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

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

William Knoedelseder

Language: English

Pages: 304

ISBN: 158648317X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

In the mid-1970s, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams, Elayne Boosler, Tom Dreesen, and several hundred other shameless showoffs and incorrigible cutups from across the country migrated en masse to Los Angeles, the new home of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. There, in a late-night world of sex, drugs, dreams and laughter, they created an artistic community unlike any before or since. It was Comedy Camelot—but it couldn’t last.

William Knoedelseder was then a cub reporter covering the burgeoning local comedy scene for the Los Angeles Times. He wrote the first major newspaper profiles of several of the future stars. And he was there when the comedians—who were not paid by the clubs where they performed— tried to change the system and incidentally tore apart their own close-knit community. In I’m Dying Up Here he tells the whole story of that golden age, of the strike that ended it, and of how those days still resonate in the lives of those who were there. As comedy clubs and cable TV began to boom, many would achieve stardom.... but success had its price.

I Am the New Black

Anything for a Laugh

I Remember Me

The Bigger Book of Gross Jokes












hundred seats times three shows equaled $24,000, not a penny of which went to the comics. It seemed all the more unfair a little later when one of the Comedy Store waitresses stopped in at Canter’s and mentioned that she had made $214 that night. Two Saturday nights later, Dreesen arrived at the Comedy Store for his 9 p.m. set and was informed by one of Mitzi’s assistants that instead of performing in the Original Room, he would be appearing in the Main Room, along with four other comics. “No

as an angry confrontation in which Dreesen had thrown Williams against the wall and threatened to punch him. “Why do you think they call him Robin,” was one joke going around. “Did you hear that Canter’s now has a Robin Williams sandwich?” went another. “Yeah, they give you the bun, but you have to steal the meat.” There was a measure of envy in the meanness. Williams had everything, all the talent, success, and money the others dreamed of. So, the idea that he would stoop to steal material on

disappointments of Dante Shocko and Lubetkin & Evans, she was giving him good spots again. He’d been working at Westwood three or four nights a week, including New Year’s Eve. He had recently played the La Jolla club for the first time, earning $250 for eleven performances over five nights. In addition, he’d recently earned $175 for eleven performances at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach. So that came to $425 in a single month, which was a pretty big deal to him, given that he’d earned less than

one has been allowed to showcase [perform for agents, managers, or producers] on the weekends. And it’s not really a workshop anymore. If you bomb in there, you don’t continue to work in there. She recently told a comedian he was ‘too experimental.’” Tom Dreesen said that even though he was earning as much as $15,000 a week in Vegas, “I had a [club owner] offer me $250 a week recently. He said, ‘Well you work for free at the Comedy Store.’ We’ve got the best show in town for $4.50. We did

sounds like Ollie.” After the cops left, reassured by Shore that it was all just a misunderstanding, a terrified Ollie Joe Prater admitted to several people that he had phoned in the bomb scare—he just never imagined those calls were taped. The atmosphere on the picket line was also growing increasingly tense. Whereas the first week was highlighted by such playful stunts as Leno, dressed as Che Guevara, wheeling up in a Volkswagen “Thing” painted in camouflage to resemble an armored personnel

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