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

SXSW unscripted Valentine's Day Lifetime Masterpiece Amazon Prime Video crime thriller TruTV tv talk free movies TCA 2018 YA Biopics robots Winter TV disaster book Horror romance sequel E! casting adventure PBS Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt DirecTV Sundance breaking bad Film Festival christmas movies Pirates Hallmark Christmas movies ABC Family 45 2019 Food Network Stephen King Binge Guide Martial Arts thriller ratings elevated horror crossover Nominations RT21 dc halloween San Diego Comic-Con technology Comic Book Premiere Dates dramedy Writers Guild of America Mary Tyler Moore Awards true crime HBO Marvel Television Epix Sci-Fi psychological thriller TCM revenge renewed TV shows Watching Series kids Cannes latino Toys Pop Universal cooking Podcast Lionsgate supernatural Freeform Oscars cancelled television Drama cartoon zombies joker Hallmark CW Seed facebook Star Wars Summer FXX Apple Nat Geo game show Disney+ Disney Plus Trailer Starz The Walking Dead toy story Arrowverse First Reviews police drama political drama Emmy Nominations Acorn TV Captain marvel Elton John TV renewals SDCC Rock Avengers comics politics Dark Horse Comics movies anthology Super Bowl teaser finale spanish language Netflix cats Shudder Fantasy Nickelodeon dceu TLC Trivia miniseries Ovation romantic comedy travel Calendar space canceled TV shows Christmas discovery Amazon TV Land First Look video historical drama theme song streaming Mary poppins Tumblr Musicals Marvel Studios Lucasfilm Action Cartoon Network Grammys Mindy Kaling 2015 Red Carpet ABC National Geographic Sony Pictures children's TV werewolf WGN serial killer Song of Ice and Fire Syfy Family singing competition screen actors guild Crunchyroll science fiction APB 71st Emmy Awards Netflix Christmas movies GIFs richard e. Grant Music TV hispanic spain Rocketman BET X-Men USA Network YouTube Sundance Now MSNBC The Purge Spike Infographic Quiz Pet Sematary Superheroe DC Universe cancelled game of thrones Character Guide Adult Swim biography Fox News History rotten movies we love Mudbound AMC blaxploitation Chilling Adventures of Sabrina adaptation ESPN Holiday NBC cults Sneak Peek See It Skip It spy thriller psycho Schedule zombie Showtime Disney streaming service RT History E3 natural history Pixar PaleyFest Western foreign DC Comics series Turner USA batman BBC America TBS cops Fall TV Certified Fresh Box Office The Arrangement crime drama festivals Best and Worst Paramount MCU Year in Review what to watch Black Mirror Tarantino Awards Tour animated 2017 President Teen Hulu Lifetime Christmas movies Superheroes YouTube Premium sports 2020 war slashers anime SundanceTV Pride Month Tomatazos nature Video Games mutant Mary Poppins Returns Creative Arts Emmys TNT Amazon Prime TIFF justice league spider-man award winner Interview Animation Heroines Ghostbusters Vudu Chernobyl HBO Max Mystery Turner Classic Movies Extras 24 frames Women's History Month Paramount Network Television Academy A24 aliens Opinion WarnerMedia talk show jamie lee curtis Photos sitcom Disney Channel mockumentary diversity medical drama boxoffice 21st Century Fox El Rey based on movie period drama Comedy Central Walt Disney Pictures Apple TV Plus Classic Film comiccon cars Brie Larson binge CMT Ellie Kemper IFC sag awards NYCC ITV Warner Bros. 2016 Comedy hist 007 The CW transformers Crackle dragons DC streaming service TCA 2017 Spring TV MTV docudrama television quibi zero dark thirty witnail GLAAD cancelled TV series Spectrum Originals Columbia Pictures Peacock FX cinemax comic Disney Plus strong female leads Comics on TV canceled Film crime Rocky cancelled TV shows GoT spinoff Polls and Games Trophy Talk CNN Cosplay Kids & Family stand-up comedy Thanksgiving CBS 20th Century Fox Star Trek Reality Competition Esquire Reality Marvel Emmys YouTube Red Election doctor who indie Countdown screenings Britbox Shondaland independent Marathons social media Holidays Winners name the review Bravo golden globes IFC Films LGBTQ Rom-Com A&E vampires VICE LGBT American Society of Cinematographers The Witch green book south america composers Anna Paquin Musical BBC Logo harry potter ghosts Disney versus Apple TV+ Set visit VH1 OWN New York Comic Con blockbuster Country Endgame CBS All Access FOX DGA