Hit or Sh**: Showtime’s I’M DYING UP HERE

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.

i'm dying up here

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While we may be nearing the end of the post-modern era, comedy has become more introspective and meta in recent years. Humor-based media now pushes the boundaries of self-awareness, with the majority of shows operating off of—and making dramatic changes to— the SEINFELD blueprint for comedies about comedians. LOUIS, ATLANTA, INSECURE, CRASHING, BETTER THINGS, MASTER OF NONE, THE CARMICHAEL SHOW, BROAD CITY, and countless other shows obsessed with meta humor have become required programming for all networks and streaming services. These shows make us laugh, usually hard and often, but that doesn’t always feel like their primary goal. They’re more like vivisections of the starring comedians, with piles of soul-searching and self-critical honesty more blunt than a Swisher-smoking cudgel. I’M DYING UP HERE represents the next logical step forward: a drama about comedians.

Centering around the Comedy Store-inspired Goldie’s Comedy Club, I’M DYING UP HERE explains how comedy got to where it is today by deconstructing the Great Comedy Boom of the 1970s. Ignited by comedic institutions such as George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, America’s nightlife was dominated by comedy clubs for a solid two decades. What better time than the midst of what may very well be the second comedy boom to give audiences a lesson on comedy’s ironically sadness-riddled history?

The pilot opens with young firebrand comic Clay (Sebastian Stan), living the dream: doing a set on THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON. He kills, much to the jealousy-tinged pleasure of his fellow comics watching back at Goldie’s. After the show, Clay checks into a hotel, eats a meal, and walks in front of a bus. A wonderful depiction of the depressingly common price of comedic excellence, dampened somewhat by a heavy-handed foreshadowing conversation about Mt. Everest with his then-girlfriend Cassie (Ari Graynor), delivered via flashback.

Look at those eyes and tell me she doesn’t snort real cocaine for her scenes

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Showtime demonstrates astronomical ambition with I’M DYING UP HERE. The execution of those ambitions works about three-quarters of the time. A talented, balanced cast lays the foundation for every successful scene, managing to carry the show through occasional writing missteps; the weaving of dialogue and exposition is pretty rough, and the surreal material feels out of place. I followed along with loose cannon Edgar tripping during Clay’s death announcement and the career-hungry Adam jerking off in front of a dying priest for money because those were funny enough scenes, but it distracts from the gritty, painful realities the bulk of the show stands on. The stand-up material, conversely, comes across as seamlessly accurate, with just the right ratio of kills/bombs to capture the all-or-nothing nature of joke-telling. Cassie, one of the more important members of the ensemble cast, delivers a moving finale-capping monologue on Goldie’s main stage that forces the audience to examine the thin line between pain and laughter.

Pictured: How to make it in Hollywood

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Ultimately, I’M DYING UP HERE will succeed or fail by how it handles its core conflict, which ostensibly is the ensemble of comics competing to voraciously kiss the ass of Goldie (Melissa Leo), the vicious matriarch that owns her eponymous club. Leo gives us the strongest performance of the pilot, really selling the manic energy of a coke-addicted kingmaker that love/hates her comedic proteges like her own children. She’s woefully underused though, and more time has been given to the milquetoast Eddie and Adam thus far.

I’M DYING UP HERE has a clear vision of shining the prestige drama light onto the world of comedy, and I’m on board with that mission 100 percent. However, it still remains to be seen if the execution can remain solid enough to warrant its grand ideas. I’ve been convinced to follow this series for at least a few episodes more, mostly because I think they’ve got the proper cast and honed focus to overcome its weak spots. Alternatively, those weak spots could easily become the dominant aspect of the show and ruin it. There can be no middle ground for I’M DYING UP HERE; it’s the sort of show that succeeds wildly or fails spectacularly. I can’t wait to find out which.

Verdict: Sh** Probation

I’M DYING UP HERE airs on Sundays on Showtime

Dan Blomquist is a guest contributor for Crossfader and writes about important things sometimes, but mostly about television. He believes that memes are the future and that free will is an illusion.

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