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

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

William Knoedelseder

Language: English

Pages: 304

ISBN: 158648317X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In the mid-1970s, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen, and several hundred other shameless showoffs and incorrigible cutups from across the country migrated en masse to Los Angeles, the new home of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. There, in a late-night world of sex, drugs, dreams and laughter, they created an artistic community unlike any before or since. It was Comedy Camelot—but it couldn’t last.

William Knoedelseder was then a cub reporter covering the burgeoning local comedy scene for the Los Angeles Times. He wrote the first major newspaper profiles of several of the future stars. And he was there when the comedians—who were not paid by the clubs where they performed— tried to change the system and incidentally tore apart their own close-knit community. In I’m Dying Up Here he tells the whole story of that golden age, of the strike that ended it, and of how those days still resonate in the lives of those who were there. As comedy clubs and cable TV began to boom, many would achieve stardom.... but success had its price.

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to lose an arm.” In George’s act, the teenager replied sarcastically, “Why, thank you very much, ma’am. Could you suggest a few other ways?” If there had been a contest for worst-dressed comic, Miller would have won walking away. As far as anyone could tell, he’d worn the same rumpled brown sport coat and baggy corduroy pants every day for years, and he apparently owned a closet full of hideous shirts. The only wardrobe upgrade he ever invested in was an occasional new pair of deck shoes. Miller

pullin’ a gun outta there.’” After counting eleven applause breaks, he closed with an endearing appeal to the crowd. “You’ve been a wonderful audience,” he said. “And because this is my first appearance here and show business is such a tough life, I’d just like to say this to you: If you liked me and you are a Protestant, then say a prayer for me. If you are a Catholic, then light a candle. And if you are Jewish, then someone in your family owns a nightclub, so please tell them about me. Thank

room—“Yeah? It won’t be the first time you’ve used my material”—all goosed along gleefully by a beaming Leno, dressed as of old in well-worn jeans and a rumpled denim shirt and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mike Binder, with whom he’d had a painful parting of the ways more than two decades before. In that moment, they all seemed transformed. The years fell away. Suddenly, it was the mid-1970s. They were twenty-something, bubbling with ambition and bursting with dreams. No one was rich; no

comics short of a union contract between AGVA and the Comedy Store,” he said in a statement, “because the CFC is not certified by the U.S. Department of Labor as a bargaining unit. We’re the only union that’s chartered to handle a situation like this.” What’s more, Ackerman claimed that an invisible picket line still existed around the club and threatened to reactivate a “physical” line with AGVA members unless the Comedy Store came to as yet undefined terms with the union. “Walking into that

$2,500 a week would ask for $10,000, and they’d settle for $8,000, and six months later the club would be out of business.” “The strike was a great lesson for how to conduct your career, in terms of being a business person and learning how things work, and getting a little gumption to stand up for yourself and knowing what things are worth, and how to put a contract together and negotiate,” said Elayne Boosler. “It was sort of a jumping off point.” It wasn’t just the headliners who did well.

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