Tuesday, September 08, 2009

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

The late 70's stand-up comedy boom changed American comedy almost entirely.
This comedy was different--it was hard to define but it was easy to see what it wasn't. It wasn't corny old schtick like Henny Youngman or Borscht Belt reruns a la Buddy Hackett. It wasn't what was filling the big rooms in Vegas like Don Rickles nor was it the counterculture comedy of Carlin, Cheech nor Chong. It was a strange animal and the rules were being re-written with each set. Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman--as comedic styles go, they had little in common but they were all nurtured in the same scene, if not born in it.

The story starts off following Richard Lewis and his best friend, Steve Lubetkin, as they meet, learn the ropes and hope like hell they'll make it. Stand-up is starting to flourish at a few small clubs in New York where guys like Lewis, Boston's Jay Leno, and others up-and-comers are making lower-case names for themselves.

Then the whole comedy scene moves West to LA, mostly to Sammy Shore's Comedy Store, which really hit its stride when Shore's wife, Mitzi, takes over. She transformed the joint from a passable stage to the launching pad of the biggest acts in the business. What's crazy was that, somehow, she got all these comics to perform for free while she charged a cover. There's no doubt Mitzi really believed in these comics but she also took tremendous advantage of them, having them paint the club or pick up her dry cleaning.
Mitzi Shore comes off as totally self-absorbed and exploitive but she knew funny.

In 1979, Shore had opened her third or fourth Comedy Store in the LA area and was raking in enough dough to live the Cadillacs and cocaine lifestyle of the time. Meanwhile,
many of the young guys couldn't afford breakfast after performing; others were living in their cars while they worked toward stardom so some of the more established comics (Leno, Tom Dreesen, Elayne Boosler, among them) decided it was time to even things out. They approached Mitzi with an idea to pay a small "stipend"; gas money, mostly, but Mitzi wouldn't budge. She was convinced The Comedy Store was a workshop, a college, and when they really learned their craft, naturally, they'd be famous comedians.

As absurd as it sounds, the comedians went on strike and it forever changed relationships among the comics. Feelings were hurt, deep friendships were ruined, and as the strike dragged on, Mitzi showed herself to be completely out of touch with reality. When the comedians offered her a way to settle the strike, her response was "Not. One. Fucking. Red. Cent."

There are some terrific stories within the larger story. I was struck by the real sense of fraternity among the comics; they'd fix each others set, give each other material and really look out for one another. Interesting as well is that an entire generation has no idea how close Letterman and Leno were before the legendary showdown over Johnny's job. Now they're Jay and Dave (in fact, Jay's new show begins airing this week).

The only drawback to the book is the author overreaching. I almost tossed the book when, on page 14, the author described Richard Lewis' love of Greenwich Village clubs this way: "...where Warholian hipness permeated the walls and the smell of grass and the sound of Dylan still wafted in the air." Permeatin' the walls, is it?
Wafting, eh? Uh-huh. If you can get past sentences like that it's a quick, engrossing and very enjoyable book.

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