'Dying Up Here' Chronicles Golden Age Of Stand-Up

William Knoedelseder

William Knoedelseder covered Los Angeles' burgeoning comedy scene as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times in the 1970s. hide caption

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I'm Dying Up Here
By William Knoedelseder
Hardcover, 304 pages
PublicAffairs
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt.

Leno and Leterman on the Way Up

Watch clips of the comedians' early days in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles in the mid-1970s was a very funny place to be. Class clowns from all over the country were flocking to the city, inspired by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who was known to discover new comedic talent.

William Knoedelseder, a Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the city's burgeoning comedy scene at the time, describes is as "absolutely electric."

"[Aspiring comedians were] invariably inspired by sitting there watching The Tonight Show and hearing Johnny Carson say, 'Now here's a young comic who's appearing here in town at The Comedy Store,'" Knoedelseder tells Ari Shapiro. "And — boom, that was it ... Before long you had 300 young comics living in West Hollywood around The Comedy Store trying to get on that stage."

In his new book, I'm Dying Up Here, Knoedelseder chronicles what he calls stand-up comedy's "golden era." He says that Los Angeles wasn't always the epicenter of the comic universe, but when Carson moved The Tonight Show from New York to the West Coast, the comedians seemed to follow.

"Johnny Carson was the arbiter of what was funny in America for a very long time. If he thought you were funny and put you on his show, you had a career," he says.

Knoedelseder describes a tight-knit community where today's big name comics would hang out at the bar together between sets, writing down jokes on napkins.

"It's hard to imagine now, but on a random Friday night you could see Letterman and Leno and Richard Lewis and Robin Williams and Elayne Boosler all on the same stage," he says.

He writes about one particular night in which Ringo Starr began heckling Letterman:

Starr was seated just as David Letterman took the stage, and the former Beatle immediately began heckling him, which attracted the attention of every comic within earshot. Letterman had a reputation for eviscerating hecklers, and as word spread along the back hallway, other comics started filing into the room to watch the impending bloodshed.

It wasn't a fair fight. In the spotlight, Letterman couldn't see who the heckler was, so he showed no mercy, and Starr was too drunk to appreciate how badly Letterman was beating him up. Finally, one of the comics took pity and called out, "Hey Dave, it's Ringo."

"Oh, that makes sense," Letterman shot back in the direction of Starr. "You ruined your career, and now you've come here to ruin mine." George Miller almost fell off his stool laughing.

Knoedelseder remembers Letterman and Leno as a sort of "mutual admiration society." Leno, says the author, was so skilled at delivery that he could sell a joke even if it wasn't funny. Letterman, meanwhile, was probably the stronger joke writer.

"In separate interviews, I asked each of them , 'Ok, so who's act among your peers do you most admire?' and each of them instantly named each other," says Knoedelseder.

Excerpt: 'I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era'

by William Knoedelseder

I'm Dying Up Here
By William Knoedelseder
Hardcover, 304 pages
PublicAffairs
List Price: $24.95

They slipped into the nightclub quietly, one by one, stepping carefully at first as their eyes adjusted from the bright afternoon light outside: a soft parade of mostly middle-aged comics come to pay their respects to a fallen comrade.

George Miller had died the week before from complications due to a blood clot in his brain. He was sixty-one and had battled leukemia for seven years. An obit in the Los Angeles Times summed up his career with the headline "Stand-up Comedian Was Often on 'Letterman.'"

In fact, Miller had appeared as David Letterman's guest fifty-six times over two decades. That may not sound like a lot to a lay-person, but professional comedians considered it a feat of Barry Bondsian proportion. No other comic could boast such a record. Miller also had logged thirty-two appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It hadn't made him rich or particularly famous, but it had kept him working longer than many of his comedy peersperforming in small clubs around the country, occasionally opening in Las Vegas for middle-of-the-road music acts, making a living by making people laugh. Miller had stood alone in front of a crowd and cracked wise most every night for more than thirty years. That's not an easy thing to do.

So, on Sunday, March 16, 2003, his friends turned out to honor him at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Strip, where Miller had appeared regularly in recent years. Their names and faces ranged from vaguely familiar to instantly recognizable. Among them were

Richard Lewis, the perpetually angst-ridden comic who appears regularly on Curb Your Enthusiasm; Tom Dreesen, a veteran of sixty-one Tonight Show appearances and Frank Sinatra's longtime opening act; Mike Binder, the comic turned filmmaker who created, wrote, directed, and starred in the HBO series The Mind of the Married Man; Elayne Boosler, the comedienne credited by her colleagues with breaking down the gender barriers for her generation of female stand-up comics; the ubiquitous Jay Leno, arguably the most successful stand-up of their generation; and Mort Sahl, an elder hero to every performer in the room and, as Master of Ceremonies Dreesen noted, "the only comic George ever paid to see."

