News

6 Comedy Lessons From the Cast of I'm Dying Up Here

Al Madrigal, Erik Griffin, and Andrew Santino school us on making strangers laugh.

by | June 1, 2017 | Comments

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard” is a quote comedians have made famous since it was first uttered by Edmund Kean on his deathbed in 1833. Many people already fear public speaking. Add to that the pressure of having to make the crowd laugh, and that’s the job that stand-up comedians sign up for. And when they bomb, it feels like dying.

Showtime’s new series, I’m Dying Up Here, is a drama about stand-up comedians in the ’70s. Jim Carrey lends his wisdom as executive producer, and the series is based on the nonfiction book by William Knoedelseder. Showtime’s version is set in a fictional stand-up club in Los Angeles, however. Melissa Leo plays Goldie, the club owner. Michael Angarano, Ari Graynor, Clark Duke, RJ Cyler, and more play aspiring comedians battling for stage time.

Three of the cast members are actual stand-up comedians: Al Madrigal also got to write on I’m Dying Up Here, and he’s joined by fellow stand-ups Erik Griffin and Andrew Santino. The trio of comics spoke with Rotten Tomatoes before the premiere of the show about the process of stand-up comedy. Each have a new stand-up special airing this year on Showtime. Al Madrigal: Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy has already aired and is still available on Showtime Anytime. Andrew Santino: Home Field Advantage premieres Friday, June 2, and Erik Griffin: The Ugly Truth premieres Friday, July 7. Here are six lessons in stand-up they shared.


1. THE TRICK IS TO SOUND SPONTANEOUS

A good stand-up sounds like they just walked on stage and started unloading all their personal baggage to the paying customers. The truth is they’ve been rehearsing for hours, in private or even in front of other audiences before you.

“I think the best compliment you can receive is not ‘Oh, that was really funny,’ but, ‘Is that the first time you said that?’” Griffin said. “It’s something that you’ve said a thousand times, but if somebody says to you, ‘Oh my God, is that the first time you’ve done that?’ you know that performance was where you wanted it.”

When it’s been part of the act for years, it only gets harder for the comedian to make it seem natural.

“That’s one of the hard parts is performing a bit for the thousandth time and making it seem like [it’s the first],” Madrigal added.

In some cases, comedians have to do jokes they’ve grown tired of as if they’ve just thought of it on the spot.

“Still pretending to like it is hard because there are some bits that you hate,” Santino said. “You’re bound to hate them because you’ve done ‘em so much, but you know they work well and you’re shaping something around it. You have to do it to get to the next place.”


2. BE YOURSELF

If you try to do someone else’s schtick, it’s not going to work. Only Jerry Seinfeld can do Seinfeld jokes, and only Richard Pryor could be Richard. Don’t try to be the next Sarah Silverman or Kevin Hart. Just be the first you.

“All these new comics are trying to go out and shock, especially female comedians are now trying to be as crude as possible just to get attention,” Madrigal said. “I think trying to mimic what Sarah’s doing. It’s all got to come from somewhere. There has to be some meaning behind it. Amy [Schumer] is that person. Sarah is that person. If you’re trying to manufacture anything, it just doesn’t work. If people try to assume what people want, and they’re not really being themselves, that never works.”

On a side note, stop trying to sound like you think a stand-up is supposed to sound.

“When they first start doing comedy, new comics or even people that have only been doing it three or four years, they’re doing an impersonation of a stand-up,” Griffin said. “This is what I think a stand-up should sound like.”

Santino added, “Some people never get out of that.”


3. HUMAN DIFFERENCES ARE STILL THE BUILDING BLOCKS

A lot of comedians got a lot of laughs doing variations on “Men are like this, women are like that.” The good ones are still doing it, but they’re so good, you don’t notice they’re still pointing out the same gender foibles.

“That premise is still used today in some of your favorite comics,” Madrigal said. “It’s just a more clever way of saying it. Men and women inherently are different. Ninety-nine percent of Louis C.K.’s bits are all about women are this way, men are this way. It’s just his spin is significant. His spin is so clever and different.”

Universal struggles go beyond men vs. women, Madrigal pointed out: “When [C.K.]’s like, ‘Kids are —holes,’ he talks about that in a way that’s like, ‘Parents and children are different.’ We’re all taking from these similar worlds. It’s just how you do it.”

When it gets into “black people vs. white people,” that’s a little touchier, but many comedians have done brilliant — and healing — jokes about racial differences. On I’m Dying Up Here, Madrigal plays a Mexican comic, Edgar Martinez.

