The ‘70s-era standups of Showtime’s new series I’m Dying Up Here may be struggling to find their comedic voices on screen, but behind the scenes, actress Ari Graynor is killing it.
Of course, along with an impressive array of dramatic roles, Graynor has delivered a critically admired string of comedic performances playing colorful and amusing women – her filmography includes standout turns in Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Whip It, The Sitter, Celeste and Jesse Forever, and her much-admired turn in For a Good Time Call… which Graynor also produced.
But while she’s excelled at playing woman who inspire laughs, I’m Dying Up Here offers Graynor an opportunity to play a woman who’s creating the laughter on purpose as Cassie Feder, an up-and-coming comedian navigating the pleasures and pitfalls of the red-hot 1970s Hollywood standup scene on the Sunset Strip – and one of the only women in a particularly cutthroat business, populated by comics who have as many issues with women as they have cleverly crafted barbs to toss her way.
And just as Cassie holds her own on the standup stage, Graynor, too, has found her groove in front of an open mic, as she reveals to Mashable.
What were the qualities in Cassie that got you creatively energized to try to bring to life?
She felt very real to me. That sounds simple or trite, but I’ve gotten to be very frustrated with what I sometimes deem to be the new archetypes of female characters, which is either the “strong female character,” or this “permanent adolescent who can’t really get her life together, drinks a lot, has sex like dudes, talks like a dude.” These are types that I understand where they came from, and at a certain point, were very exciting in revealing a new kind of female in the cultural landscape. But like anything, when something gets replicated over and over again, it loses its depth.
I feel like those two types of women you see a lot [on screen] and I don’t relate to them, and they don’t feel close to the women that I know in my life. When I saw Cassie, this was the kind of woman that I know, that I see, that I relate to. Someone who has dreams, who is ambitious, who is vulnerable, who is funny, who is smart, who has demons, who has darkness, who has love, who has light, who has all of these things, and is far from perfect, but also is an active participant in their life.
It doesn’t have to be a black or white thing — that you either are completely aimless and have no ambitions and don’t know what you want to do, or you’re a tough-as-nails, hard woman that has no space in her heart for anything else. Humans are humans. They are all things at once. And shockingly, I feel like that’s something you see very rarely, women that are drawn so fully.
Did you talk to some comedians from that era, particularly female comedians, to get a better sense of what somebody in her position was up against at that moment in time?
I did a little bit. I read a lot of books. I talked a lot with Judy Gold, who wasn’t quite of that time – she was a little bit later. But what’s special about this show is, yes, the show looks at this very specific time, what all of those people are going through at that time, and especially women, specific to then, but I also think that some of it, fortunately or unfortunately, it doesn’t have to be so deeply researched.
Like being the sole female in a group of men, and trying to find your voice, and find your voice within that community, and how to belong, and be one of the same, while also being who you are, which is accepting your femininity and all of that. That’s something that I don’t think is specific necessarily to 1973.
I think that was also what I was experiencing in some ways myself just shooting this show. I was the only female fake comedian within this group of performers that were all friends. Those kind of dynamics of what that is to be the only woman, you can feel that in any age, and at the same time, there were obviously more hurdles then.
Having specialized in playing funny women, tell me about transitioning to playing a woman who is funny. She’s witty, she’s got a sharp sense of humor, she’s not just a character who we the audience look at and find the character funny. She’s a fully fledged woman who is funny.
It’s such a good question, because in some ways, it’s such a different journey. In some ways, I find it easier to play the former, to play somebody that you’re laughing at as the audience. When you’re playing a big character, part of what makes the character funny is you sort of up the stakes, and you up their behavior, and there’s a slight commentary, I guess, to their behavior, which is part of what makes it funny.
And someone like Cassie, her wit and her humor, that was a lot more intimidating to me in a lot of ways to portray, because you have to be so sharp as a standup comedian. It’s all wit, it’s all intellect, it’s all mind, it’s ease with language, it’s confidence, it’s lack of self consciousness, it’s lack of filter, and those are not things that I feel like I innately have. I’m like over-thinking everything I’m saying in my head all the time as I’m saying it.