Letterman was a notable no-show. He was hospitalized in New York with a case of shingles, and all present took his absence as a sign of just how sick he really was. Dave and George had been best friends since 1977, when they both lived in the same apartment building across the street from the Comedy Store, just a few blocks down the street. Dave had paid for all of George's medical expenses during the last few years of his life and had even picked up the cost of a two-bedroom apartment and a twenty-four-hour on-call nurse. When it appeared that George was dying in 2000, Dave got him admitted to an experimental leukemia treatment program at UCLA by donating nearly $1 million to the medical center. The treatment involved a new "miracle" drug called Gleevec that stabilized George's white blood cell count and saved his life, at least for a time.

In a way, it was probably a good thing that Letterman didn't make it to the memorial, given that Leno did. The tension of having them both in the same room might have proved a major distraction. Once good friends, they'd had a famous falling out in 1991, when NBC chose Leno over Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, and time had not healed the wound. Neither man ever talked publicly about the rift, but their mutual friends in the room knew both sides by heart:

Leno expressed bewilderment that Letterman blamed him for the fact that NBC offered him the gig after decidingfor whatever reasonsthat Dave wasn't right for it. That's the way the show biz cookie crumbled, he figured; it was all in the game. What was he supposed to do, turn down the opportunity of a lifetime?

The way Letterman saw it: yes. Dave thought their sixteen-year friendship should have precluded Jay from lobbying for, and making a secret deal to take over, the show that he himself had always dreamed of inheriting. As much as Dave coveted the job, he couldn't imagine going behind Carson's back to get it. He didn't know if he would ever be able to trust Jay again.

These were treacherous waters for their fellow comics to navigate. The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman were the twin peaks of the stand-up comedy businessthe best TV exposure a comic could get. So, no one wanted to appear to take sides in the Dave-Jay thing for fear of losing both a friend and a potential buyer. Truth be told, given the opportunity, mostif not allof them would have done what Leno did, but they probably would have felt worse about doing it. Nobody blamed Jay, but everybody understood why Dave felt betrayed. Letterman was nothing if not loyal to his old friends (the joke among them was that he hadn't made a new one since 1979). In addition to Miller, he regularly brought on longtime pals Tom Dreesen, Richard Lewis, Johnny Dark, and Johnny Witherspoon. And it was, ironically, Letterman's frequent booking of Leno on NBC's Late Night all during the 1980s that had helped propel Leno to the top rank of stand-up comedy and ultimately put him first in line for Carson's crown.

In contrast, Leno rarely featured stand-up comics on The Tonight Show, explaining to his old friends that the network didn't think they drew viewers, that the research showed people even tuned out when comics came on. The comics didn't buy it. They thought that, as host, Leno should buck the network brass and book anyone he thought was funny, just like Carson had before him. Fair or not, the knock on Jay was that he wouldn't go out of his way to help a fellow comic.

And yet, here he was, one of the busiest men in show business, spending a Sunday afternoon at the Laugh Factory, mixing easily with the old gang and reminiscing with obvious affection about a guy he hadn't hung out with in twenty-five years.

"George and I had nothing in common," Leno said. "Not one thing. Cars? [Leno collects them; George drove his mother's battered Chrysler LeBaron with cracked Corinthian leather seats and a peeling vinyl top.] Drugs? [Leno never did them; Miller never stopped.] But George always made me laugh," he said. "He was a true comicnot a sitcom actor or an improv performer. He was a classic stand-up; it was what he was meant to do."

He noted that their relationship had been conducted mostly by phone in recent years, with George calling frequently to critique his Tonight Show monologues or to apologize cheekily "for not being able to get me on the Letterman show. He suggested I send a tape."

One by one, Miller's old pals followed Leno to the microphone to share their favorite George joke or anecdote. The famously garrulous Dreesen explained why he was chosen to emcee by telling Miller's favorite joke about him: "The cops stopped Tom Dreesen the other night and asked him, 'You wanna talk here or down at the station?' Dreesen said, 'Both, and in the car too.'"

