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

David Letterman Kayaking

David Letterman on CBS’s Battle of Network Stars, 1978

Based on a passing recommendation by Marc Maron on his podcast, I just read I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder.  It’s a juicy group biography about the late 1970s/ early 1980s scene that developed around Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store in L.A. and the emergence of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, and Richard Lewis, along with some now comparatively lesser-known figures, like Letterman’s best friend George Miller, whose 2003 funeral begins the story, and Elayne Boosler, who is a key figure in the development of female stand-up — I wrote about her in re: the book We Killed: the Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen a while ago.  (Interesting parallel between the two book titles – a lot of killing & dying in stand-up.)  Another significant lesser-known player in the narrative is a guy named Steve Lubetkin, a comic who was Richard Lewis’s best friend and whose tragic arc of disappointment provides a throughline for the book.

Letterman and Leno both come across as, along with Richard Pryor (whom they all worship) and Robin Williams, probably the most talented of the bunch, also standing out for their sobriety (neither one did drugs, un-coincidentally) and their generally hard-working, stable qualities.  Letterman especially is depicted as a mensch who is universally liked and respected by his peers, which was a little bit of a surprise given how well-known he is today for his prickly qualities; there’s a joke in the book about how he is known for his loyalty to old friends, and for the fact that he had not made a new friend since 1979 when his career started to take off.  There are some charming photos of Letterman and various others in uniform in 1979 on the Comedy Store “Bombers” basketball team that would play pickup games at the Van Nuys YMCA.

I had not realized how close Letterman and Leno had been.  “They quickly formed a mutual admiration society, watching and learning from one another.  Night after night at the Comedy Store, when they weren’t onstage, they were standing together in the back, taking it all in, studying everything.  Their fellow comics came to think of them almost as a team, connected by an ampersand like Abbott & Costello.”  That changed later.

The second half of the book is about the labor dispute that erupted when all the comics in Mitzi Shore’s stable asked her to consider paying  a token payment (as little as $5 per set was first proposed, as gas money!) for their shows.  The concept was always that the Comedy Store was a “showcase” where comics could work on their acts and gain visibility, and thus did not need to be paid.  This stopped making as much sense when the club was grossing thousands of dollars a night, and some of the performers who had not managed to land lucrative gigs elsewhere were still sleeping in their cars because they did not earn a penny.  The strikers eventually triumph, more or less, but the book depicts the strike as a necessary and just cause that nevertheless marked the end of an era of camaraderie and relative innocence in the scene.  Letterman comments at the end, “I have undying affection for those times and for all those people, because the older I get, the more I realize that they were the best times of my adult life.”

One shocker for me was that Gary Shandling was part of the small group of comics who sided with management against the working comics who went on strike.  “Gary Shandling was the scion of a family with manufacturing holdings and decidedly antiunion views. He had not shared the struggling comic experience.”  Once he crossed the picket line, Mitzi Shore rewarded him with a regular standup gig that he hadn’t previously been able to attain.  “Regarding Gary Shandling, the only strikebreaker who went on to achieve bona fide stardom, [one of the main strike organizers Tom] Dreesan said [years later], ‘I wish him all the success in the world.  He’s a funny guy as a good writer, but as a human being, as a man, I don’t have any respect for him.'”

Very disappointed about Shandling’s role in this!

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