Sept. 18, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: 'I'm Dying Up Here' Explores Beginnings of Standup Comedy in Mid-1970s Los Angeles; When Leno and Letterman Were Buddies
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen Book Critic
William Knoedelseder's "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy's Golden Age" (PublicAffairs, 304 pages, illustrations, index, $24.95) is an important contribution to America's cultural history -- and it's a helluva good read by an outstanding reporter.
My time as a reporter at The Times overlapped Knoedelseder's (pronounced "Needlesayder") and I avidly followed his stories in the Calendar section. I had been present at the creation of The Second City in the very early 1960s in Chicago and was a big fan of improv comedy. My Lincoln Park apartment was a short walk to The Second City.
Bill Knoedelseder was present at the creation of what could be called the Comedy Camelot. He was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times who socialized with the likes of Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Elayne Boosler, Robin Williams, Tom Dreesen, Tim Reid and many others.
The two meccas of comedy in L.A. in the mid-1970s were Mitzi Shore's (she's Paulie's mom) Comedy Store (with two venues, one in Westwood near UCLA and the other on the Sunset Strip) and Budd Friedman's Improvisation on Melrose Avenue about a mile from the Sunset Strip Comedy Store. Friedman, a barrel-chested Korean War veteran, was the proprietor of a successful Improv in NYC, but he was alert to the migration of comedians to L.A. engendered by Johnny Carson's move of "The Tonight Show" from New York to L.A. -- actually Burbank, in the San Fernando Valley -- in the spring of 1972.
The goal of every comic was an appearance on Carson's show, so it made sense to perform in a town where Johnny's scouts were present at the venues. Take the case of half-Hungarian, half-Puerto Rican Freddie Prinze. After an appearance at the Comedy Store, Prinze appeared on The Tonight Show on Dec. 6, 1973.
Knoedelseder: "His friends at the Improv were gathered around the TV on the bar, watching as he broke through the curtains. Freddie did an engaging five-minute set that so tickled Carson that the host immediately waved him over to the panel to chat. Jaws dropped at the Improv, where the crowd of compulsive Carson watchers instantly recognized that they were seeing history: Never before had Johnny done that for a young comic making his debut on the show."
Within weeks, NBC signed Prinze for the show "Chico and the Man." The story had an unhappy ending with Prinze, "stoned on cocaine and quaaludes" putting a .32 caliber pistol to his head and dying on Jan. 28, 1977.
Drugs were a common thread binding the comics together -- with the notable exception of Jay Leno, whose later addiction of choice was collecting cars and motorcycles.
Robin Williams was a guest on Leno's new prime time NBC show the other night; Williams' energy back in the day was fueled by his addiction to Cocaine, Knoedelseder writes: "He was part of a group that regularly ended up back at Mitzi Shore's house after the clubs closed on the weekend, drinking and snorting coke until near dawn. In addition to Williams, the gathering usually included Argus Hamilton, Biff Maynard, Ollie Joe Prater, Mike Binder, Richard Pryor, and Shore herself."
Pryor, born in 1940; George Carlin, born in 1937, and Robert Klein, born in 1942, were the "Triumvirate" who inspired the baby boomers like Williams, Steve Martin, Leno, Binder, Letterman and others, Knoedelseder writes.
He describes the activities of "The Funniest Year Ever" -- 1978 and the strike of comics against The Comedy Store a year later. Mitzi Shore didn't pay her comics, considering her venues to be showcases and learning environments, where beginning comics could hone their craft. Many of the almost starving comics appearing at the two Comedy Stores disagreed and they organized an informal union, picketing the clubs.
The laughter stopped with the strike and the death of a troubled comic named Steve Lubetkin who moved from the New York to L.A.
"I'm Dying Up Here" is cultural history as good as it gets.
About the Author: In addition to reporting for the Los Angeles Times, Knoedelseder later was executive producer of Fox Entertainment News and of the Philadelphia Inquirer's TV news program, "Inquirer News Tonight." He was vice president of news at USA Broadcasting. He's the author of "Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia."
Publisher's website:

Share This Story:   

Return to HNN front page.  Make HNN Your Homepage (IE Users Only)