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Melissa Leo talks Showtime’s ‘I’m Dying Up Here’

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Melissa Leo talks Showtime’s ‘I’m Dying Up Here’ (Photo courtesy of Showtime/Patrick Ecclesine)

L.A.’s ultra-competitive stand-up comedy scene of the early to mid-1970s is at the center of Showtime’s period drama “I’m Dying Up Here,” created by David Flebotte (“Masters of Sex,” “Raising Hope,” “Desperate Housewives”) and co-produced by Jim Carrey.

Oscar winner Melissa Leo (“Frozen River,” “All My Children,” “Louie”) is Goldie Herschlag, a tough comedy club owner who is also a sort of mother hen to a stable of comedic hopefuls, all vying for her approval, which could lead to the ultimate nod – a spot on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”

“Goldie’s story is a definite reflection – an homage – to an amazing individual – Mitzi Shore,” Leo told me during a phone interview.

Shore was founder of the Los Angeles Comedy Club and later owner of The Comedy Store, where she was an influence on an array of comedians in the 1970s and 1980s, including David Letterman, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.

Leo says she was three days into shooting the pilot for “I’m Dying Up Here” before she found out that her character was loosely based on a real-life figure.

“Mitzi is a very different human being than Goldie – at least I think so,” Leo continues. “I’ve never studied Mitzi. I invented Goldie. I bleached my hair, I put on the extra boobage that was built for me, and I became Goldie. Mitzi must be mentioned, but I am not playing her.”

Regarding the character of Goldie, Leo says that, like any business person, Goldie is trying to keep her comedy club above water while also mentoring the comics who gather around her.

“Mentor might be one word you could use to describe her. There are many words beginning with the letter ‘M’ you could use to describe Goldie,” Leo says, laughing. “She loves these kids and to her, they are like her kids. She knows them better than they know themselves. Goldie knows funny. She knows what is funny and who is funny. Is she hard on the kids sometimes? Oh, you bet your bottom dollar she is. Her life is at stake too.” 

Leo says that the character of Goldie is one of the most complex she has ever played.

“It is difficult, complicated, wonderful, hard work to play her,” she says. “She is very complicated. And oh my God, is that juicy for an actor.”

The tone of “I’m Dying Up Here” is not dissimilar to that of “Vinyl,” the short-lived 2016 HBO series produced by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger that examined the down and dirty music business of the 1970s.

While it received points for accuracy - always important with period shows – “Vinyl” fell short in delivering characters compelling enough for viewers to tune in again.

“I’m Dying Up Here” features a potent cast of intriguing characters trying to realize their dream by chasing the funny to the top at whatever means necessary.

As evidenced from the pilot, the top for these comics is a coveted invitation to appear next to Johnny Carson. As Melissa Leo says, today’s comedians can’t quite comprehend how impactful a “Tonight Show” appearance could be for a career – especially if Johnny called you over to the couch after your set.

“You can’t measure the impact it had – it was so significant,” says Leo. “We can’t see that today because of all of the shows and platforms. Back then, there were one or two shows that were that influential. If Johnny called you over to the couch, that was his stamp of approval. He knew the effect it could have and he would do it for the ones he felt had what it took. Johnny Carson, like Goldie, had a talent for knowing what worked.” 

Leo says she felt a bit like one of the comedians on “I’m Dying Up Here” when she was recently invited to appear on “The Tonight Show” – a first in her 30-plus year career.

“It’s not even Johnny anymore, yet I’m like (excitedly) ‘Oh my God! The Tonight Show at long last!’”

Leo won an Academy Award in 2011 for her role in “The Fighter,” but it was the Emmy she won two years later for her role as Louis C.K.’s blind date on the series “Louie” that means the most.

“I won an Emmy for being funny. Do you know what that means to me? To make people laugh is a response that you cannot manufacture. When people laugh, it’s better than applause, awards or money. Winning an Emmy for being funny means the world.”

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