I'M DYING UP HERE
Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era.
By William Knoedelseder.
Impossible as it seems today, David Letterman and Jay Leno were once on the same team. “Night after night at the Comedy Store,” Knoedelseder writes in this illuminating book about the West Coast comedy boom of the mid-1970s, which he covered for The Los Angeles Times, “when they weren’t onstage, they were standing together in the back, taking it all in, studying everything.”Idyllic images like this one of a young Letterman and Leno, the comedy-world equivalent of the lion and the lamb, reinforce Knoedelseder’s thesis that Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store was once the industry’s very own Garden of Eden. Only there could talents as diverse as Robin Williams, Richard Lewis, Sandra Bernhard and the greatest of them all, Richard Pryor, thrive. But it wouldn’t last: in spite of her reputation as a savvy nurturer of talent, Shore refused to pay the comics even $5 a set, saying the Comedy Store was “a workshop-type club.” A 1979 strike called by the group Comedians for Compensation ripped the community apart. In addition to ending friendships (among those crossing the picket line were Garry Shandling and Yakov Smirnoff), the battle may have had something to do with an arson fire at the Comedy Store’s rival club, the Improv. Thanks to the strikers’ efforts, comics today are typically paid for their work. But that gain came about only after what amounted to a civil war.
– New York Times