Goldie's gold: Melissa Leo stars in '70s stand-up comedy drama 'I'm Dying Up Here'

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Kyla Brewer / TV Media
Clark Duke as seen in "I'm Dying Up Here"

Clark Duke as seen in "I'm Dying Up Here"

The '70s were known for a lot of things: feathered hair, disco and what many considered the golden age of stand-up comedy. Legendary performers such as Jay Leno ("The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"), Robin Williams ("Good Will Hunting," 1997) and David Letterman ("Late Show With David Letterman") rose through the ranks of L.A.'s iconic the Comedy Store.

But while their material may have been hilarious, their personal lives were not always filled with laughter. A new series takes a look at the serious side of the stand-up comedy business and the toll it can take on the performers. Melissa Leo ("The Fighter," 2010) stars as comedy club owner Goldie Herschlag in "I'm Dying Up Here," airing Sunday, July 9, on Showtime. The series is a fictionalized version of the bestselling book by William Knoedelseder, "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Age," which chronicled the era that saw the rise of some of the entertainment industry's biggest stars.

Leo's Goldie is loosely based on real-life starmaker Mitzi Shore, who founded the Comedy Store in 1972 and became the owner two years later. Now a legend, Shore was a pioneer in the stand-up circuit, among the first to give female comedians an exclusive stage, and later hosting specialty nights for Latino, gay and lesbian performers. 

In an interview with CBS News, Leo talked about her similar character's penchant for funny people.

"She knows funny from not funny, and that's all she's interested in," Leo said. "She doesn't care if you're a boy or a girl, black or white, Chinese -- she doesn't care. She cares if you're funny."

The casting of the Academy Award-winning actress as the brassy comedy club owner created a lot of buzz in the industry prior to the show's premiere Sunday, June 4. Goldie uses her own unique brand of tough love as she nurtures the comics in her charge, who are determined to make it to the top.

In those days, the "top" was a gig on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." When Carson moved "The Tonight Show" from New York to the West Coast and started featuring comics from the Comedy Store, aspiring comedians flocked to L.A., sparking a golden era of standup. If you did well enough for Carson to invite you to sit on the couch, you had it made. He became the yardstick by which everyone measured funny. In "I'm Dying Up Here," Dylan Baker ("Spider-Man 2," 2004) portrays the legendary Carson. 

The rest of the cast consists of a mix of actors and actual stand-up comedians. Known for her roles in such series as "The Sopranos" and "Fringe," Ari Graynor has established herself as an up-and-coming actress. In "I'm Dying Up Here," she portrays up-and-coming comic Cassie Feder, an ambitious comedian struggling to find her style. Actor Clark Duke ("The Office") stars as Ron Shack, a comic who travels to L.A. from Boston looking for fame. Michael Angarano ("Sky High," 2005) plays Ron's traveling buddy and fellow aspiring comedian Eddie Zeidel, while R.J. Cyler ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," 2015) plays struggling standup hopeful Adam Proteau. SAG Award nominee Jake Lacy ("The Office") joins the regular cast in the July 9 episode. He'll play Nick Beverly, a stand-up comic who gained notoriety for blowing off his scheduled appearance on "The Tonight Show" a few years ago. Not everyone is happy to see Beverly return to the scene.

Ari Graynor stars in "I'm Dying Up Here"

Ari Graynor stars in "I'm Dying Up Here"

The rest of the main cast has firsthand experience as comedians. Andrew Santino ("Sin City Saints," 2015) appears as Bill Hobbs, an audience favorite at the comedy club. Sketch comedy veteran Stephen Guarino ("The Big Gay Sketch Show") livens up Goldie's stage as zany comic Sully Patterson. Erik Griffin ("Workaholics") stars as Ralph Carnegie, a stand-up comedian who's also a Vietnam vet. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" alum Al Madrigal has landed a role as Edgar Martinez, a bit of a loose cannon, even by '70s standup standards.

Having two very distinct approaches could hinder a production, but, according to Leo, the comedians have been learning about acting from the actors, and the actors have been learning about comedy from the comics. "We're all sharing together," she explained.

Comedians share their expertise behind the scenes as well. Madrigal serves as a consulting writer for the drama, which includes experiences inspired by the life of a once-struggling comic who found fame thanks to his work on the comedy circuit: Jim Carrey ("Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," 1994), an executive producer of "I'm Dying Up Here."

Creator David Flebotte ("The Sopranos") is the main writer for the series. Flebotte has been a prolific producer and holds some impressive writing credits for such series as "Desperate Housewives" and "Will & Grace." In 2015, it was announced that he and Carrey had snagged a pilot deal to adapt Knoedelseder's book for premium cable television. Like Carrey, Flebotte has firsthand experience from which to draw. Prior to his career as a producer and writer, Flebotte was a stand-up comic himself.

Their insight, combined with some remarkable performances, lends authenticity to the show about an era fondly remembered by so many. Join Goldie and her protégés for a look at stand-up comedy's past in "I'm Dying Up Here," airing Sunday, July 9, on Showtime.