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'I'm Dying Up Here'

Showtime
June 4th

Welcome to the bloody business of hustling for laughs. I'm Dying Up Here chronicles the Seventies L.A. stand-up comedy racket, executive produced by Jim Carrey and based on William Knoedelseder's 2009 book. It's set in a Hollywood full of small-time hustlers, jokers, gangsters and losers – the same scene that gave the world David Letterman and Jay Leno. These guys (and they're almost all guys) keep coming back to the seedy clubs, suffering the abuse of drunks and thugs, dreaming of turning into the next Freddie Prinze or Jimmie Walker. "I tell you," a cabbie tells two newbie Angelenos, "ever since Carson moved his outfit from New York to here, every asshole who thinks he can tell a joke has been circling Burbank like a fucking vulture."

The show has a Boogie Nights sense of late-night despair, with the Sixties hangover looming above the city like smog. The club regulars gather around the kitchen TV to see one of their friends get his big break – doing his tight five on The Tonight Show – until Johnny Carson anoints him by waving him over to chat. ("He's getting the couch!") Yet none of them hear a single moment of his set, because they can't stop muttering about how jealous they are.

Melissa Leo is fearsome as the comedy club matriarch Goldie, while the rest of the cast is full of familiar faces, if not names; standouts include Clark Duke, the kid from Hot Tub Time Machine, and Ari Graynor, who was Meadow Soprano’s college roommate Caitlin. There's a clever Seventies rock soundtrack, including the best-ever use of the J. Geils Band's "Whammer Jammer" in a strip-club scene. The comedians keep their guard up only to stand at their most vulnerable onstage, fending off hecklers ("What are you doing here – the hooker in the trunk isn't gonna bury herself") or bullies ("Tell me, sir: Is there a Mrs. Drunken Shithead at home?") or, worst of all, silent faces. But they put off the end of the night as long as possible. When one of them announces, "Closing time – your soul-crushing existences await you," the punch line is that the comedians, unlike the audience, have no escape at all.

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