taking Tonight Back To It’s Gritty New York Roots.” I was reminded of a book I’d recently read, which picked up when the Tonight Show first did, when it moved to Burbank in the mid 70s: I’m Dying Up Here, by longtime LA-based journalist William Knodelseder.

A quick, light read about the LA comedy scene of the late 1970s, I’m Dying Up Here is an interesting look at very specific moment in entertainment history and it’s ramifications, not to mention the powerful personalities involved. It opens with The Tonight Show moving and climaxes with the Comedy Store strike in 1979, a period of just a few years but a pivotal time in stand-up comedy. It was the rise of Mitzi Shore’s The Comedy Store, which quickly became the place to find hot young talent in a field that Steve Martin was pushing into the mainstream almost single-handedly.

As Martin’s comedy sold records and filled arenas, talent scouts from The Tonight Show began trying to find the next big thing. And thanks to Mitzi’s club (and Budd Friedman’s Improv), comics like Jay Leno, David Letterman and Robin Williams all had a steady gig. Before long, they discovered the cream of the comedy crop there, a small group that quickly exploded outward from small crowds to national fame: Leno as a regular comic, Letterman as a replacement host (and soon host his own show) and Williams as Mork from Ork.

It wasn’t all success and fun, though: for most, it was a harsh, tough life, grinding out shows at Mitzi’s club for no pay while trying to hold down a day job. It’s a life Knoedelseder shows by contrasting the careers of Richard Lewis and Steve Lubetkin. Longtime friends who started around the same time, their careers went in diametrically different direction. As Lewis got a steady spot on the Tonight Show and starred in TV pilots and movies, Lubetkin’s career kept hitting bad break after bad break, fizzing out in a mix of bad luck and what seems like depression. For a struggling comic, it was hard to make ends meet: you had to star at the Comedy Store to get discovered, but you had to play elsewhere to get paid, constantly hustling new gigs by using a prime one that you did for free.

His history is an interesting one, but Knoedelseder’s writing occasionally irked me: little things like “so and so told a LA Times reporter” (was it Knoedelseder? Why not just say so?) or too frequent clichés like “he thought they were approaching the point of no return.” It’s unfortunate Leno and Letterman didn’t take part, too: every time they’re directly quoted, it’s from a period newspaper article. I would’ve liked to see how they look back at this period of their lives. With this heavy reliance on period reporting, I’m Dying Up Here often reads like a series of contemporary newspaper columns.

Minor nitpicks aside, it was a quick read – I banged it out in a couple of days – and a fun one at that. It’s an interesting history of a certain scene; not just the nuts-and-bolts of how standup worked back then, but also for its look at the then-young comedians. Leno, for instance, comes off as a goofy, clever stand up who could riff on stage for hours on end; Letterman as insecure and quiet off stage, but completely in his own once he’s on it. Mitzi Shore is an interesting personality too: she’s both friend, mentor and villain in these pages. She’s sometimes painted as the antagonist, but without her club, would many of the names in this book have become more than nightclub comics? It’s a hard question to answer.

Rating: 5/10. While I’m Dying Up here isn’t a bad read, I can’t help thinking it’d make a better movie than a book: the plot feels particularly cinematic and it’s packed with interesting characters, especially the handful who actually move the story along.

Related: My look at  Born Standing Up by Steve Martin 

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