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Audience reactions make this week’s I’m Dying Up Here an uncomfortable experience

This is not the best show to parse the difference between cool and uncool.

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I'm Dying Up Here

"The Cost Of A Free Buffet"

Season 1 , Episode 3

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Just about everyone knows by now that a pitfall of any fictional work with an arts or entertainment-centric setting is revealing a character’s masterful novel, universally beloved blockbuster, or brilliant work of comedy and opening it up to judgment. I won’t go as far as to say this dangerous decision requires a sample work of actual genius; obviously, if the people behind, say, the Entourage movie actually knew exactly how to make a beloved award-winning blockbuster, they would probably just go ahead and pitch that, rather than working on Entourage. But suffice it to say that even if just snippets of an award-winning blockbuster are provided, they should probably not look like that movie’s shockingly non-satirical Hyde.

The stand-up comedy of I’m Dying Up Here should go down a little easier. These characters aren’t winning awards; they’re winning over crowds of a couple hundred people at a time, tops. There is plenty of middling material in the show, but there is also plenty of middling material in stand-up routines that sell out theaters or even stadiums. Where I’m Dying Up Here gets itself into more trouble in its third episode is less with the comic routines themselves (which are generally not great, but that’s something to which we few regular viewers of Dying Up Here, we Die-hards as we’ll be known on the convention circuit, should have quickly grown accustomed) and more with how its characters react to them.

I’m not talking only about reaction shots of characters or audience members laughing at various jokes. Again, this is believable, even with a routine that’s kind of shrugworthy. Some people laugh at mediocre jokes; I’ve seen it happen! (Maybe even firsthand.) I’m talking more about how certain reactions are meant to reveal things about the characters, a technique that’s mishandled all over “The Price Of A Free Buffet.” One of the most noticeable missteps involves guest star Judy Gold, playing a Catskills-trained comedian and old friend of Goldie. The episode sets up a division between the younger, hipper comics coming up in the early ’70s and the shtickier old guard represented by Gold’s character. Ari Graynor’s Cassie is a focal point of this division, because she’s a female comic trying to find her voice, and bristles at the audience expectation that she’ll be more like, well, a brassy old-school Catskills-trained lady honking out one-liners. As such, she rolls her eyes at the old guard. By the end of the episode, she’s one of several comics won over by this veteran’s honesty and experience, even if they don’t howl at her on-stage jokes.

This turn goes from predictable to downright bizarre, though, when the show accidentally reveals that the Gold character doesn’t sound wildly more out-of-date or corny than many of the “cooler” comics that take the stage at Goldie’s. Instead of a late-breaking revelation that she’s cooler and savvier than she appears, it seems like the show still hasn’t realized how (to borrow a designation from Almost Famous) uncool its central comics can be; the differences in sensibility are never as clear-cut as the show seems to think. It’s possible that I’m Dying Up Here is making a trenchant point about the way a younger generation of artists might turn up their noses at what came before not because it’s wildly different in style but because it’s, well, what came before. But if that’s the kind of nuance this show is after, it has only failed more nobly than I’m assuming.

It’s a shame, because “Free Buffet” has moments that hint at a smarter analysis of audience reactions. There’s a throwaway bit that catches Roger merrily laughing at a comic doing lamely self-deprecating fat jokes, much to the disgust of one of his peers. The scene isn’t there to elevate the material on-stage or even to denigrate Roger’s taste; it’s a wonderful, even joyful admission that yeah, sometimes less than top-tier material can make us laugh for whatever silly reason.

This moment ties into a subplot where Goldie’s right-hand man Arnie (Jon Daly) takes a semi-inexplicable shine to a ventriloquist comedian. As the ventriloquist uses his hateful little dummy as an excuse to act like a hateful little dummy himself, spewing racist and sexist invective even when he’s offstage, most of the other comics grimace – but Arnie insists that it’s a work of social satire, putting a mirror up to society’s racism, sexism, and so on. The idea of a talent-spotter weirdly besotted by (and respectful of!) a dummy act is pretty funny, even if it demands that thanks to Jeff Dunham; he’s the only reason that it might not be accurate to say that at this point, jokes about creepy/cheesy ventriloquists are hackier than actual ventriloquism comedy.

But the show can’t leave well enough alone and turns the ridiculously creepy ventriloquist into a moment of truth for Arnie, when he’s forced to reckon with whether this guy might actually just be a regular racist using comedy as a crutch. Again, this could be an interesting story about a white man confronting his own biases. But the episode stacks the deck so relentlessly by having the guy confide something that might as well be phrased, “you know, my act may traffic in racism and the like, but it’s not just an act – it accurately reflects my beliefs, and I get a real thrill out of airing those horrible beliefs in public.” (It then chases the ventriloquist’s comeuppance with an anti-racist team-up routine from Adam, Ron, and Eddie that sounds suspiciously like contemporary improv rather than anything resembling stand-up comedy.)

What’s maddening about this particular episode of this particular show is how often everyone says this kind of stuff out loud, even in smaller moments. At one point, Goldie explains the comedy food chain in no uncertain terms – terms so not uncertain, in fact, that everyone in and watching the show should know them already (if they weren’t expressly stated in the previous two episodes, they might as well have been). After a dark set featuring jokes about her parents’ death goes largely unappreciated by many of Cassie’s peers and much of her audience, a few women come up to tell her explicitly that they appreciate her edginess and honesty.

Maybe there isn’t a more dramatically interesting or viable way to show that Cassie is reaching a small but grateful portion of the crowd, but it’s still cringeworthy to hear non-characters validate a set of jokes. Comedians obviously depend on their audience for some degree of validation. Plenty of TV-watchers, though, have no such need.

Stray observations:

  • I guess the actual main storyline for this week was about how shrimp is really delicious, and whether it’s unfair for Goldie to disallow her comics from performing at another club which serves them free food. I guess the answer was: Eh, who knows? Seemed like kind of a dick move to me. I love writing for The A.V. Club but I wouldn’t take kindly to being told to give up my other freelance gigs, or my podcast, or shrimp, in order to do so.
  • I also found that diner scene, where the “cool” comics engage in kind of an insult stand-off with the even-younger, even-hungrier comics nipping at their heels, surprisingly lame, from the predictable battle lines to the canned nature of the elaborate, monologue-length topper RJ Cyler’s Adam delivers to the inevitable ending in respect for his comic prowess.
  • No matter how hackneyed I’m Dying Up Here gets as it traffics in the reactions its comic routines elicit, it’s still got a ways to go before it matches the insane hubris of presuming that not only would it be good for a live sketch comedy show to open with a smug Gilbert & Sullivan parody, and not only would it not be greeted with the sound of thousands of television sets being forcefully ejected out of windows nationwide, but that this Gilbert & Sullivan parody would set a nerve-racking standard for the show to live up to in subsequent weeks.