“My character had to do ‘Mexican and white people are different,’” Madrigal said. “That was my entire act. In the ’70s and ’80s, that’s how people made a living. People got rich off ‘Men and women are different.’ People got rich off ‘New York is different than L.A.’”


4. LEAVE THE PAST IN THE PAST

Comics of the ’70s laid the groundwork for all the comedy to come, including the stand-up we enjoy today. George Carlin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Richard Pryor were already honing their craft back then. A comedy historian himself, Madrigal warned viewers that the original material won’t make them laugh like the new stuff.

“The stand-up wasn’t that good,” Madrigal said. “In 1973 you had these pioneers of stand-up, so anything that they’re saying is outrageous. There’s no doubt that a lot of those comics paved the way for others, but everything that they were doing at this point was groundbreaking.”

Madrigal was quite disappointed to research Freddie Prinze and find he didn’t laugh at his then-acclaimed material.

“It was all horrible,” Madrigal said. “It really was. I couldn’t believe it, and people were dying because, at the time, it was groundbreaking comedy — to be able to talk about those different races like that. Any comic at the Comedy Store gets up and does ‘Puerto Ricans talk like this, and Italians talk like this, and white people talk like this,’ they’d be run out of the room.”

The characters on I’m Dying Up Here have to do ’70s appropriate comedy. That’s just the gig.

“The fear is that people are going to watch the show and judge the stand-up versus understanding that it’s that time period.” Santino said. “I don’t think you could do some of those bits today, because they just wouldn’t be edgy enough, it wouldn’t be sharp enough.”


5. GO AFTER THE AUDIENCE

Don Rickles was perhaps the most famous insult comic, and he was onto something, according to Madrigal. Madrigal is a big fan of improvising with the audience. Even in a room full of extras in I’m Dying Up Here, the producers let Madrigal go off script and insult the extras. He thought it was important to include comedy that wasn’t all rehearsed and scripted.

“I tried to do as much crowd work as I possibly could do and get away with,” Madrigal said. “I actually picked on extras. I’m not sure how much of that made it in, but I knew that is always the best part for me. When you go to a comedy club, you get to see, ideally, this unrehearsed, improvised material mixed in with crowd work. Hopefully, that makes its way into the show.”


6. EVEN A-LISTERS HAVE TO WORK IT

You can go into The Improv or The Comedy Store and see a super-famous headliner comedian bomb. Then you can see that comedian do a stand-up special and kill with the same material. Everyone has to work it to find the perfect wording and rhythm.

Chris Rock’s great at that,” Griffin said. “He’ll come to the Comedy Store and say, ‘Hey, lower your expectations.’ Then like a week later, he’ll come back and his stuff is like pow, pow, pow.”


I’m Dying Up Here premieres June 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