Native American comic Charlie Hill launched into a call-and-response with some of Miller's best-remembered bits.

"Why are so many people drinking diet cola?" he shouted.

"Because they are fat and thirsty," the crowd hollered back.

"A cow on speed . . . (rapid fire) Moo-moo-moo-moo-moo."

"How much does [comic] Paul Mooney weigh? . . . 200 pounds; 180 without cologne."

"Last night I was watching an Elvis Presley movie on diet pills and Xanax . . . because that's the way Elvis would have wanted it."

"I went to see the movie Accidental Tourist and something horrible happened in the middle. . . . It continued."

The dialogue quickly devolved into a kind of shorthand that only they understood, as people in the audience began calling out their own favorite lines to uproarious reaction:

"Then the head waiter came over . . . (guffaws, whooping)."

"I'm chewin' and he's lookin', and I'm chewin' and he's lookin'. . . (hands slapping on tables, tears of laughter)."

"Yesterday I was sitting at Denny's having a waffle . . . " (falling out of their chairs).

And finally, some one shouted out, "one hundred eighteen," which they all apparently considered the funniest number in the universe.

The "George stories" were more accessible to an outsider. Ross Schafer told of the time one of Miller's girlfriends broke up with him. "So, George took this picture of Jesus she had on her wall and wrote on it, 'Rot in hell,' and put it on the windshield of her car. The woman called the cops, who showed up at George's apartment and told him that the woman feared he was making a threat because it was a picture of Jesus. 'Oh, gee,' said George. 'I thought it was Dan Fogelberg.'"

Johnny Dark recalled the time that Miller got into an argument with the manager of his neighborhood Starbuck's and was told to get out and never come back. "Oh, my God," George had wailed. "Where am I ever going to find another Starbucks?" Elayne Boosler remembered a middle-of-the night phone call the week she moved to Los Angeles in 1976:

"A voice says, 'Hi, it's George Miller. You met me last night at the Comedy Store. You've gotta come out to the corner of Sunset and Sweetzer and give me some money so I can buy some drugs.'

"I didn't even have a checking account in those days," Boosler went on, "and I had $75 in cash to my name. But for some reason I got in my car and drove there, and he was standing by the curb. I rolled down my window, he reached in and took the money, and

I drove away. Years later his punch line to me was, 'You handed me $75 when you didn't even know who I was . . . so I consider you an enabler and the reason that I have a drug problem today.'"

Miller's drug consumption was conspicuous even among this drug-experienced crowd. Quaaludes were his favorite in the early days; he preferred prescription Soma in later years. It was the dope as much as the leukemia that killed him because he'd get so high that he'd forget to take his life-preserving medicine. Dreesen, Letterman, Gary Muledeer, and Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada had tried to stage an intervention with him in the months before he diedto no avail. Letterman flew to Los Angeles to be there, but when Miller saw them all together, he said, "Oh, this is that intervention shit, isn't it? We'll I'm not going for it."

"George, you have to get straight," Letterman told him. "You have to get well or else."

"What does that mean?" Miller shot back nastily. "That you're not going to put me on your show anymore?"

For Letterman it was like a sucker punch to the gut. He left hurt and angry, and he and Miller didn't talk to each other for weeks afterwardsthe only time in their long friendship that had ever happened.

Naturally, none of this was mentioned at the memorial, where one of the biggest laughs of the night was prompted by Kelly Montieth's drug-referenced quip, "George probably doesn't know he's dead yet."

When it seemed for a second that Dreesen was steering dangerously close to sentimentality, saying, "I'm going to miss George's criticism of me," Elayne Boosler pulled him back from the brink by calling out, "I'll fill in for him," to which someone in the back of the room added, "And when she dies . . . "

The exchange kicked off a volley of high-spirited heckling, with insults and put-downs caroming around the room"Yeah? It won't be the first time you've used my material"all goosed along gleefully by a beaming Leno, dressed as of old in well-worn jeans and a rumpled denim shirt and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mike Binder, with whom he'd had a painful parting of the ways more than two decades before.

In that moment, they all seemed transformed. The years fell away. Suddenly, it was the mid-1970s. They were twenty-something, bubbling with ambition and bursting with dreams. No one was rich; no one was famous. No one had been to rehab; no one had died. Dave and Jay were still pals. They were all having the time of their lives. And no one had any inkling of what was about to happen.

From I'm Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder. Copyright (c) 2009 by William Knoedelseder. Published by PublicAffairs. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era

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