PASADENA, Calif. – Last month marked the 25th anniversary of Johnny Carson bidding his late-night audience adieu for the last time on “The Tonight Show.”
It was nearly ten years before that that Jim Carrey made his first appearance on Carson’s show, and that pivotal occasion factored into why the Canadian comedian bought the rights to William Knoedelseder’s 2010 bestseller “I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy’s Golden Age.”
Carrey, now 55, saw his own rise in the comedy world mirrored in Knoedelseder’s book and knew the story had the makings of a fun and dramatic TV series.
The result is “I’m Dying Up Here,” an eight-episode series executive produced by Carrey and starring Melissa Leo in a role loosely based on real-life L.A. comedy club owner Mitzi Shore. It premieres Sunday in Canada on CraveTV and in the U.S. on Showtime.
Speaking to reporters earlier this year in Pasadena, Carrey said he’d been dying “for a very long time” to revisit his early stand-up days and tell this story set in 1973.
“I had so many incredible experiences,” he said, including sleeping in a friend’s closet for months when he first went to L.A., a story that makes its way into the series.
Carrey began his stand-up career in Toronto as a teenager in the late 1970s. Executive producer Michael Aguilar felt the early ’70s timeline was an even more fitting starting point for the series. The show catches the comedy scene in the three or four years between “The Tonight Show” moving to the West Coast and the premiere of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975.
This was right when things changed in the world of stand-up, said Aguilar, who produced Carrey’s 2013 comedy short “Cold Dead Hand.”
“Comedy went from setup/punchline jokes to storytelling, to therapy, to creating characters,” he said. The scene was transitioning from Rodney Dangerfield to Richard Pryor.”
By the end of the ’70s into the ’80s, stand-up comedians such as Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Steve Martin, David Letterman and Eddie Murphy were the new rock stars. Los Angeles clubs such as The Improv and The Comedy Store became de facto audition rooms for Carson’s comedy scouts.
It was Carrey’s dream — as it was for every stand-up comedian — to get a shot on “The Tonight Show” and to make Johnny laugh, wink and possibly wave you over to the desk. Aside from Ed Sullivan or Lorne Michaels or possibly Simon Cowell, no individual has ever had such power to make or break a career.
Carrey knew how important that “Tonight Show” shot would be.
“At that time, there was a beam, you know, that could catapult people to the stars, and that was ‘The Tonight Show,'” he said.
He thought he had scored an appearance on “Tonight” shortly after arriving in L.A.
“I did a showcase at The Improv, and I had kind of a lukewarm night, and then I heard the news that I had lost ‘The Tonight Show,'” he said. “It could have been the end of me.”
It would be another year-and-a-half before Carrey made the most of a second chance, earning a coveted “OK” sign from the star-making host.
Carrey said David Letterman came closest to Carson when it came to career-making clout on TV.
“He could slaughter you, if he wanted to, in a moment. In a word, he could slaughter you,” said Carrey of Letterman. Gaining his approval was always important to Carrey, “because he’s a sharp guy, you know?”
Carrey wanted all the angst of starting out in stand-up to go directly into the series.
“He would just tell us stories,” Aguilar said of Carrey, “and you could almost see an episode come together.”
Actress Ari Graynor, who plays aspiring club comic Cassie Feder in the series, said Carrey told the cast and crew that it was “your responsibility to take the pain and alchemize it into something beautiful.”
Carrey will join the cast at Just for Laughs in Montreal this July for a panel discussion. He performed stand-up at the festival in 1991, but don’t look for him to take the stage solo this summer.
He’s happy to support the comics on “I’m Dying Up Here,” but he’s more about living free and easy these days.
“I’m in the process of shedding layers of persona at this time in my life,” he said.
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.