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Jeff Simon: 'I'm Dying Up Here' is a solid retelling of the 1970s comedy scene

Live and learn.

Here's a story from my life about Richard Pryor at Los Angeles' Comedy Store that I didn't really understand until watching five episodes of "I'm Dying Up Here," which begins its run Sunday on Showtime.

After his 1978 heart attack, Pryor was reported all over the Los Angeles Press and trade papers to be coming back to the Comedy Store to try out new "heart attack" material. The place was packed -- not least with every working comic in Los Angeles. A friend of mine had just interviewed the club's legendary proprietor Mitzi Shore so she had two precious tickets for that night. She brought me with her.

Pryor couldn't do his act. Almost all he could do for 15 minutes was stand there and listen to a loving, shrieking out-of-control crowd scream "we love you Richard!!"

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Funny thing, though: He had been preceded onstage by Robin Williams, who had killed, as the comics like to say.

Following Williams at a comedy club was like following a multi-car pileup on the freeway. After the mayhem has subsided, the audience is more ready for a nap -- or a quiet drink -- than 20 more minutes of orgiastic hilarity.

Why on earth would the ultra-canny Shore FOLLOW Williams with Pryor on an all-important night in his recovery?

The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

I get it now, after watching all the bruising jockeying for performance position on "I'm Dying Up Here." She knew that the crowd would be ready to tear the club apart after Williams and that Pryor would never be able to do demanding "new material" of questionable popularity. Following Williams, who expressed nothing but outsized love for St. Richard, The Patron of Undiluted Standup Recklessness, was a way of ensuring that Pryor would have nothing but supportive audience love while being simultaneously relieved of the responsibility of doing potentially dire material that might have been a good deal less than everyone hoped. (To see how brilliantly it turned out -- and how dangerously physically demanding it would have been -- see "Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip," filmed months afterward.)

Shore was as brilliant as her reputation at that culturally seminal moment in America.

A lightly fictionalized version of Shore -- named "Goldie" -- is played terrifically by Melissa Leo in "I'm Dying Up Here," the newest mind-boggling television addition to the Sunday night orgy of great premium TV ("Twin Peaks," "The Leftovers," "American Gods," etc.) that no one can capture simply with a DVR. (On Demand for later viewing is also necessary.)

To be the den mother of American comedy in the '70's -- to, among others, David Letterman and Jay Leno, when they were close friends, as well as Jimmie Walker, Elayne Boosler, David Brenner, Roseanne, George Carlin -- made Shore one of the hidden giants of American culture and one of the shrewdest women in America.

Comedy exploded in the 1970s, almost hand-in-hand with investigative journalism. Put those things together over the past decades and you've got a good part of what almost half of America despises about the "lamestream media" in our era (while the other half swears by it).

A funny thing happened in the aughts of the new century: We had two extraordinarily brilliant books, from different perspectives, about comedy in the '70s and its radical transformation of the American brain and way of life: Richard Zoglin's "Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America" and William Knoedelseder's "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up's Golden Era."

It's the latter which formed the basis for the series, while being vastly better than the TV show produced by creator Dave Flebotte, Jim Carrey, Michael Aguilar and Christina Wayne, however solid that show is.

Carrey is one of those whose careers was born in the Comedy Store in the '70s -- one of "Mitzi's Boys" at the beginning until the whole place was torn apart by a job action the comics called a strike but which more resembled a boycott (Shore regarded the club as a "school" and never paid the performers. Both Pryor and Bob Hope significantly disagreed.) Carrey tells us that some of the show's stories were from his own life, notably the actual closet he lived in while he was a marginally employed Hollywood comedy hopeful, trying to get Comedy Store performing time.

Says Carrey about the that era: "There was a dream that would catapult people to the stars and that was 'The Tonight Show.' And we all came out and gathered around the heat of that and were happy for the best. ... I lived in that closet and I woke up the very first morning in the house that I lived in to walk out in the kitchen to find a beautiful girl with no pants on and making bacon. 'Wow.' That line 'Hollywood, brother' is kind of how I described it."

That's in this weekend's first episode, when we meet the denizens of "Goldie's."

By no means does all of the fictionalized material come from Knoedelseder's book. A scene in which "Goldie" is slapped by her comedian ex-husband because she gave him a bad performing spot in her club is based on a story you'll find in Zoglin's book. The slap caused her to drop that night's cash receipts on the floor.

There IS a character playing Pryor in the story but he's safely dead and legendary so you can get away with portraying almost anything. Almost everyone else is a composite.

The people who play the roles are mostly young comics and actors but the heart of the show thus far -- besides Leo -- is Ari Graynor as Cassie, the comic whose feminist awakening parallels a lot of female comics at the time, notably Boosler.

The establishment of an all-female "belly room" inside the club is key to the opening episodes of the series. In the fourth -- and best -- episode that I've seen, the revelation for women in comedy of their true secondary places in their profession and their world, is handled with power and subtlety both.

That episode is up there with the best of Sunday night "premium TV.

Most of it, on the other hand, is a very good, if somewhat compromised treatment of a subject which needed a cable network to explore. After all, Cable TV and its freedoms were instrumental to the explosion of the comedy business. A great series about its origins should be a natural. So should a good one, which this is.

It's solid and sturdy, most of the time, if not exactly great.

There's plenty of rough language and by-the-way sordidness but not so much that it is in any danger of sinking viewer sympathy for the struggling comics. Coke is snorted matter-of-factly in bars and coffee shops, sex is had equally as matter-of-factly in parking lots and young comics go to work as handymen in upscale coastal brothels.

It's all presented, though, as a tough, roughhouse apprenticeship.

This, it seems, is the ribald Carrey's-eye-view of The Comedy Store he came of professional age in.

When a comic in the club may or may not have committed suicide after his first taste of success on Carson, there's talk of where the memorial service should be.

Comics in the club ask each other "should we try to book a church?" (I love the use of the word "book" in this context.)

No, says Goldie. "We're in one."

Well, not really. But in its way, "I'm Dying Up Here" captures the spirit of the people who might have thought so.


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