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I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era
Synopses & Reviews
In the mid-1970s, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen, and several hundred other shameless showoffs and incorrigible cutups from across the country migrated en masse to Los Angeles, the new home of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. There, in a late-night world of sex, drugs, dreams and laughter, they created an artistic community unlike any before or since. It was Comedy Camelot—but it couldn’t last.
William Knoedelseder was then a cub reporter covering the burgeoning local comedy scene for the Los Angeles Times. He wrote the first major newspaper profiles of several of the future stars. And he was there when the comedians—who were not paid by the clubs where they performed— tried to change the system and incidentally tore apart their own close-knit community. In I’m Dying Up Here he tells the whole story of that golden age, of the strike that ended it, and of how those days still resonate in the lives of those who were there. As comedy clubs and cable TV began to boom, many would achieve stardom.... but success had its price.
"In 1978, Knoedelseder (Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia) was a journalist assigned to cover newcomers transforming the comedy clubs: 'For the next two years, I had stage-side seats at the best show in show business.... I met and wrote about Jay Leno, David Letterman and Richard Lewis before the world knew who they were.' Mitzi Shore, recently labeled 'the Norma Desmond of Comedy' by the Los Angeles Times, took over L.A.'s Comedy Store in 1973 with a no-pay policy because she saw it as 'a training ground, a workshop, a college.' It became a focal point for local comics, including Lewis, his friend Steve Lubetkin, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen, Letterman, Leno and many more. Some were in desperate circumstances, surviving by living in their cars and eating bar condiments. Driving a silver Jaguar to her 'massive, cash-generating laugh factory,' Shore was seen as 'cunningly manipulative,' and her unfair payment policies led to an organized strike in 1979 by the CFC (Comedians for Compensation). This confrontation of comics vs. club owner ('Not... one... red... fucking... cent') is the core of the book, with the suicide of Lubetkin taking the tone from comedy to tragedy. Filmmakers will eye this as a potential property similar to Bill Carter's The Late Shift (1996), about Letterman and Leno. Knoedelseder skillfully layers powerful dramatic details, and readers will shelve the book alongside those other key classics on comedy: Steve Allen's The Funny Men and Janet Coleman's The Compass." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In April 1972, a moderately successful comic named Sammy Shore opened a small club in Los Angeles called the Comedy Store. Fellow comics would hang out, perform — unpaid — and often drink free. At the end of the year, Shore left for several months to perform in Las Vegas and asked his wife, Mitzi, to run the club. Soon after he returned to L.A., though, the couple divorced and... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Mitzi got the Store. Over the next few years, her previously unrecognized talents as a businesswoman and impresario transformed it from what had been a hobby into one of the most important showcases for stand-up comedy in the country. One thing she didn't change was the club's policy of not paying its comics. The Comedy Store was billed as a workshop, a place for experimenting and trying out new material. Shore's practice of putting on scores of acts over the course of a week provided lots of opportunity for both established names and newbies who wanted to test themselves on a real stage before a paying audience. (There's a taste of this onstage mixology in the new Adam Sandler movie, "Funny People.") The roster of comics that Mitzi Shore helped develop is an impressive one by any measure: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler. (To be fair, we also have to lay Gallagher and his fruit-smashing act at her door, as well as her son, Pauly, of which nothing more shall be said.) The Store's growing reputation attracted crowds — both the public and industry insiders scouting for the next breakout star. Shore was making a bundle. The waitresses, the bartenders and the delivery guys were earning a living, too. The only people not getting paid were the comics. And eventually, they got fed up with starving for their art. This conflict forms the core of "I'm Dying Up Here." The author, William Knoedelseder, was a young reporter covering the comedy scene for the Los Angeles Times when all this was going on, and his book, forthcoming at the end of the month, is full of dishy, I-was-there detail about people who went on to become famous — and occasionally rich — being funny on TV. (Budd Friedman, the owner of the Improv, hired Les Moonves, now president and CEO of CBS, as his first bartender! Letterman played power forward on a Comedy Store basketball team along with Jimmie Walker and Tim Reid!) His account of a ragtag bunch of socially maladjusted comics trying to coordinate a labor action against a mother figure in the industry has an interesting resonance in today's world of unpaid bloggers who are desperate for the limelight and often willing to work free to get a share of it. Eventually, the comics were successful — sort of. They got paid, but not as much as they had hoped. Friendships were sundered. And the petty reality of organized labor's jurisdictional issues wound up suffocating their fledgling organization. As everyone in this dysfunctional family learned, money can buy breakfast, but not love. Unfortunately, Knoedelseder is so besotted with his front-row view that he misses the center of his own story. Mitzi Shore is a world-class piece of work, and the comics were both deeply indebted to her and dismayed that she wouldn't see the world the way they did. Recounting Shore's refusal to grant the comics' first bashful request for payment, Marsha Warfield ("Night Court") says, "It's like your mother told you she wasn't going to feed you anymore. You can't quite believe it, so you go back and ask again." But the Shore of this recounting is a cardboard villain who snorts lines of cocaine with her no-talent cronies while innocent comic geniuses starve. It's comic-book characterization that isn't helped by the author's weakness for clunky language. ("They were brothers in comedy, embarked on a kamikaze mission to make it in show business and never look back.") Equally distressing is his reluctance to explore some of the larger questions he raises. He notes Johnny Carson's refusal to book female comics on "The Tonight Show," for many years the premier showcase for stand-up, but barely touches on the differences between male and female comedy. We find out in tremendous detail how Shore booked nights at her club, but almost nothing about how a comedian workshops new material. The focus on this one club and a labor dispute that even the author notes "didn't exactly rock the country" gives a distorted view of comedy at the time. "Saturday Night Live" is dismissed as a forum for improvisational acting, as opposed to stand-up. Bill Cosby appears only as a foil for Richard Pryor. Woody Allen, Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin get only the most passing of mentions. Instead, we return again and again to the sad story of Steve Lubetkin (Who? Exactly.) and his failure to make it in stand-up. Shore had a placard in her office that read, "It's a sin to encourage mediocre talent." It was very brave of the author to include that anecdote. Reviewed by Stephen Reiss, who is a Washington Post editor for social issues and education, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Full of revealing portraits of many of the best-known comedic talents of the 1970s, "I'm Dying Up Here" is also a poignant tale of the price of success and the terrible cost of failure--professional and moral.
A little-known story of the brief, shining moment when comedy’s stars-to-be were starving artists and friends in 1970s L.A.—and of the strike that tore them apart
Chronicles the collective coming of age of the stand-up comedians who defined American humour during the last 30 years, including David Letterman, Jay Leno and Robin Williams.
About the Author
William Knoedelseder has been a journalist with The Los Angeles Times, executive producer of Fox Entertainment News and of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s television news program Inquirer News Tonight,” and vice president of news at USA Broadcasting. He is the author of Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, The Music Business, and the Mafia, and In Eddie’s Name. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he lives near Los Angeles.
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