Tag Cloud

based on movie women zombies vampires franchise 1990s Apple TV+ Tubi revenge Ghostbusters IMDb TV Fox Searchlight 007 Comics on TV ESPN Peacock Country finale live action know your critic Broadway renewed TV shows Reality Heroines Winners cooking Adult Swim leaderboard Fantasy 2015 Binge Guide RT21 fresh Bravo Turner Writers Guild of America high school football target 20th Century Fox best Disney Plus Tumblr Instagram Live war dexter BBC One fast and furious Election TIFF latino french strong female leads trailers die hard critic resources Lucasfilm Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Super Bowl Netflix free movies doctor who CBS parents Captain marvel TV renewals tv talk space PaleyFest police drama godzilla comic book movie Infographic Wes Anderson dreamworks Holiday TCA Cannes Holidays The CW Character Guide SundanceTV spanish See It Skip It ABC Signature deadpool quibi Sneak Peek TV One History BET transformers psychological thriller HBO Go canceled TV shows Crunchyroll indiana jones Interview Rocky films justice league sitcom Trivia marvel cinematic universe Endgame Star Trek satire Walt Disney Pictures Paramount Network The Walking Dead Anna Paquin Paramount Plus joker Nat Geo OneApp Nickelodeon christmas movies trophy book adaptation serial killer Animation YouTube Elton John spain golden globes debate Mary Poppins Returns halloween cops Tokyo Olympics APB 2021 anthology Amazon Prime theme song Watching Series Pop harry potter Awards venice ratings Comic Book period drama remakes hidden camera canceled Discovery Channel telelvision VOD Black History Month DC Comics HBO New York Comic Con game of thrones Turner Classic Movies NBC Logo cats Marathons GoT rotten movies we love Tomatazos spy thriller Family Lifetime 99% PlayStation GLAAD SXSW disaster golden globe awards scary movies Kids & Family political drama casting Warner Bros. Grammys Mary Tyler Moore reboot mcc all-time Lionsgate scary A&E crime RT History book emmy awards olympics singing competition Chernobyl biography Teen international Schedule Showtime CW Seed 71st Emmy Awards Apple TV Plus rom-coms archives concert Valentine's Day YouTube Premium james bond social media mission: impossible Baby Yoda VICE stand-up comedy Film Festival Image Comics children's TV sag awards dceu Masterpiece 4/20 Alien BET Awards Neflix Tarantino monster movies kids Trailer Television Critics Association cancelled TV series Winter TV dark Avengers festival psycho a nightmare on elm street aapi Trophy Talk Quiz Pet Sematary E! australia A24 TBS unscripted talk show Women's History Month genre Hulu Podcast Universal razzies Comic-Con@Home 2021 2017 Ovation Pixar 72 Emmy Awards Sundance batman south america scene in color Arrowverse crossover Action AMC Plus royal family crime thriller pirates of the caribbean biopic WGN mob LGBT Creative Arts Emmys foreign FXX Ellie Kemper versus teaser blockbusters japan comic books ABC X-Men historical drama 2018 Box Office Set visit IFC Rock comic book movies Countdown cancelled television Marvel Television E3 documentary witnail robots Rom-Com zero dark thirty Fox News spider-verse series comics DirecTV The Walt Disney Company natural history boxoffice feel good cults ID indie Martial Arts Pride Month docuseries jurassic park game show CNN Amazon docudrama TV worst movies Fargo TCA Awards critics TV movies Pirates Mindy Kaling independent Fall TV streaming medical drama superhero Film asian-american name the review Acorn TV movie Oscars Cosplay hollywood BBC Pacific Islander Food Network FOX FX on Hulu 21st Century Fox Polls and Games heist movie new zealand black GIFs Premiere Dates Television Academy DGA Classic Film Star Wars king kong award winner Emmy Nominations Legendary adenture cancelled TV shows The Arrangement obituary chucky MSNBC rt archives Comedy Central Disney streaming service posters kaiju saw dragons reviews new york science fiction Toys El Rey USA Network San Diego Comic-Con Marvel Studios Comedy TruTV Thanksgiving festivals WarnerMedia werewolf Drama hist Sundance TV Video Games hispanic SDCC toy story animated composers TV Land Marvel nature First Look halloween tv television comedies Amazon Prime Video toronto Horror President screenings streaming movies rt labs critics edition slashers sequel TNT live event Hallmark Red Carpet The Witch comiccon new star wars movies Lifetime Christmas movies Summer spanish language jamie lee curtis YA Pop TV documentaries what to watch Emmys ghosts discovery Exclusive Video stop motion romance Disney Rocketman adventure Musical First Reviews Hear Us Out DC streaming service travel Spectrum Originals marvel comics Stephen King 24 frames MCU ViacomCBS 2016 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Black Mirror NBA USA directors MTV Travel Channel spinoff Starz rt labs sports laika elevated horror true crime hispanic heritage month FX YouTube Red breaking bad Certified Fresh DC Universe BAFTA Esquire basketball cancelled video anime adaptation 2020 Freeform Awards Tour rotten National Geographic superman Disney Channel 2019 Music miniseries scorecard legend news Biopics blaxploitation Sci-Fi popular universal monsters Sundance Now cars Sony Pictures Syfy cartoon richard e. Grant VH1 video on demand PBS action-comedy screen actors guild binge Netflix Christmas movies Western nfl diversity cinemax art house criterion Photos Cartoon Network Calendar italian thriller The Purge Disney+ Disney Plus Superheroes BBC America Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Columbia Pictures CMT Apple 93rd Oscars boxing TLC aliens lord of the rings zombie Spring TV Crackle Funimation gangster Academy Awards Spike CBS All Access Hallmark Christmas movies Nominations Paramount sequels twilight Best and Worst spider-man Mudbound black comedy Brie Larson ITV slasher vs. classics Amazon Studios supernatural technology romantic comedy mockumentary TCA 2017 worst Mystery Epix American Society of Cinematographers Reality Competition Christmas The Academy green book stoner Year in Review blockbuster Universal Pictures wonder woman japanese 73rd Emmy Awards king arthur comic Extras crime drama TCM OWN 45 nbcuniversal Song of Ice and Fire HBO Max Musicals dogs child's play dc mutant kong Shudder Opinion dramedy sopranos Dark Horse Comics Vudu IFC Films ABC Family Shondaland prank LGBTQ 90s TCA Winter 2020 facebook Britbox politics Superheroe Mary poppins AMC suspense NYCC young adult movies