on I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era, by William Knoedelseder (Public Affairs)

My daughter Jenny got the call while working in Los Angeles: Lorne Michaels wants you back for a second audition in two weeks on August 20th -- create five more characters. On September 8, she began work as the 122nd cast member of “Saturday Night Live” in its 35th season on NBC. To make room for Jenny, a female comic hired last year was fired. jen.jpgFor the past five years, Jenny did stand-up in Williamsburg and Manhattan with her comedy partner Gabe Liedman, and this summer a one-woman show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, all for no pay.

Eighteen million viewers tuned in to the premier of Jay Leno’s new show on September 14. But he told the New York Times that NBC booted him off “The Tonight Show” despite perennially beating Dave Letterman in ratings.

leno.jpgAs William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here suggests, Leno has enjoyed an almost unbroken run of success. But like every other comic in New York and LA in the 70s, he got into the business through sheer drive and ambition, often working for no pay just to sharpen his material. Back then, he and Letterman were friends, impressed with each other. Before telling the story of their famous rift, Knoedelseder says, “Letterman observed about Leno’s act that he won over the audience by treating them as if they were a group of his hip friends.”

comiccover.jpgSNL debuted on October 11, 1975 with George Carlin as host. By gathering a group of improv comics, Michaels brought a new style of comedy to TV, bucking the stand-up model. But when Johnny Carson took The Tonight Show to Burbank in 1972, the comedy world shifted with him to the west coast. At Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store, hopeful stand-up comics queued for an unpaid slot with the dream of getting the call from Carson’s office. Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Freddie Prinze, Elaine Boosler, David Brenner, Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, and Sarah Bernhard all worked on Mitzi’s stage. She was their patron, not their employer. At the Comedy Store and at Budd Friedman’s Improv West, comics could work out their material and learn the ropes – for no pay. Williams went straight to “Mork and Mindy,” Freddie Prinze to “Chico and the Man.” Like most of their colleagues, Williams and Prinze had cocaine for breakfast. Prinze flamed out. Leno, Letterman and a few others were notoriously sober.

I’m Dying Up Here, Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era is a lively, informed, and moving chronicle of the era. The narrative works like a double-strand spiral. He tells the stories of the interlaced careers and friendships of those who made it and those who failed or faded out. But also, the narrative progresses toward the spring of 1980 when over 200 comics protested the no-pay policies of the two main clubs by setting up picket lines, hiring lawyers, and doing their own publicity. Female comics, in disfavor with Carson and running into interference, had additional gripes.

letterman.jpgBy the late 70s, Pryor and Williams were millionaires but they joined their penurious comrades. Only eighteen comics broke ranks, including Gary Shandling. Buddy Hackett extolled the “necessary evil” of the clubs on “The Tonight Show” and criticized the younger people. But when Letterman did his first guest host appearance on Carson’s show during the walk-out, he brought on Tom Dreesen, the comic leading the Comedians for Compensation. After the show, Letterman skipped out of the post-show briefing and joined his fellow comics on the picket line. The next day, Mitzi Shore relented.

kaufman.jpgThe anecdotes are entertaining enough to make a history, but Knoedelseder offers more. He knows these people. He saw Robin Williams’ debut show at the Comedy Store and “spent a surreal night on the town with Kaufman’s alter ego, Tony Clifton, and was present on the set the day Clifton was fired from his guest-starring role in Taxi.” I’m Dying Up Here is spoken from the inside of the business and the lives of its characters. He writes with the rhythm of a fully involved feature journalist, moving about deftly to create the sense of the raucous times and the emergence of irrepressible talents.

No figures were more respected by their peers than Leno and Letterman. There is no hagiography in this book, but both comics come across as committed to their less successful and often strung out or ill friends. I’m Dying Up Here begins with the funeral of comic George Miller and ends with the death of Steve Lubetkin who was undone by a string of near-misses. Richard Lewis, whose life and career ran in parallel to Lubetkin’s, is also featured.

Ed Wynn once said that a comedian isn’t a person who says funny things. A comedian is one who says things funny. I’m Dying Up Here is a funny book, quoting the comics and observing their lives together. But the laughs are screened by the portrayed authenticity of their often highly stressful world. These are people who could or would do nothing else but be comics, even if it killed them. It’s all my daughter has ever wanted to do.

[Published August 31, 2009. 304 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

On I'm Dying Up Here

The amazing and varied talents of the Slate family make their mark yet again. Congratulations!

Ron, thanks for letting us know about this book as well. Besides adding SNL back to my viewing list, you've added another title to my reading list.

Congratulations!

Ron, congratulations! I'll look for your daughter the next time I tune into SNL...