'I'm Dying Up Here' shines spotlight on '70s stand-up scene

Alfred Molina, Melissa Leo in 'I'm Dying Up Here'

(CNN)Showtime's "I'm Dying Up Here" is the series that "Vinyl" wanted to be, a savvy insider's look at the showbiz scene in the 1970s -- in the HBO show devoted to music, here to the budding and evolving realm of stand-up comedy.

Adapted from a nonfiction book, and counting Jim Carrey among its producers, the series features fictionalized characters juxtaposed against a backdrop populated by real-life personalities. For the comics, there's no greater validation of having "made it" than a shot on "The Tonight Show" and getting called over to the couch by Johnny Carson (played, briefly, by Dylan Baker).
To get there, though, requires surviving a Darwinian climb up the ladder at Goldie's, an L.A. club pretty clearly patterned after the Comedy Store and its proprietor, Mitzi Shore. Melissa Leo plays Goldie, who reigns over the club and its denizens, convinced she'll know when one of her hungry charges is ready for the big time, and heaven help them if they cross her.
It's 1973, which is framed by more than bad hairdos and what's on the TV. In one set, a comic weaves in a Roe v. Wade joke, back when the Supreme Court decision was brand new.
    Goldie refers to comics as "tortured f---ing souls," and notes that nobody should hold their breath "waiting for them to act stable." Their resentments, jealousies and insecurities are on full display, as they careen from one toxic relationship to the next and make questionable sacrifices to secure a little bit of stage time.
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    Some of the best sequences focus on the comics hanging out at the local delicatessen, riffing on each other's foibles and jockeying to see who can produce the most creative and vulgar putdowns. (Those particularly sensitive to jokes about their mothers, it's worth noting, should probably dine elsewhere.)
    Leo is the highest-profile member of the cast, but the performances are uniformly topnotch, with Ari Graynor as a female comic trying to survive this male-dominated world, Andrew Santino as her self-centered boyfriend and Alfred Molina as a name-dropping manager, casually referring to stars like Burl Ives and Charlie Callas.
    The comics in the cast -- many of whom have appeared in sitcoms -- appear liberated playing roles that strike so close to home, even if the casual racism and sexism of the time signals that this was a different era.
    Not all the historical references will resonate for a younger audience, but the palpable desire to break through, juvenile pranks and constant barrage of one-liners -- on stage and off -- should make this relatable even for those who don't fully appreciate the terror of having to follow a young Richard Pryor on stage.
    Showtime recently made lots of noise with its "Twin Peaks" revival, but this lower-profile series feels like a headliner. And like any good pay drama or stand-up act, "I'm Dying Up Here" should leave the audience that does tune in ready for an encore.
    "I'm Dying Up Here" premieres June 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.