One of the highlights of this year’s Just for Laughs Montreal ComedyPRO, was a panel discussion with the cast of Showtime’s I’m Dying up Here, including its executive producer, comedian Jim Carrey. The series can be seen in Canada on The Movie Network and Crave TV. Loosely based on the book by William Knoedelseder, the series is set in the 1970’s and tells the story of a group of aspiring stand-up comedians.

In addition to Carrey, IDuH’s panel included cast members Ari Graynor, Erik Griffin, Andrew Santino, R. J. Cyler and Michael Angarano. Moderating the discussion was Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter for The New York Times.

When Carrey hit the stage of Place des Arts’ Maison Symphonique, he was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation. While he was obviously pleased with the response, he immediately directed the conversation to his passion project. IDuH is the culmination of Carrey’s career, from stand-up comedian, to actor, to producer. “I’m proud that I’m part of a team that is bringing back that experience of making it in 70’s comedy.” Carrey has been awarded the  Generation Award at this year’s JFL.

Given the nostalgia of IDuH, Carrey enchanted the audience with stories about his arrival in 1980’s Hollywood. “I went to Los Angeles to create an identity for myself… I was a kid from Canada and I knew I wanted to burst into a ball of light…”

Carrey got his break in Toronto, at Mark Breslin’s Yuk Yuk’s comedy club. “The first time I went on stage, I was 15 years old. I wore a polyester suit my mother got me; my father and I wrote my first routine.” While he nervously performed, Breslin yelled at him, “Totally boring!” Carrey was crushed; it took him a while to rebound. “I went back two years later—and killed it!” Carrey defended Breslin’s tough love mentorship. “That lack of mercy breaks down barriers. Comedy is more mean streets than punchlines.”

I’m Dying up Here (L to R) Angarano, Griffin, Graynor, Itzkoff, Carrey, Santino & Cyler

The cast of IDuH includes stand-up comedians with little acting experience and trained actors with no stand-up training. Each is learning from the other, and all have bonded as a cohesive family.

When she’s asked about her lack of stand-up experience, Graynor, who portrays Cassie Feder, said she responds, “If you play a doctor, no one expects you to perform surgery.” Cyler, who plays Adam Proteau, said that learning how to perform stand-up has given him “a new respect for comedy.” Angarano, who plays Eddie Zeidel, talked about the stress of learning stand-up. “There were times when Goldie’s stage was the real stage, the background players were a real audience. You were being judged by your performance. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t meant to be that good yet.”

For experienced stand-ups Griffin and Santino, who were friends before the series, the challenge has been to perform comedy material that’s not their own. Griffin, who plays Ralph King, explained how Carrey told him a lot of great stories, “but the stuff in my head got me going.” Santino, who plays Bill Hobbs, said “it’s difficult not to find your voice in the character’s voice.” Even the subject matter is a challenge for the actors, who were not even born at the time the series is set. “The topics of that time are old hat now; we have to make them fresh,” explained Griffin.

All the cast agrees that the comedy world is far less challenging now than it was then, when the only chance for a big break was an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Explained Carrey, “Standing on stage, waiting for the curtain to open—it’s the most terrifying thing you can do. It’s not just going on stage and performing, it’s the rest of your life in front of you.” “I don’t envy those who came before us and broke the mould,” says Santino. “They were pioneers—like Jacques Cartier,” adds Carrey, with a grin.

I’m Dying up Here

Sunday evenings, 10 p.m.

The Movie Network/ Crave TV