RJ Cyler Explores the ’70s Roots of ‘I’m Dying Up Here’

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
RJ Cyler as Adam in Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here. (Photo: Lacey Terrell/Showtime)

As a child of the ’90s, 22-year-old RJ Cyler missed out on the ’70s heyday of such groundbreaking standup comics as Richard Pryor and George Carlin. But the new Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here plunges him into a recreation of that bygone era, when comedians from around the country made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles in the hopes of landing a comedy club spot that would launch them onto an even bigger stage: Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

“My dad was always a person of the old school era,” Cyler tells Yahoo TV about time-traveling back to the ’70s to play Adam, a young African-American comic pursuing dreams of stardom even in the face of prejudice. He’s part of a diverse scene of fictionalized standups that includes outspoken female comic Cassie (Ari Graynor), Vietnam War veteran Ralph (Erik Griffin), and Boston transplants Ron and Eddie (Clark Duke and Michael Angarano). “I feel like I was supposed to be born in the ’70s, because I’ve got a really old soul,” Cyler says. “Shooting I’m Dying Up Here made me feel like I was where I was supposed to be. The pants are a little tighter than we wear nowadays, but I still look good!”

We spoke with Cyler about the real-life inspirations for Adam and what it was like attending standup boot camp.

Is Adam modeled after any specific comedian to your knowledge?
Adam has a lot of different standup comics in him, I would say. He has traits that resemble Richard Pryor and Bernie Mac. I definitely put a lot of the African-American comedy pioneers into him; they all make up a little bit of Adam.

Had you listened to any of the defining comedy albums of the ’70s?
I watched a lot of Pryor, and then I watched some Eddie Murphy, when he had the really shiny red suit on. I also watched a little bit of Ralphie May. He’s not an older comedian, but I like his style of delivery. He mostly just talks about himself and real issues, and makes it funny, you know? That’s good comedy right there, anybody that can balance the two and keep a sane mind.

In listening to the older comics, were there differences you noticed between the standup of that era versus now?
I feel like the comedians of that era really molded comedy when it comes to standup. They were the pioneers of what we see as standup comedy today; every joke that you hear nowadays has some essence of the original joke that inspired it. We have a lot of really great individuals that know how to tell their life story, but it sounds like stuff that older comedians went through. Mostly because a lot of comedians go through the same thing. Every standup comic goes through their own situation, but they’re all kind of in the same general neighborhood.

Melissa Leo as Goldie and RJ Cyler as Adam in Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here.
(Photo: Lacey Terrell/Showtime)

There’s a scene in an early episode where Adam shuts down a racist heckler, which speaks to what black comics were dealing with at that time in terms of hostile, prejudiced audiences.
I wasn’t alive during that era, but talking with some of the older comics who [consulted] on the show told me everything I needed to know about the situations they had to go through. Not just African-American comics, but also Latino comics and any new comic in general. There was a lot of segregation going on, and a lack of respect for comics from different cultures. With this show, they didn’t want to just show the bright part of comedy, they show a lot of the darkness, too. Standup comics are alchemists; they take their pain and turn it into something beautiful that other people can enjoy. Being around real standup comics makes you grasp what they had to go through back in the day.

There’s a rawness and sense of danger to the comedy clubs back then that doesn’t seem as pronounced today.
I feel there are more bodyguards nowadays, you know? [Laughs] Back in the day, you got up on the stage and it was just you and the crowd. It was intimate, especially in small clubs. If a heckler wanted to beat your ass, you better know how to fight. Nowadays, we still have comedy clubs, but when comedians do specials, it’s on a larger scale because the Internet has made it easier to get material out on the street. Back then, it was more about entertaining people and putting yourself on the line. Nobody gave a f*** about your feelings.

For the standup sequences in the show, how much are you writing your own jokes versus performing material the writers create for you?
All of the routines reflect my personality, but when it comes to the writing, our writing team is amazing. It was cool to have real standup comics writing jokes, and not just people who think they’re funny. Since I’m not a standup comic, I needed that. I always had a sense of humor, I don’t know how to tell standup jokes. The writers are the ones who made it easy for me. They also showed me how to deliver them. You can’t just go up there and say some s*** that’s funny, you have to have that separation between the setup and the punchline. I didn’t know any of this! I just saw people get up there and talk. But it’s not just reading what’s on the paper.

Cyler, Michael Angarano and Clark Duke in I’m Dying Up Here. (Photo: Lacey Terrell/Showtime)

It’s like going to standup boot camp, in a way.
It literally was. One of our writers took me to this small comedy warehouse called Marty’s. That’s where comics go to spar with each other. It was the first time I ever did a standup situation. The writer told me, “Just go up there and try some of the stuff from the show. Try talking about your day in a funny way, see if you can make people laugh.” I did the first five minutes with stuff from the show, and I was like, “Damn, you all are laughing!” I ended up doing 20 minutes. That was because I had that guidance. When you’re doing standup, you can’t really care too much about why you’re on the stage. You’re there, and you’re in the moment.

What can you reveal about Adam’s general arc during the first season?
It’s really just about growth. Adam starts out as this really talented, really hungry, ambitious comic and he’s ready to take any spot. As you see him grow through this first season, you see him learn from the comics he surrounds himself with. It’s something that Michael [Angarano] brought up: We see the character get more comfortable onstage, and that was me growing at the same time. I was already nervous just getting up there, and it took a few takes to get comfortable, and then it’s just fun. You either ease into it, or you hit the audience heavy from the front. That was something Bernie Mac did. The first thing he said was, “I ain’t scared of you motherf******.” That’s the type of comic I want Adam to become.

Growing into Bernie Mac would be a great career arc for Adam.
That will be cool as s***, and not just because I would get to wear a really big loop earring! [Laughs]

I’m Dying Up Here premieres June 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

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