The death of Comedy Store matriarch Mitzi Shore last month adds a nostalgic hook to the return of "I'm Dying Up Here," the fictionalized Showtime drama inspired by the famed club and those who passed through it on the road to stardom. But perhaps a more poignant thread focuses on toxic aspects of success and self-destructive behavior by comedians who "made it," many of whom have died too young.
"I'm Dying" is one of several shows that deal with the stand-up world, including HBO's "Crashing" and Amazon's "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Yet where the first season of this 1970s-set drama dealt with the struggle to earn stage time and land a coveted appearance on "The Tonight Show," the second enters a new phase, with some of the comics starting to break through, from albums to touring to in one case gaining fame and riches from a sitcom role.
Achieving their goals, however, doesn't appear to solve many of their problems, which range from drug abuse to gambling to other harmful excesses.
Showrunner Dave Flebotte noted that Tom Dreesen, a veteran comic who serves as a consultant on the show, recalls Johnny Carson telling him, "Most people can handle struggle. One out of 100 can handle success."
While the show takes place decades ago, these issues also remain timely, given the long history of comedians who reached the apex of their field, only to meet tragic ends.
In 2011, The Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada responded to the suicide by comic Richard Jeni's suicide and Greg Giraldo's fatal drug overdose by installing an on-site psychologist at his club, providing a resource to the performers. Fans were shaken again by Robin Williams' suicide three years later.
"There is something when you get your validation through applause or getting up on stage, exposing yourself like that, and it's hard to sustain," Flebotte said.
This season's additions to the "I'm Dying" cast include Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond") as Roy Martin, a Vegas legend who gets into business with Goldie, the Shore-like character played by Melissa Leo. While the young comics envy him, Martin is also troubled, morose and mindful of every slight he experienced on the way up, telling one of them, "The gift of success is now you can love your hardship."
In "The History of Comedy," a 2017 CNN documentary series, comics spoke about how the highs associated with stand-up comedy are intertwined with darkness and lows, with Patton Oswalt saying comics tend to be "very sensitive to humiliation" and "a little damaged."
Flebotte describes the show as "a drama about comedy," a challenging marketing proposition that might be a factor in why the concept struggled to find an audience in its first season. Although building a series around "the tears of a clown" is a well-worn concept, like any good comedy, it's grounded by an undercurrent of truth.
"I'm Dying Up Here" begins its second season May 6 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.