Brad Garrett stalks the small stage, sweating in a shiny tan suit. His bleary eyes focus on the couple below him. The groom, a young comic rocketing to sitcom fame. The bride, a former Penthouse Pet.
“Ron and I have a lot of history,” he says. “It’s funny because I know they’re going to be married, but in my humble opinion, I think Ronnie has the sweeter set of titties. Now Trudy, by the way, is doing something today she’s never done before: She’ll be cutting the cake from the outside.”
The audience howls. Garrett shakes his head, momentarily lost in thought. The room quiets. He finally looks up and raises a glass.
“Ron and Trudy, you mean so much to me. I just want to say … they say health is the most important thing. But I’ll be honest, I was a healthy asshole for many years in many marriages. So I wish you kindness to each other. To the happy couple! To kindness!”
“Cut!” the director calls. Garrett steps off the stage amid applause. A makeup artist pats down his forehead. The camera resets. Garrett takes a swig of water and prepares to repeat his roast all over again.
The Culver City, California, soundstages housing Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here feature sets decked out in ’70s decor. There’s a recreated Canter’s Deli, a few schlubby houses, a hotel suite done up in palm-frond wallpaper, and, currently, an entire smoky comedy club.
A fictionalized incarnation of William Knoedelseder’s 2009 book of the same name, Dying follows the starry-eyed journeys of comedians starting out at Sunset Strip institution the Comedy Store—or rather, in Showtime’s version, a venue named Goldie’s.
Real-life performers Al Madrigal, Erik Griffin, Jon Daly, Andrew Santino and Dom Irrera play comics themselves; others like Dana Gould, Andy Kindler and Rick Overton portray industry members. Jim Carrey executive produces.
In May 6’s Season 2 premiere, Garrett’s Roy Martin arrives in LA from Las Vegas. An older comic who influenced the newer generation, Martin hopes a Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson appearance will reignite his career.
“He’s got a lot of demons that he never really got under control,” Garrett says. “He’s very conflicted, addictive, very cutthroat, very insecure, and he finds himself navigating the club comedy scene, which is just littered with up-and-comers. He’s had his day, but I think deep down he knows his days are fairly behind him.”
Execs David Flebotte and Michael Aguilar created Martin specifically with Garrett in mind. “It was just an actor’s dream to be able to play this type of person,” he says. “Especially something so dark and dramatic, which I love to be able to do. And it doesn’t come around often.”
Garrett clearly isn’t portraying a version of himself, but he knows the terrain. After starting his career at Pasadena’s Ice House Comedy Club, Garrett won Star Search, performed on Carson and began playing Vegas in his early 20s. His first Strip stint, opening for singer Crystal Gale in 1986 at the Desert Inn, was eventually followed by bills that included headliners Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., The Righteous Brothers and The Beach Boys.
The three-time Emmy winner might be best known for playing second banana on CBS juggernaut Everybody Loves Raymond and starring on Fox’s ’Til Death. But Garrett always prioritized time for projects like a Jackie Gleason biopic, performing alongside Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and roasting fellow comics like Joan Rivers and Cheech & Chong.
He opened Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at the Tropicana in the summer of 2010, moving to the MGM Grand in 2012. The longtime poker enthusiast has competed in Celebrity Poker Showdown and World Series of Poker, and hosted numerous tournaments benefitting the Maximum Hope Foundation.
Dying, he says, accurately reflects the period represented. “This is an era that a lot of great stand-ups today didn’t know. But as far as the nightclub and the comedic scene and the competition and the vendettas and the anger and the f*cked-up people that inhabit a lot of comics …,” Garrett pauses. “I think we’re really flawed. We’re wounded. We have to be, I think, to a certain degree to get up there and say, ‘Love me or hate me, just pay attention to me!’ So there’s a real accuracy that they’re portraying in these characters.”
These days the comedy-club business is less cut-throat. Garrett says opening his own venue fulfilled a lifelong dream. “It’s different now than when I was there in the ’80s, but it’s still Vegas,” he explains. “It sounds corny or cliché, but on the road you can play so many sh*t clubs. I always said if I really make it, I want to have a great club where we can really take care of our comics, put them in great rooms, feed them great food and really let them have that Vegas experience, as opposed to just being part of the circus.”
A cast table read is starting up one soundstage over. Garrett hopes Roy Martin can regain the joy that performing once provided. “I’m the oldest guy on the set nowadays,” he laughs, “but I’m still having a good time.”