Are mozzarella sticks the funniest food? They must be; they’ve been around forever. Mozzarella sticks have been a staple of comedy clubs since the invention of the microphone — or at least the deep fryer. How do I know they’ve been served in clubs for a long time? First of all, thank you for recognizing that I — a woman in entertainment — am very young. Second, I’ve been watching Showtime’s drama about comedy (the only case where I think the word “dramedy” should ever be used), I’m Dying Up Here.
If you haven’t seen it, the show is Almost Famous meets several less-funny Louies. It’s E.R., but instead of a hospital, it’s a comedy club in 1970s Los Angeles. It’s a serious, overdramatized look at what coming up as a stand-up comic is like. But what the show lacks in jokes (in this one comedian’s opinion), it makes up for in... food?
Oddly enough, food, booze, and the establishments that provide them factor largely into I’m Dying Up Here. It’s not obvious, but it’s a constant hum underscoring many of the scenes. Well, less a hum and more a permeating smell of salty chicken tenders and 2 a.m. fries.
Watching the show, it doesn’t take long to see the connection between comedy and food and drinks. The second shot of the entire series is a six-pack of Budweisers being carried by someone who we learn is a comic. A post-Tonight Show debut comic. A post-Tonight Show debut who got called over to the couch comic. This is a moment of celebration, so it calls for Bud heavies and room service (an unidentifiable meal, but I’m going to guess steak, because you always celebrate with steak). Comedy is really just a series of celebrations and depressions, and both of those events call for a lot of food and a lot of booze — not always in that order.
The show centers on Goldie’s, a comedy club in Los Angeles owned by Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo). She’s a bit of a kingmaker, running the one club in town where Johnny Carson’s booker goes to find acts. It’s not that different than any modern club, though: just switch the Rob Roys for mojitos, the cigarettes for phones that people can’t be without, and the high-waisted jeans and mustaches for — well, those are actually back in fashion now. But you get it.
As the camera in the pilot follows the movement through the club, we see waitresses carrying baskets lined with paper and holding french fries, chicken fingers, and mozzarella sticks: the comedy club menu trifecta.
These are the foods on the menu at Goldie’s in 1970s LA, and they are the same foods that you can find at practically any Improv, Joke Joint, or [Insert City] Comedy Club across the country in 2017. Why haven’t these foods changed? Why are the audience members watching I’m Dying Up Here’s Bill Hobbs (played by Andrew Santino) run his never-to-be-performed-on-air Midnight Special set munching on the same fried finger food as audience members today at Zanies Nashville when Natasha Leggero does a weekend?
Because comedy and junk food go hand in hand. No one wants to be slicing into a filet mignon while listening to a four-minute bit about what was wrong with sex-ed classes. That’s for throwing a handful of oversalted fries in your mouth or almost spitting out the stretchy mozzarella cheese you were trying to eat without burning the crap out of your mouth.
When you’re eating an incredible seared Chilean sea bass or a flawlessly seasoned terrine, you want to focus on that. You want to savor each bite, take it in with all of your senses. You don’t want to be distracted. When you’re watching someone get on stage and tell jokes that they’ve been picking away at for years, perfecting them so that each word and pause hits just right, you also don’t want to be distracted. You want to be mindlessly munching on peppery chicken tenders — the kind where you know what they taste like just by seeing a picture of them. You don’t want to be distracted. Fried food isn’t distracting. It’s reliable.
Cheap food at jacked-up prices is a big way comedy clubs make money. When Goldie is counting those singles in the back office every night, you can bet a lot of it is from the fried finger foods that are basically a requirement upon entry to hers and every club around. Everyone knows that comedy clubs have a “two-drink minimum,” but it’s usually a two-item minimum at many establishments. That’s right, fries count as a drink in this case. It’s the only place on the planet where in your head you could tell yourself “fries count as a drink!” And comics probably have a more intimate relationship with food than any audience member could. You’ve probably heard them talk about it on stage, even (half of my act is about my troubled relationship with salad and green juice).
There’s no sad desk lunch in comedy, but there is sad post-show soup. Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor) heads to Canter’s after a particularly bad evening at the club. Yes, Canter’s as in the West Hollywood Jewish deli. It’s one of the real LA establishments featured in the show. Canter’s has a big enough menu that comics can order celebratory late night pancakes, “you’re one of us” plates of thick-cut fries, and of course, sad “where is my career going?” soup.
Canter’s is still around. It’s not only serving up late-night post-show food; these days, it actually has comedy shows. The back room/bar (the Kibitz Room) is home to a handful of comedy shows every month, so now comics can have their sets and celebration meals in the same building. Last time I performed there I almost missed my spot because I was arguing with the woman at the deli counter over whether or not they had half-sour pickles. Show business!
But those late-night deli and diner hangs are what a lot of comics need to make it through this pretty brutal (but entirely self-imposed) existence. Whether like the characters on this show you just bombed your first main-stage set, killed your first Midnight Special showcase, or got heckled by a no-doubt-about-it racist, you need a safe haven. You need an open-late, nearly empty restaurant where you can order fries and pancakes and roast each other until the sun starts to rise.
I’m Dying Up Here does get a lot of things right about comedy, aside from the food. The excitement you get over figuring out a new bit. The frustration of getting bumped when a bigger comic shows up. The crushing devastation of getting a “no” about an opportunity (here’s a little inside baseball for everyone: most of being a comic is hearing the word “no” and trying not to have a meltdown about it). It covers the strained relationships, the sacrifices, the feeling that you’re all alone in this.
What the show misses the mark on is, well, the tone. Look, I wasn’t doing comedy in the ’70s (again, I’m very young), so I don’t know what the scene really looked like. But the whole thing is pretty heavy-handed. It’s too on-the-nose. For a show about a career in getting on stage to tell jokes, it’s just too dramatic. I get it: It’s an hour-long drama that’s trying to be important and meaningful. But it feels like if there were a show about working in a kitchen, in every episode you’d see a chef take off his apron and say to a colleague, “It’s not about the critics or the reviews or the diners. It’s just about you and the knife trying to make something honest.” Like, yes, that’s kind of true, but ughhhhhhh we’re all rolling our eyes so hard our heads might fall off.
The show feels the most authentic and fun when it stifles its dramatic impulses. In the third episode, two Boston comedians, Eddie (Michael Angarano) and Ron (Clark Duke), who are sharing a walk-in closet in Los Angeles, sit down at Canter’s with up-and-coming comic Adam (RJ Cyler), but they know they’re not at the cool kids’ table. Comedy, like everything else, is actually not that different from high school. There are cool kids, there are nerds, there are losers. The guys who made it on the main stage at the Comedy Store are a table away, ragging on each other and talking shit about sets. Eddie and Ron try and get in on the fun, but the other guys aren’t having it. Then Adam lays a perfectly delivered, long, and devastating burn to the table that for a moment has everyone wondering, “Is he done in this town? Are they going to get him kicked out of the club? Is someone going to kill him?”
But no, he’s rewarded with a plate of fries from the cool kids. He shares them with his buddies at his table. For a minute, there aren’t two tables of open mic comics and main-stage comics. There’s no divide. There’s no hierarchy. There are just a bunch of funny people in a brightly lit deli eating fries at 1 a.m.
For a long time in comedy, there’s little currency. No one has power, no one has authority, no one has money. All you have is pride. And, sometimes, fries.
Alison Leiby is a writer and comedian.
Editor: Greg Morabito
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