Sunday, April 29, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy's Golden Era" by William Knoedelseder

I'd never heard of this book, but it popped up on some list of titles under $3 available for the Kindle, so I tried a sample. I whipped through that pretty quickly, so the few bucks weren't much of a consideration as I wondered what came next.

Written by a reporter who covered the comedy club scene in L.A. for the Los Angeles Times, the book focuses primarily on a period between 1972 and 1979, when a new and distinct generation of comedic talent broke through into the entertainment industry, and into television in particular. 

Johnny Carson moved "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank in 1972, and when he did, the local comedy scene took off in a big way as the scouts who used to look for talent in NYC looked for new standups a little closer to the new home. Back then, if you wanted to make it as a comic, you had to play for Johnny. There just weren't that many places for standup comedians to play on TV, so if you could kill the audience, if you could break up Johnny, and most especially if you could get the "OK" sign from him at the end of your five minutes, you had it made. You were blessed, and you were going to get work. You might headline in a real night club, or you might get a TV deal, or you might open for someone big in Las Vegas, and to kill on Carson was the surest way there.

But to get on Johnny's show, you had to be seen by one of his scouts. How to be seen by a scout? Enter Mitzi Shore. At around the same time as Carson's move to the west coast, Shore took over a ratty little club, "The Comedy Store", that her husband owned as a kind of clubhouse for him and his friends, and turned it into a showcase for young and emerging talent. Jimmie Walker, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Tom Dreesen, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Elayne Boosler, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman—all got, if not their starts, then huge exposure in "The Store". 

If not THE Golden Era, it certainly was A Golden Era, for this generation, at least. The comics worked for free, grateful for a stage and mic to try their material in front of an audience, hopeful that a scout, an agent, or a network executive might be in the audience that night and like what they saw and heard. They often did. Jimmie Walker went on to "Good Times," Freddie Prinze to "Chico and the Man," Robin Williams to a one-shot on "Happy Days" that led straight to "Mork and Mindy". David Letterman's 30-plus-year career in late-night television is traceable back to his time at "The Store" and his work as emcee.

But not everyone was as lucky. A struggling comic named Steve Lubetkin makes recurring appearances in the story, never quite in the right place at the right time, never with the right material that fit the tenor of the time, never with the look or the delivery that got noticed, never with the breakout bit that made him the star he so desperately wanted to be. He seems to be a stand-in for Everyone Else, all of the others who took the stage at "The Comedy Store" or "The Improv" or "The Laugh Factory" and didn't get a TV pilot or a chance to open in Las Vegas. Most probably headed back to the real world and took straight jobs, regaling friends and coworkers with stories about knowing Jay or Dave back in the day. But some had things end tragically, like Lubetkin, who jumped from the roof of the hotel next door and to his death in the parking lot of "The Store." 

Lubetkin's death came in the midst of a walkout by the comics over a lack of compensation for their work for Shore. They argued that the dynamic had long since shifted from people coming to a club for some drinks and getting to see a comic to people coming specifically to see comics and getting to have some drinks. The comics were the draw, and while some had been able to parlay their sets at "The Store" to steady paying work, many had not. It struck Tom Dreesen as deeply unfair that a comic who had killed the night before, who had managed to make a room full of people laugh and applaud and buy another round, was reduced to begging $5 from one of the headliners for breakfast, especially after the members of that audience had paid a cover charge ostensibly to "cover" the cost of the entertainment. 

"Comedians for Compensation"—CFC—was formed as a way to bring the grievances to Mitzi Shore and to try and find a way to get the up-and-comers a little something—$5 a set as "gas money"—and to recognize the comics as talent worth compensating. Shore countered that the club was a showcase—a workshop or a college, even—where the comics could take their material, try it out, and hone it into something polished. That experience could lead to bigger and better work, and the cover charge and bar receipts helped her to cover her expenses in keeping the place up and running. 

The strike and its negotiations take up a considerable part of Knoedelseder's book, which, at the equivalent of about 170 pages, isn't that long to begin with. It's hardly a comprehensive history of that period, and I'd be hesitant to term it, or probably any era, as a Golden Era of standup. Certainly there were comics working on the east coast at the same time who were pushing their own boundaries; the eighties brought a boom in outlets for comedians, both on stage on and TV; and the nineties and early 2000s brought in an alt-comedy scene that remade things yet again. The generation that came before—Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Robert Klein, et al—could lay claim to the idea of a standup being a sui generis talent in itself. But it is hard to deny that, in that time and in that place, there was a considerable concentration of talent and ambition, and that it was shaped and nurtured by Mitzi Shore.