Next Sunday evening the premium cable network, Showtime, will premiere its newest series, “I’m Dying Up Here,” which is a look back at the standup comedy scene in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. The names have been fictionalized to no doubt avoid lawsuits since the show, which is being produced by Jim Carrey, is based on the 2010 book of the same name (Public Affairs Books) by William Knoedelseder, a former Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter who covered it as it was happening. It is almost a certainty that the book will get a fresh printing in light of the rollout of the Showtime series.
New York was the unquestioned capital of standup comedy in the 1950s and 1960s. Things began to change however as the television industry began an exodus from our town to Los Angeles which had far milder winters and cheaper real estate at the time.
The defining moment occurred when Johnny Carson moved the “Tonight Show” from New York to LA in early 1972. Carson got his start as a standup comic and magician and took pride in allocating a few minutes of his then 90-minute show for up-and-coming humorists.
Just as Major League Baseball players have to improve their craft in the minors, comics who aspired to sit on Johnny’s couch had to do the same in comedy clubs on the Sunset Strip where the two biggest were the Improv, which was owned by frustrated entertainer Budd Friedman, and the Comedy Store, which was run by Mitzi Shore, the wife of comedian Sammy Shore and mother of actor Pauly Shore.
Shore and Friedman were fierce rivals who loathed each other according to Knoedelseder. Shore tried to ban comics who played the Improv from appearing at the Comedy Store while Friedman did not get as worked up about those who played “the other room.”
The one business practice that they both shared was not paying their performers. Shore argued that just providing a venue for comic talent to get discovered was good enough. In her defense, she would frequently provide lodging and food for her talent and saw herself as a maternal figure to them.
By 1979 newcomers who were starting to get a taste of success such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Lewis, and Tom Dreesen, decided to fight back at what they saw as an exploitive economic situation and organized a boycott against Shore. Technically, it couldn’t be called a strike because the comics were independent contractors as opposed to employees.
Knoedelseder takes pains to pain out that even though most of the comics were insecure and wanted to succeed there was a true feeling of esprit de corps and that they all pulled for the success of the other. They did not see it as a zero sum game but rather that a high tide would lift all boats.
Even though the boycott worked as Mitzi Shore relented and agreed to pay a small stipend to all performers, the familial feeling among comics of that era would never be the same. Garry Shandling and Yakov Smirnoff incensed their colleagues by crossing the picket line.
There was a toll on comics who hadn’t made it yet and were concerned that they would be blacklisted by comedy club owners such as Shore and Friedman. One such performer was Steve Lubetkin who was lionized by fellow comics yet had not experienced even a smattering of the success that friends as Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman had. Lubetkin reluctantly helped organize the job action against Shore and soon found that he was not getting stage time after the dispute had been resolved. He was so despondent that he jumped to his death from the roof of the hotel next door to the Comedy Store.
Knoedelseder spends a few pages saluting the pioneering female comics of that era as Elayne Boosler, Shirley Hemphill, and Sandra Bernhard who faced a monumental barrier for success. According to the author, Johnny Carson did not think that female standup comics were funny with the exception of Joan Rivers were funny. After she got her competing talk show against him in 1986 he didn’t think that she was so funny either.
It’s to be seen whether the Showtime dramatization of “I’m Dying Up Here” will hew closely to the book.
It will also be intriguing to compare the business practices of nearly 40 years ago with what’s going on today. This past spring HBO debuted “Crashing” which stars Pete Holmes and is a dramatization of how he broke into comedy in New York a few years ago. In his show he not only performed for free but had to get paying customers into clubs for him to even get that opportunity