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Who Gets the Last Laugh?

August 13, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

I'm Dying Up Here is about what it's subtitle suggests: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy's Golden Era. The people pictured on the cover -- David Letterman, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Andy Kaufman -- are some of the central players in the drama -- and it is a drama, despite the plethora of jokes retold -- that author William Knoedelseder lays out before us. But there are other characters that make up the dramatis personae, less well-known comics who always seemed to be left on the cusp of success. Their stories, which aren't generally the ones that make it into show-biz chronicles, are what prove most moving here and lend another layer of meaning to the title.

Knoedelseder is identified in the bio provided by the publisher PublicAffairs as having worked at the Los Angeles Times, executive producer of Fox Entertainment News and The Philadelphia Inquirer's television news program "Inquirer News Tonight," as well as vice president of news at USA Broadcasting. He's also the author of Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business and the Mafia.

A Mass Migration

The tale he has to tell in his new book stretches from the mid-1970s, when people like Leno and Letterman, Robin Williams and Elaine Boosler -- plus hundreds of other aspiring comics -- migrated from all over the country to L.A., spurred on by the fact that Johnny Carson and "The Tonight Show," one of the major showcases for young talent, had been relocated from New York to the West Coast. Knoedelseder was a cub reporter at the L.A. Times when all this entertainment ferment began and he was called into his editor Irv Letofsky's office one day and told that "there was something happening on the local comedy club scene that had the feel of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s."

Letofsky predicted that stand-up was about to explode, and he was putting Knoedelseder in charge of that particular beat. Talk about somebody who was blessed with being in the right place at the right time. For the next two years, the eager young reporter "had stage-side seats at the best show in show business."

"I was at the Comedy Store the week Robin Williams first erupted on to the L.A. scene," he writes, "and I spent a quiet afternoon at the beach with him in his final hours of obscurity before 'Mork & Mindy' hit the air. I sat slack jawed one evening as Andy Kaufman performed his entire stage act, complete with three costume changes, for an audience of two on the patio of my house and then wanted to wrestle my eight-months-pregnant wife. I spent a surreal night on the town with Kaufman's alter ego, Tony Clifton, and was present on the set the day Clifton was fired from his guest-starring role in 'Taxi' and then wrestled off the Paramount Studios lot by security guards. I met and wrote about Jay Leno, David Letterman and Richard Lewis before the world knew who they were. I watched the funniest people of my generation get up on stage alone and try and fail and triumph. And I laughed my ass off."

Knoedelseder's book is also about the two clubs, the Comedy Store and the Improv (and especially their owners), where most of these young comics got a chance to test out their material, without being paid a cent, though often their very presence attracted masses of well-paying customers. It's also a tale of excess and abuse -- of alcohol and all kinds of exotic drugs, and the havoc they can wreak. And finally it's about how these comedians rebelled against the club owners and demanded to be paid -- even a minimal amount -- and the strike they called that changed their world forever and, according to Knoedelseder, broke apart their once tight-knit community.

But I'm Dying Up Here is also about some of those comedians who, for all their considerable talent, were never able to break in and what they suffered for their lack of what seems sheer luck.

Take Steve Lubetkin, for example. It's always a hoot to read about these performers' early triumphs during their period of obscurity, but with a guy like Lubetkin, who seemed to have such promise, it becomes increasingly painful to watch him as he appears to get stuck at about mid-career. His letters home asking for money and clothes simply in order to stay afloat are difficult to read. And when he finally comes unstrung after the strike is settled and he believes he's been blackballed from performing at the Comedy Store, where he was a rising star, the simple depiction of his descent into madness -- and what it did to his best friend and "blood brother," Richard Lewis -- is truly heartbreaking.

 

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