Thursday, October 22, 2020

I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a must-read for the diehard comedy fan. I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era by William Knoedelseder isn't unputdownable, but it does offer fascinating details if you're obsessed with stories of comedians, comedy clubs, and the particulars of how comics get stage time and hone their craft. 

It also feels like a history of The Comedy Store in particular rather than a history of comedy in the '70s in general. But as I knew little of the history of The Comedy Store and how much it shaped comedians, comedy and even comedy clubs for years to come, I was perfectly happy learning about this iconic club and how it both nurtured comics and abused them financially. 

The author was a journalist for the Los Angeles Times who got assigned the comedy beat at the height of The Comedy Store heyday. He had a front-row seat for the early careers of Robin Williams, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Lewis and more, and press credentials that let him meet and interview the comics (not too shabby, and that background of first-person experience lends a lot to this book). 

A key event that shook up the comedy world and changed it forever in ways both good and bad was a strike by the comics. The late Mitzi Shore was making loads of money off the comedians by calling the club a showcase, a workshop, for the comedians to work out their acts, charging a cover at the door. But the comics weren't being paid; they were told their pay was experience and exposure. Which was mighty important, but when you're drawing in crowds and raking in thousands and some comics were ending the night without enough money to get home or buy breakfast, you're going to have turmoil. This books recounts all of it, and the way it splintered the once close-knit comedy family that made the club their home.

Showtime had a scripted series based on this book bearing the same name that got canned after two seasons. I haven't watched that, so can't say how it compares to the book. However, Showtime also now has a five-part documentary series called The Comedy Store that makes me think of this book because they both cover many of the same events and famous names in the club's history, though the docuseries and book don't appear to be related. The series pales in comparison, however, giving little depth to events and people, and scant life to its story. If you really, really dig comedy, you'll find a small bit of interest in the documentary series as well. But if you watch it, you'll get more out of it if you've read this book first.

Note: I read this book in 2016 at a time when I was taking a break from blogging. I reviewed it for Goodreads, though, and I'm belatedly adding that review of this fascinating book here, fleshed out with more thoughts on it as well as the new documentary on The Comedy Store.

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