I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by William Knoedelseder gives an insider’s view to the world of stand-up comedy from its primitive state in the late 1960’s.
By: Allison Haskins
Although this book is written by a man, and most of the comics written about in the book are also men, the whole stand-up scene exploded thanks to one strong woman: Mitzi Shore.
In 1973, Mitzi’s husband Sammy left her in charge of his comedy club in L.A. while he was out of town and came home to a club so booming that people were flocking from all over the country to try to get on its stage.
The Comedy Store (which Mitzi picked the name of when her husband first opened the club– go girl!) was where it all started.
Mitzi quickly gave the club structure that it had not had prior to her strong leadership. She started holding weekly Monday auditions to gather the best comics for the weeks shows, setting up strict time slots and rules, and even re-decorating the inside of the club to give it a better appeal. She also opened a separate room called “The Belly Room” for her female comics (yay!). These details were the things that took the club from a small time local club to a nationwide phenomenon practically overnight.
Only a few months after she took over the club, Sammy and Mitzi got divorced. Mitzi got the club in a settlement, opened a second Store in West Hollywood a few years later, and the rest is comedy history.
This book describes how many people could say (and did say) that Mitzi was a bitch. The number one gripe would be that she started off not paying comics who played at her club. She thought they didn’t deserve it because the time they got on stage was a sort of training for when and if they ever hit it big. Other clubs didn’t pay either, but Mitzi not paying was a bigger deal since her club was the top dog. This issue turned into a long and drawn out strike and drew the up and coming talent boom to a screeching halt for a long time. It also caused tons of hostility, fear, and anger in the formerly giggly comic world.
I think that Mitzi did have a point in that she was giving these people a chance to practice in a nice environment, never saying they couldn’t find day jobs while they waited for comic success. However, during all this, she was rolling in the dough herself with the money she was making from ticket sales. I can see how that could be contrived as bitchy.
On the other hand, Mitzi gave some of the funniest people of our time the things they needed to get where they are today. She offered some of the new talent food when they couldn’t afford it (ironically), a roof when they had no where to stay, and lots of time on stage if she thought they deserved it. Most anyone would tell you that they would love to have a mentor like that while they are trying to succeed in their craft.
During and after the pay strike, some of the comics who had been very close to Mitzi turned on her and sided with fairness and potential money. Others (mainly a small group of her “favorites”) stuck by her side throughout because to them, her support trumped any act of equality.
After the strike was finally settled and comics finally got some cash, some never felt the same toward Mitzi. Others even had their own strike with The Comedy Store and vowed never to perform there again for any amount of money.
I feel that Mitzi started off with everything being the way it was because she truly loved the comics and wanted them to succeed. I also feel that once that happened in a greater scale that she ever would have dreamed, she may have gotten a little selfish.
The end of this book I found to be pretty depressing, yet also inspirational. Throughout reading it I had mixed feelings about the work Mitzi Shore did. She more or less ended up alone in the end which made me think about how things can so easily become jaded. I took away that being a strong, determined, and kind woman is the best anyone can ask of you. The problem is that is can be really difficult to hold onto all of those things at once. For me, Mitzi showed that you can build your own empire if you really want it, but it’s staying true to yourself that is the key.