William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak And High Times In Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era is part jocular mythmaking, part social crusade—a hard double act to sell if ever there was one. Knoedelseder finds a call to union with a kitschy twist in his ’70s stories, but loses the crowd after an abrupt gear-switch away from fluffy anecdotage.
Knoedelseder covered stand-up as a cub reporter at the Los Angeles Times, but he begins I’m Dying Up Here in New York City at the meeting between Richard Lewis and Steve Lubetkin, part of a small knot of would-be comics (including a young Jay Leno) breaking onto the stand-up scene in the early ’70s. The first half of the book covers their unglamorous arrival in Los Angeles. As Mork & Mindy soared in the ratings, television producers saw budding stand-ups as an easy talent buy; Freddie Prinze’s lucrative TV deal, created after a set at the Comedy Store led to an appearance on The Tonight Show, made small-screen stardom look attainable even to stage newcomers. Performers hoped to get a big break before going broke, a feat considering that the Store never paid its non-headlining performers, and other local clubs followed suit. In 1979, the comics who had been filling seats at the Store for years decided to strike for compensation, enlisting the help of marquee names like Richard Pryor and David Letterman to take a stand against club owner Mitzi Shore.
Though Knoedelseder never draws this parallel, it’s hard not to think of the echoes of the ‘79 strike in the recent, much longer WGA strike, particularly in Shore’s stubborn insistence that the comedians didn’t deserve to be paid. Their struggle is compelling, but diluted by being teamed with Behind The Music-style tales of struggles with drugs and personal demons, which don’t buttress the comics’ case for compensation. Knoedelseder also gets bogged down in the strikers’ behind-the-scenes politics, interrupting choicer anecdotes about Johnny Carson’s secret support and Bob Hope’s words of encouragement. And while Knoedelseder establishes the importance of the Comedy Store in comic history, he never fully justifies why no other club could step into the void during the 1979 strike. Ultimately, only stand-up enthusiasts will come for the opening act of overnight fame and stay for the laughless bid for legitimacy that followed.