Like most comics, Al Madrigal knows what it’s like to have a bad set. While headlining the Palm Beach Improv one night several years ago, he was attempting to work the crowd when he learned that a table of about 35 people had just been laid off — which may have explained why they weren’t exactly in the mood to laugh at his jokes. On another occasion, just last year, the comic who gave Madrigal’s introduction at an L.A. club told the audience to go have a cigarette and take a bathroom break just before Madrigal was about to go on. The former Daily Show correspondent, who’s been doing stand-up for nearly two decades, was so enraged that he chased the down the offending comic and confronted him.
“There’s so many tiny little things that can go wrong,” Madrigal says, rattling off a litany of potentially disastrous factors: loud servers, noisy bartenders, obnoxious bachelorette parties, positive heckling, negative heckling, lousy intros, bad lineups … the list goes on and on. “Anything can throw off these sets, and you want a showcase to go perfect because there’s so much on the line.”
Madrigal’s are among the countless uncomfortable comedy experiences that ended up being written into the script for I’m Dying Up Here, a new Showtime series, on which he plays fictional comedian Edgar Martinez and also served as a consulting writer. The show, co-executive produced by Jim Carrey, follows an ensemble of fledgling, fictional comedians vying for a shot at stardom on the Sunset Strip in 1973. It takes place a year after The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’s move from New York to L.A. made the city the epicenter of the American comedy scene, attracting such then-unknown prodigies as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Elayne Boosler and, several years later, Carrey himself, who began his career as an impressionist but famously went on to win a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Kaufman, among other serious movie roles.
Premiering June 4, I’m Dying Up Here comes on the heels of a wave of semiautobiographical TV and film projects that delve into the darker, sometimes morbidly unfunny struggles involved in trying to make it as a comedian: Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 indie comedy feature Don’t Think Twice; Pete Holmes’ recent HBO show Crashing; TV Land’s new Melissa McCarthy– and Ben Falcone–produced series Nobodies.
Different from those projects, I’m Dying Up Here is based on the 2009 nonfiction book of the same name, which chronicles the revolutionary early days of West Hollywood institution the Comedy Store. Penned by former L.A. Times writer William Knoedelseder, the book offers plenty of tragedy to draw from, including rising comedy star Freddie Prinze’s 1977 death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“People who have been around comedy know it, but I think people still aren’t aware of how much pain tends to follow this world and how much darkness kind of is in this world,” says Michael Aguilar, a co-executive producer on I’m Dying Up Here. “We’re not there to celebrate that, but we’re there to sort of acknowledge that and take that into account in our storytelling.”
But the dramatized TV adaptation doesn’t include any characters named Freddie Prinze, nor are there any juicy details about the romance between Boosler and Kaufman — though two of the show’s main characters certainly evoke it — or Letterman and Leno’s legendary feud, which is detailed at length in the book. Instead, series creator David Flebotte, a former stand-up comedian and a writer for Showtime series Masters of Sex, opted to craft composite characters using traits and quirks lifted from real-life comedians.
One reason for the choice was “creative freedom,” Flebotte says, and the other is that he felt the giants of the 1970s comedy scene were too idiosyncratic and too beloved to be able to translate believably into television characters.
“If it was like, ‘Let’s cast Richard Pryor and Richard Lewis and whoever we’re talking about, I think as an audience, you’re going to spend half the time going, ‘I don’t know if that’s Richard Lewis,’?” Aguilar says. “It just felt like the only way to really explore relationships and friendships and different ways of telling stories of the early-’70s comedy explosion was not to be shackled by telling this story perfectly.”
The writers drew material not just from the book but also from the lived experiences of Carrey, Madrigal and consultant Tom Dreesen, another ’70s Comedy Store staple. In one scene, struggling comic Bill Hobbs (played by real-life stand-up Andrew Santino) lashes out at a group of women in the audience who had just been laid off from their jobs, ultimately costing him a coveted appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The first part of the scene was inspired by Madrigal’s anecdote, but the fallout was taken from a story Carrey told the writers.
“He did a set in L.A. that was just awful and bombed,” says Aguilar, who is also Carrey’s producing partner. “He just walked out of the club to the parking lot and he knew he lost The Tonight Show. He got the golden ticket and blew it.”
Carrey, then 21 years old, got asked back to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson within a matter of months, and soon after debuted as the lead in the NBC series The Duck Factory. It took years for him to get to that point: When he initially moved to Hollywood from Toronto, he lived in what Aguilar calls a “terrifying” motel on the Sunset Strip before moving into a closet in someone’s home — a detail that inspired a story line for two new-to-L.A. comedians (played by Michael Angarano and Clark Duke) on I’m Dying Up Here.
But the character who most drives the plot of the show is also the one whose similarities to a real-life person are hardest to ignore. Oscar winner Melissa Leo prefers to think of her performance as comedy club matriarch Goldie Herschlag as a tribute to — rather than a depiction of — legendary Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore.
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“I don’t see how Goldie could’ve been invented without Mitzi,” Leo declares of the woman who personally auditioned everyone from Carrey and Madrigal to fellow I’m Dying Up Here actor and comedian Erik Griffin. “To do something in the world that no one else came even close to dreaming of, it’s fascinating to me. She really made the first comedy club, and I will believe that until the day I die.”
Today, the Comedy Store is experiencing something of a revival — Madrigal still considers it the best stand-up venue in the country — and comedians are once again at the forefront of popular culture. Only now, rather than having to rely on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to launch their careers, they’re being courted by any number of untraditional platforms, from Netflix and Seeso to Amazon and Hulu.
Aguilar credits stand-ups like Hannibal Buress, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Schumer and Tig Notaro for ushering in a new golden age of comedy. But he also says the political climate may have boosted Americans’ desires to laugh at and make sense of the absurdity of current events.
“There were certain times in our history when comedy maybe broke through a little more, and unfortunately it’s usually not the happiest times,” says Aguilar, referencing the Watergate scandal and widespread distrust of both politicians and the media in the early 1970s. “There are these great parallels between the two eras and I think it makes our 1973 show feel very relevant in 2017.”