The big shift: Suddenly, the comedy capital moved west

Like most comedy acts and comedy careers, "I'm Dying Up Here" has its ups and downs. It's an ambitious attempt to catch the full range of stand-up comedians in 1973 Los Angeles.Jim Carrey, who arrived a decade later, is one of the show's producers; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There was a time, 45
years ago, when the comedy capital switched coasts.

It had been in New
York, alongside the poets, folksingers and mezzo-sopranos. Then came
the shift.

“When (Johnny)
Carson moved 'The Tonight Show' to (Los Angeles), that became the
scene,” said Michael Aguilar, producer of a new cable show (“I'm
Dying Up Here”) that captures the era. “It shifted from New York
to L.A.; everything changed.”

Soon, stand-up
comics were looking west. “There was a beam, you know, that could
catapult people to the stars,” Jim Carrey recalled. “And that was
'The Tonight Show.' And we all came out and gathered around the heat
of that.”

Most had to grind
their way through the L.A. comedy clubs, like the one depicted in
“Dying.” But as a 21-year-old Canadian, Carrey seemed to have an
express route.

“I was a big deal
in Toronto,” he recalled, “and they booked me on the show.”
Then he did a random night at a Los Angeles comedy club. “I had a
kind of a lukewarm night. And then I heard the news that I had lost
'The Tonight Show.'”

He had gone
instantly from a national spotlight to living in a closet –

At a comedy club,
Carrey recalled, someone “said he had a room, and it turned out to
be a closet. So the first year or so I was here, I lived in that
closet .... I woke up the first morning that I lived in the house, to
walk out in the kitchen and find a beautiful young girl making bacon
with no pants on.”

Carrey offered such
memories to the “Dying” producers, who paid attention. The first
episode includes a closet and a pantless cook; the second sees a
“Tonight” invitation yanked away.

Alongside that is
the heart of the series – Oscar-winner Melissa Leo as a comedy-club
owner. “She's not playing Mitzi Shore,” Carrey insisted, “but
she is a tribute to women like Mitzi.”

In 1972, comedian
Sam Shore and his wife created The Comedy Store; two years later, she
received the business in a divorce settlement. It became a favorite
spot for “Tonight” to scout.

Now we see a
fictional version named Goldie. “She has a marriage of commerce and
creativity,” said Dave Flebotte, the “Dying” creator. “She
loves comics, (but) it's also her bread and butter.”

So she has a mixed
relationship with them,Aguilar said. “She nurtures them, she trains
them. She pushes them when they need to be pushed .... She knows the
moment when they are ready.”

And in real life,
Carrey was ready. During his post-rejection, closet-living time, he
found another express route: He was cast as the star of the “Duck
Factory” situation comedy. That was on NBC, the “Tonight”
network; still just 21, Carrey was on the show.

That was in 1983,
when comedy and Carson had been thriving for a decade in Los
Angeles. Now Carrey produces and advises a show set in 1973, when
this was starting.

“The '70s
(brought) the golden age of stand-up comedy,” said Gary Levine, the
Showtime programming chief. That brought “comic geniuses like
George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Dave Letterman, Jay Leno,
Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams.”

It was a time when
big talents were working in small clubs – and maybe sleeping in
small closets.

-- “I'm Dying Up
Here,” 10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime

-- Debuts June 4,
rerunning at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.; then reruns nightly

-- Also: 9 and 11
p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 10 p.m. Wednesday; 9 p.m. Thursday,
rerunning at midnight; 7 p.m. Friday, rerunning at 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.;
7 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday