On Showtime’s new series I’m Dying Up Here is a Jim Carrey-produced effort and takes a fictionalized look at the 1970s Los Angeles comedy business, incorporating real-life late night veterans like Rick Overton into the cast.
Back when Johnny Carson’s decision to move The Tonight Show from New York over to the West Coast in 1972, a floodgate of opportunities arose for many comics.
The poignant, bittersweet and wickedly funny series is adapted from journalist William Knoedelseder’s eponymous non-fiction book, starring Ari Graynor, Michael Angarano, Clarke Duke and Andrew Santino as some of the young comics with visions of superstardom.
But in watching the first few episodes, our eyes are on comedian, actor, and screenwriter Rick Overton, who started performing stand-up in New York in the mid-’70s.
Many remember that Overton famously stole a scene in classic comedy film Groundhog’s Day with the late Rick Ducommun in his quest for flapjacks.
Overton’s writing credits include some of the best lines Dennis Miller ever delivered on the HBO Dennis Miller Live show. His acting CV includes roles in Willow, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Astronaut Farmer and The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. His TV credits include VEEP, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League, The Nick Kroll Show, Six Feet Under, Alias, Joan of Arcadia and Lost.
In this new series Overton is cast as Tonight Show talent coordinator Mitch Bombadier and he appears in six episodes.
He was part of that actual comedy scene and his character’s moments with club owner Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo) practically steal the show from the younger cast.
Raised in New Jersey and New York, Overton’s parents were both in the entertainment business with his father acting as Thelonious Monk’s big band arranger and his mother being a member The Chordettes, the girl group most famous for their wildly popular hit singles “Lollipop” and “Mr. Sandman”.
We spoke to Rick Overton about his wonderful turn as this character who shines like a crazy diamond with Leo’s Goldie:
Monsters and Critics: What was it like the 70s like as a young comic?
Rick Overton: I moved to LA in 1980. So, I was in the New York incarnation of that scene at the Improv and Catch a Rising Star in New York. I was hanging out with Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler, and Richard Belzer, Pat Benatar and those people.
M&C: Who was the Mitzi Shore of New York at the time?
RO: Rick Newman at Catch a Rising Star and then Silver Saunders-Friedman, who was Budd [Friedman’s] ex, got the New York Improv. It ran a little longer but then the comedy scene and of course there was the Comic Strip, with Richard Tienken and Robert ‘Bob’ Wachs and Lucien Hold were the managers and owners of that place. It is the survivor of all of the clubs that started in the new York era, and then of course the Comedy Cellar.
Yeah, there was a scene that was just taking hold and some of it was there, a lot of it was there before I got to LA. The Improv started before I started but a lot of the clubs started after I started. Catch [a Rising Star] was starting a few years before I started, and a few of them did but then the explosion after I started.
M&C: What brought you to LA?
RO: Chris Albrecht, when he was an agent at ICM handling the comedian’s department that was the newly opened. [It was created] for young comedy guys to spread out and do everything with, you know.
M&C: Were you reticent to come to LA, thinking the East Coast was a better comedy scene?
RO: I think I was scared of a change because I was so adjusted to New York and I wasn’t sure how I’d do! I think every young kid is scared of something stupid like that. I went out and tried it anyway, and I guess the message is to try it anyway, you can always go back. But Los Angeles had more affordable rent.
M&C: How did you find out about the role of Mitch Bombadier?
RO: I found out about it when I got the part [laughs] actually through (executive producer) Jim Carrey and my manager Bruce Smith who also is the manager of Maria Bamford.
M&C: Are you going to be on her Netflix show?
RO: If there’s something, the right thing comes up but it has to be the right thing. That I am also the right one, not just because I am in the club.
M&C: We love your scenes with Melissa Leo, you two have intense chemistry in a scene together. In the first two episodes, the coke scene and then the poker game, talk about Mitch and Goldie’s alone time…
RO: [laughs] Me too! me too! I was in awe. In fact, you will see one scene where she goes in on me and I go ‘whoa’ with my eyes and I put it in that scene with the cocaine because it goes perfectly with that in there, but I was like, ‘I’m in a scene with Melissa Leo! I can’t believe it. Whoa! Yay for me!’
[My character Mitch] has to be sort of unhappy and to be worried about the kids getting on the Carson show… but inside, I am like a wiggly, happy dog ass! Just jiggling all over the place, Just thrilled and over the moon with that scene and we have some more fun stuff coming up later on too.
But the poker game, that’s a fun thing for me but it’s a great thing for [Cathy] Ladman and for Wolfman and Melissa again, it showcases the most brilliant work. If you just, I mean, it’s hard not to detach and study while you are in the scene just to go ‘let me get my pen out, this is a master’s class.’ Every moment is like that. Every moment is fun, and I am very lucky and I know it. I will always say so.
M&C: What’s the energy and reality like when comics are together waiting to go on stage?
RO: There’s no one energy for that, it depends on the act, who is confident it will be fine and who can free themselves up to talk to friends normally and joke around. Other people, they need to joke around to amp themselves up to be ready to do the show, in the other direction, and some people they can’t have any contact because they are running their act.
M&C: What was your favorite room to work in LA?
RO: The Improv. My original room mostly in New York, and then it became my… because there was an Improv on both coasts back then, and there wasn’t a Catch A Rising Star yet in other places. They would come later. I used the heat of being an East Coast Improv act to going to the West Coast Improvisation and trying to take some of that with me. Whereas, I would have to start flat cold at the [Comedy] Store.
M&C: The club owners who were larger than life like Mitzi Shore, Budd Friedmans…can you talk about these personalities you dealt with?
RO: I didn’t have a lot of contact with Mitzi…it’s always been sort of a sweet hug and nice, ‘How are you?’ you know? I was closer with Sammy Shore because I worked for him more. I did the Improv back when Budd was still running it along with Mark Lonow, so Budd was very fastidious about keeping you out of the hallway.
He was very conscious of you, ‘Take it outside, out of the aisles, out of the aisles…’ He had a sort of a shop foreman kind of a ‘keep the safety lanes’ open thing going, and it makes sense by the way if there’s a fire hazard there would be a problem so he was like that. But he was a tough guy with a wink.
I think now that Budd doesn’t have so much the tough guy part anymore. He’s a gentler soul now but he doesn’t have the pressure of running one of the two big giant comedy entities before the rest of the all gained momentum. And [wife] Alex certainly has toned the tiger down with dear old Budd. But he did what he had to run this giant machine, a multimillion dollar entity when there wasn’t one previously. He was on the forefront of it becoming that.
M&C: Ari Graynor plays Cassie Feder, an up-and-comer comic in the series, as Goldie (Melissa Leo) tells her she hasn’t found her ‘voice’ yet. Female comics seem to get a lot more flack. Can you talk about that?
RO: I think Moms Mabley, Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and Sarah Silverman…Elayne Boosler broke enormous ground from the time when she did because she was up against all of that stuff. She didn’t turn her act into an ‘Am I right ladies?’ Which was the other way to succeed, just break the genders apart and just work half the room.
Elayne didn’t do that, she played clever and stayed with it and she took the hits for it. When you work clever, you get hit! She did, and she endured it. I think her comedy is as strong as it’s ever been. She certainly has a lot to joke about now and I think her social consciousness making its way – which she always had – into her act is even more [apparent] now. Because it’s called for, is why! Right?
Do you remember Nancy Parker doing Wizard of Oz? Nancy Redman … Adrianne Tolsch, lots of people from the beginning days are still working, Of course, we just lost Adrianne recently, but she was doing it right up until she succumbed. Now I think its easier in some ways for women and in some ways, it is as hard as it’s ever been because some things never change.
M&C: What are those things?
RO: A cycling back to an old perception, the same way everything seemed to have politically cycled back to old perceptions in America. It’s kind of reminiscent of that phenomenon on a deeper scale. But I think it’s sort of the same psychology.
M&C: Has there been a chill in expressing opinion or language after the incident with Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher… conservatives say liberals are against free speech…
RO: Well, I don’t currently name any candidates I don’t talk in individual politics, I talk in people politics, the poll! We keep leaving the other giant “poll-itics” out. Polling, its the populist, its what everyone else is going through, that’s the part I am talking about these days in my act, the rest of us are doing.
Because I am starting to see the politicians as the busy hand that the magician uses to distract us while he is stuffing something away in his pocket, like your watch and wallet.
It’s a media shell game, and I am trying to talk about people running out of water, you know? Michigan! What triggers people to think certain ways because those are the people who then make up a party one way or the other.
When you get down to it. I say in my act, ‘the Republicans are like an alien invasion and the Democrats are like UFO skeptics during an alien invasion.’
M&C: This is a bittersweet drama and project in a way, it makes me think of all of the comedians we have lost. Can you talk about it and who you miss?
RO: All of them. I was close personal friends with Robin [Williams], he was my dear friend and he had Lewy Body Dementia and that took him. And so whatever his body did in the process of that [disease] it wasn’t really all Robin doing any of that. I miss him every day.
I miss George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lord Buckley, Bill Hicks, Richard Jeni, Kevin Meaney, Taylor Negron and Gary Shapiro.
So, you know what luck looks like when you get older? It looks like you saying a list and not being on the list.