They’re Dying Up There

At last a TV series about comedy. Not of comedy, but about comedy. Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here premiered last Sunday, and took viewers back to 1970s Hollywood to follow the lives and loves of a group of standup comics as they struggled to achieve comedy’s golden ring, a spot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The show is based, in concept at least, on William Knoedelseder’s 1994 nonfiction book, I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era. Leave it to Hollywood’s infinite wisdom (read: pandering to puerile tastes) to turn an excellent work of reportage into a formulaic, predictable, and hugely overacted (I lost count of the exclamation points in the teleplay after fifteen minutes) paean to drugs, booze, cheap sex, and the word “fuck.”

Steve Martin produced an album in 1979 titled Comedy Is Not Pretty! Apparently it’s not funny anymore either. True, the show’s focus is dramatic, but it is also about comedy and features many scenes of comics performing. In fifty-plus minutes I got three grins, one chuckle, and zero real laughs.

Too bad. The premise had promise.

But I’m not writing this review/blog to skewer the show (although it is fun to expose the self-proclaimed “tastemakers” for the ratings suckups that they are). Instead I want to pose a question about the timeframe of the show. Before it even aired I wondered, why the 1970s? That’s almost fifty years ago, and whether or not that decade truly was the “golden age of standup,” hardly anyone remembers, especially the under-fifty crowd this show seems to be aimed at.

As always, I have a theory (not a conspiracy theory, just a regular one).

Good humor is (or was) largely absurdity or irony. Popular humor of today, however, seems a lot like popular film and books today, which I find increasingly polemical. The premise too often seems not to be that something doesn’t make sense, but that something is wrong and someone else (or some group) is to blame.

What passes for comedy these days on TV are political shows (which is ironic in its own way). I’m talking not only about The Daily Show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, and even good-old Saturday Night Live, which has experienced something of a renaissance now that it has some true political targets to lampoon, but also the supposedly mainstream political shows like Hannity and Hard Ball, which take themselves far too seriously to be anything but comedy.

It’s all part of a cultural shift in the last couple of generations that has moved away from humorous concepts and focused instead on targets of derision[1]. It’s fostered by that relentless corporate marketing strategy that tells every man, woman, and child in America, regardless of education and experience, that your opinion matters and that however crappy your life is, it’s not your fault. (Okay, so it is a conspiracy theory.)

What I think is that maybe producers Jim Carrey and David Flebotte missed those old days when humor was about stuff and not enemies, and that’s why they cleaved to a twenty-year-old nonfiction book’s nostalgic take on a tough business, rather than try to portray standup from the perspective of the 21st century. I’m probably wrong about that, but it’s nice to hope.


[1] Yes, there are exceptions in both times, but I’m talking about general trends.