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.


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.”


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.”


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.’”


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.”


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.”


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

comiccon politics Shondaland toronto Summer technology scary movies remakes Lucasfilm Amazon Prime Apple Masterpiece Syfy BBC America critics dragons Biopics crime drama Netflix Turner canceled james bond green book Tarantino Cannes concert 2015 binge black comedy Ovation crime heist movie Mindy Kaling SXSW versus Fox Searchlight BET Awards Marvel Studios target new zealand Image Comics Mystery aapi Pop Hallmark YouTube Premium ViacomCBS what to watch award winner Hear Us Out Sneak Peek venice zombie serial killer comic books animated FX live event Peacock Rom-Com Academy Awards cancelled TV series Exclusive Video scary all-time south america Neflix Tomatazos Paramount Plus unscripted Warner Bros. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Marvel Television spider-man indiana jones Pop TV Tokyo Olympics blaxploitation gangster high school Song of Ice and Fire women Freeform TCA Winter 2020 Pirates pirates of the caribbean Focus Features Britbox 007 Food Network FXX National Geographic international screenings screen actors guild Hallmark Christmas movies Dark Horse Comics Super Bowl NBA a nightmare on elm street Crunchyroll black Calendar boxing ABC debate TCA 2017 video on demand Classic Film spider-verse Nominations Bravo aliens prank slasher children's TV cults comic book movie art house cats diversity renewed TV shows Spike HFPA nbcuniversal obituary sequel Mary Poppins Returns Video Games MGM Lifetime Emmys video hollywood Musicals Reality 99% 93rd Oscars Christmas Emmy Nominations superman live action latino VICE Thanksgiving festival mockumentary SDCC IFC golden globe awards crime thriller Trophy Talk Black History Month ITV feel good book adaptation Chernobyl History 1990s adenture Endgame summer preview MCU obi wan Spring TV Martial Arts DGA canceled TV shows Best Picture Year in Review marvel cinematic universe nfl Epix trailers TCA New York Comic Con Shudder 2020 Television Critics Association Best Director biopic X-Men El Rey marvel comics Musical Trivia Winter TV japanese elevated horror psycho universal monsters 2018 reboot Tags: Comedy mob CBS All Access CMT witnail GLAAD Winners The Walt Disney Company olympics YA scorecard HBO TCA Awards Brie Larson king arthur revenge USA Watching Series Walt Disney Pictures Superheroe natural history Vudu free movies Adult Swim toy story Fargo IFC Films 2017 nature Apple TV+ Best and Worst Box Office vs. The Purge scene in color films ratings godzilla Netflix Christmas movies rotten sequels Disney streaming service satire zero dark thirty political drama Heroines adaptation CW Seed vampires OWN spinoff Interview comics comic rt labs casting OneApp Alien classics TV One period drama comic book movies SundanceTV 72 Emmy Awards rt labs critics edition Film Festival news South by Southwest Film Festival spy thriller LGBTQ cars science fiction breaking bad Action First Reviews batman 4/20 A24 Starz American Society of Cinematographers 45 20th Century Fox RT History Cartoon Network Drama theme song Animation AMC child's play VH1 Mary poppins movie mcc Women's History Month GIFs Comedy Central football BET chucky Sundance TV true crime hist Comedy HBO Go TruTV leaderboard dc Binge Guide war Paramount Network know your critic Schedule new star wars movies Cosplay Tubi Fantasy Pride Month WGN TCM Rocketman suspense thriller 24 frames Ellie Kemper cartoon Teen anime monster movies Toys Paramount Pictures Amazon hidden camera indie Universal telelvision Chilling Adventures of Sabrina streaming spanish language Legendary cops Comics on TV 2016 NBC Valentine's Day posters romance summer TV Character Guide Paramount The Walking Dead YouTube Film Universal Pictures Sundance Now Avengers golden globes 79th Golden Globes Awards Amazon Prime Video VOD strong female leads deadpool FOX Discovery Channel Horror Music Best Actress SXSW 2022 social media 2019 worst movies basketball werewolf Infographic DirecTV Awards Tour mutant composers docudrama ABC Signature summer TV preview 21st Century Fox directors Mary Tyler Moore TV movies ABC Family documentary Turner Classic Movies Marathons Red Carpet 90s Broadway adventure cancelled Holiday Kids & Family DC streaming service emmy awards Anna Paquin stop motion supernatural saw game show christmas movies stoner Photos independent kids Fall TV Fox News Comic Book space A&E Western 73rd Emmy Awards Funimation Wes Anderson talk show 71st Emmy Awards ID NYCC Black Mirror Oscars trophy documentaries Trailer rom-coms superhero travel dceu E! mission: impossible Sony Pictures finale TV hispanic sag awards dramedy RT21 President AMC Plus robots dark PlayStation The CW Instagram Live dogs television Nickelodeon Acorn TV Prime Video police drama australia cooking Set visit crossover laika 2021 Writers Guild of America TNT biography USA Network HBO Max jurassic park streaming movies Elton John Baby Yoda tv talk based on movie criterion TV Land king kong See It Skip It Disney richard e. Grant Grammys Disney Channel twilight singing competition CNN zombies BBC Hulu genre Travel Channel Lionsgate Hollywood Foreign Press Association movies medical drama Rocky stand-up comedy Family cancelled television disaster worst DC Universe fresh harry potter quibi action-comedy Pixar Arrowverse anthology Ghostbusters game of thrones spain Countdown blockbusters San Diego Comic-Con halloween tv LGBT Country die hard Showtime razzies rt archives Columbia Pictures kaiju foreign GoT fast and furious Creative Arts Emmys popular Pet Sematary wonder woman Certified Fresh 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Star Wars critic resources Amazon Studios asian-american Election book Comic-Con@Home 2021 broadcast doctor who PaleyFest joker sports Opinion Apple TV Plus Extras hispanic heritage month kong best FX on Hulu The Arrangement discovery lord of the rings teaser justice league Disney+ Disney Plus rotten movies we love WarnerMedia PBS Premiere Dates MSNBC blockbuster Logo TIFF 94th Oscars new york Esquire archives ghosts french APB Awards docuseries ESPN The Academy Sci-Fi Stephen King series Captain marvel Pacific Islander legend miniseries comedies Television Academy TLC Rock name the review Quiz japan jamie lee curtis dexter young adult historical drama TBS franchise streamig dreamworks slashers First Look Best Actor Reality Competition The Witch Star Trek boxoffice facebook BAFTA Superheroes parents E3 Nat Geo TV renewals MTV royal family transformers italian Sundance Disney Plus BBC One sopranos Tumblr festivals Polls and Games Oscar Crackle cinemax spanish cancelled TV shows psychological thriller reviews Mudbound Marvel halloween romantic comedy sitcom CBS DC Comics Holidays Lifetime Christmas movies Podcast Spectrum Originals IMDb TV YouTube Red