David Flebotte, creator and executive producer of Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, has two decades of experience writing for television. His credits include comedies like Ellen, dramedies like Desperate Housewives, and straight-up dramas like Boardwalk Empire. He knows how to create compelling characters, storylines, and dialogue. But writing I’m Dying Up Here, the new Showtime drama that centers on a bunch of stand-up comedians vying for stage time at a club called Goldie’s in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, presented a new challenge for the veteran scribe–he not only had to write stand-up routines, he had to do it for multiple characters.
“It’s harder to write the funny stuff,” Flebotte says. “The bombing stuff–it comes easy to me.”
Flebotte has some experience doing stand-up–and not doing it well by the way. A native of Hanson, Massachusetts, he performed at open mics at Boston comedy clubs and was not a natural. “You could see me thinking, and the really good stand-ups, it seems like they’re talking to you. It’s a conversation. For me, it was like I might as well have been reading my jokes,” he says. “It was hard for me to hide my nerves, the questioning of my competence, the sweat.”
The stand-ups that make up the ensemble on I’m Dying Up Here don’t always have great sets, but they all show promise. Among the comedians Flebotte had to write for are Clay (Sebastian Stan), a comic from Boston, who, in the pilot, lands a coveted spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, kills with a routine about his Italian-American upbringing and seems destined for stardom; Bill (real-life stand-up Andrew Santino), a bitter comic, who stews over the success of others and can’t always contain his anger onstage; Cassie (Ari Graynor), a Texan in search of a style of comedy that works for her; Ralph (Erik Griffin, another experienced stand-up), a Vietnam veteran with little tolerance for hecklers; Sully (Stephen Guarino), the wild man; best buddies Eddie (Michael Angarano) and Ron (Clark Duke), two fresh-faced, fearless newbies who have just come to L.A. from Boston; and another young upstart named Adam (RJ Cyler).
These characters are all fictional, though the series is inspired by William Knoedelseder’s nonfiction book I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak & High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era, which tells the stories of how legends like Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, and Jay Leno honed their acts at the legendary Comedy Store back in the day. Flebotte read the book in two days and was inspired. “I got into it. I love comedy, and I thought, this is a really cool world. This has a ton of possibility, and once I got over the idea that there were factual people that were there and started to create composites of different characters, it started to come together in my head as something that would be really fun to do,” he says.
After Flebotte created his own cast of characters and got to know their motivations, what drove them to the stage, it was then a matter of channeling their individual comedic voices when writing their stand-up bits, which he did with the help of co-executive producer Michael Aguilar for the pilot. “It was a relief to have someone to bounce stuff off of,” Flebotte says. “He’s really good at jokes, so between the two of us, we hammered out the stand-up.”
While the show is set in the 1970s, and there are some references in the material that fit the time period (in the opener, Bill dares to joke about back-alley abortionists in the wake of the Roe v. Wade ruling, and Cassie has a bit on her pet rock), the humor is relatable. “We erred on the side of contemporary, just because we didn’t want it to just feel like dated comedy,” Flebotte says.
The 1970s marked a new era in stand-up, which “had evolved from setup/punchline to monologues about sex, about personal stuff, about loss,” Flebotte says, citing comics like Richard Lewis, who stormed the stage with his anxiety. “You had this much more personal brand of comedy.” And we see Cassie experiment with that kind of personal storytelling in the opener.
That style of comedy played to the strengths I’m Dying Up Here writers like Dave Holstein (Weeds) and Cindy Chupack (Sex and the City). Jim Carrey, who is an executive producer, was also a regular in the writers’ room, regaling everyone with tales of his career in stand-up that they could draw from. Al Madrigal and Jerron Horton, who both play comics on the show, pitched in, too, helping to craft the comedy so it would sound more organic.
Madrigal, a former correspondent for The Daily Show, who has been doing stand-up for more than 20 years, actually wrote 90% of the material for his character, Edgar Martinez, a Mexican comedian, who uses his heritage to get laughs. “If there is a second season, we’ll probably bring in another stand-up writer to help,” Flebotte says, noting, “There was one episode–episode five–that had so much stand-up. It was painful, the amount of time it took to write it.”
All of the material was tested at table reads, not the most comfortable venue to do stand-up. “At a table read, it’s brutal because there’s no atmosphere,” Flebotte explains. “You’re just doing stand-up, and it can be excruciating when you’re just sitting at a table with a bunch of writers and executives starting at you.”
It was when the episodes were being filmed on the set of Goldie’s, a comedy club on the show that is based on the legendary Comedy Store, with the stand-ups performing onstage in front of an audience of extras that Flebotte was really able to get a sense of what material worked and what didn’t. “It’s different when you see it up on its feet, and there’s a crowd. What’s good is our extras–they don’t know what’s coming, so they’re just responding like an audience,” he says. “For the first couple takes, you’re getting genuine laughter and genuine response.”
Bits that bombed–and were not meant to bomb–were routinely rewritten, or dropped. And, since this comedy was for a scripted TV show, the directors were able to direct reactions, asking for less laughs or big belly laughs, depending on what was called for in the scene. “But the reactions were usually pretty genuine, which is helpful,” Flebotte says. “It gives the actors energy, and it gives the place energy, and it feels like a club.”