So luckily, we have the most incredible writers. They just wrote and created such an amazing character, and were also supportive in me playing around with some of the material, and changing some jokes, and coming up with some stuff, and that was encouraging for me as well. Oh, a couple of my jokes made it into the pilot. It’s like a little bit of that nudge you need sometimes to believe in yourself and say, “Okay, I can say something sort of funny every now and then.”
Did you at any point get up on a standup stage? That’s a whole different kind of stage than the theatrical.
Yeah, yeah. First of all, what’s funny is that, whether it’s “fake” or not, I tell you, getting up and doing standup, any kind, in front of 100 extras, with cameras hidden in the back of the room, it feels pretty real. At the end of the day, recorded or not, or scripted or not, you’re just a person telling jokes to a room full of 100 people. It’s never ceased to be sort of terrifying and thrilling.
I think it was before the third episode, where I have a set that I was supposed to tank, and I thought, okay, now that I have the episode where it’s not supposed to go well, I feel like it gave me a little permission to go out in the world and feel okay if I went and bombed doing open mic stuff.
Michael Angarano and I — along with Jerron [Horton] who’s this great comedian who was helping us as a consultant, and helping those of us on the show that were new at all the standup stuff — went to two open mics one weekend, and I signed up under Cassie’s name and I did her material, but I had also filled it out and rewritten some stuff. It was this pretty serious set about her parents that died in a car accident. I went and did this at like 1:30 in the afternoon at like a Saturday coffee shop, and then the other one was like Sunday in someone’s yard with a microphone that isn’t hooked up. It wasn’t hooked up to any speaker, and it’s just filled with like, between 20 and 50 standup comedians around LA, everyone just looking for time to get up on stage, some of whom I’d seen at The Comedy Store.
To my amazement, the first time I did it, it actually went pretty well. I was ready for it to completely bomb, but people were actually pretty into it, and we have it recorded. The one that we did in the lawn, I also did some of Cassie’s material, and then I did some of my own. We have that actually recorded, and hopefully no one will ever hear it, because you can hear how nervous Michael and I are.
So it was good to get up and do, and I’m sure I’ll do it again in the future, and I also recognize how much I am not innately a standup comic. I can get through it, but I just realized, “Oh, that is just not the way I best communicate myself and my thoughts,” and I just have never had more respect for people to do that.
Do you find either that particular era of standup comedy romantic, or the whole profession of standup comedy romantic? Is there something about it that touches you in a certain way?
Yeah. There’s so much that I find romantic about that time, that I really yearn for and feel sad about in our generation now, not only with standup. There’s just so many platforms now. There’s just places everywhere, a million social media things: Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook. All the things are online. You have thousands of different channels, and you have a million comedy clubs, and you have a million ways to make movies.
There’s all of these outlets, and on the one hand, that’s great, that there’s a greater ease in people making art and expressing themselves, and finding people to listen, but at the same time, I think that it distills something. Back then, the reason why The Comedy Store was such a huge deal: these were places – the first and one of the only places – that only offered standup comedy in that one town, in that one city, in all of the world. The Comedy Store was the first place where it was exclusively standup comedy.
So everybody with this dream wanted to be at this one place, at this one time, with their fellow compatriots, who shared similar dreams and interests, and they got to all be there with each other at that time for better or worse. No one was on their phones, and no one was like trying to hustle in the way where it’s like, “I’ve got to get this out, and this out, and this out, and I have to constantly be Tweeting….”
There was a moment where everyone got to come to one place for one goal, both as performer and as an audience. I think there’s a concentrated energy there that I think we’ve lost in a way, because everyone is trying to do so much all the time, and in a million different places and ways.
I’m Dying Up Here premieres Sunday, June 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.