Comedy has always been a tough circuit, and those that pioneered the stand-up comedy scene of the early 70s know that best. SHOWTIME’s latest series I’m Dying Up Here, delves deep into the ups and downs of this burgeoning industry by exploring some of its nascent stories. With an incredible cast and Academy Award winner Melissa Leo at the helm, the series is poised to satisfy even the most finicky viewer. It boasts more sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, laughter and tear jerkers than you can handle, so buckle up and get ready for an incredible ride. Read our exclusive interview with Leo below, and make sure to catch up on new episodes of I’m Dying Up Here, Sundays at 10/9c only on SHOWTIME®!

Tell us a bit about the era that I’m Dying Up Here takes place in—how would you describe the series in that context?

Well I’m Dying Up Here takes place in the early 70s. Our first season is set in 1973, and the show revolves around the stand-up comedy scene of that time. I don’t play a comic mind you, I play Goldie who runs a comedy club on Sunset Strip—and she really nurtures her comics.

The kind of comedy that Goldie comes from is old school; it’s Yiddish theater, that vaudeville style comedy. It feels like stand-up is the thing that followed vaudeville, when vaudeville was no more. And I like to think that Goldie’s on Sunset Strip in the first comedy club of its kind, or certainly one of the first few, where there weren’t all kinds of acts going on. In the late sixties and early seventies, you’d have clubs that would serve drinks and food, pairing it with a wide variety of entertainment—from folksingers or acts, to poetry readings. Goldie makes a decision long before the series begins to focus solely on comedy. And she sets the stage in a very particular way, where the audience is quite literally in the dark. The focus is on the comic—just them and a spotlight. And it was, I think, really the beginning of what we all think of as modern stand-up. Now we watch comedy specials on television, and all that comes from this time when stand-up was finding its way to becoming the art it’s easily known as today.

Ari Graynor and Melissa Leo in SHOWTIME’s I’m Dying Up Here

Goldie is such a powerful female character. Was this something that drew you to this part, especially given the context of the  male-driven culture of the 70s?

I have to say, I think it’s very complicated! Being a teenager myself in the 70s, I think that in many ways we were actually more advanced as a society in the 70s than we are now. We had just come out of the 60s where people could be who they were and they didn’t have to follow these role models of Mom and Pop, Dick, Jane or Sally—we could really just be who we were, and it didn’t really matter what our genitalia was. Somewhere in the late eighties into the nineties, we retrograded and went backwards. Boys and girls. Black and white. All that bullshit. Looking back on the 70s now, it really was a remarkable time, because the messages of the 60s had gotten through, and people could be all kinds of ways. Women were really finding their voices, and they could write books and tell people “This is what I think!” and it was an explosive time in many ways! I think that for the white male it was kind of scary, but I think that for pretty much everybody else, it really looked like we’d made some change. Today I wonder. So it’s been a real pleasure to go back to the 70s while doing the show.

What are you most looking forward to audiences experiencing when the show airs in June?

It’s hard to say! I’m looking forward to sharing all that we’ve been doing over the last many weeks with the audience. I’m looking forward to seeing what their response to it is! This job has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, and just one of the best characters I’ve ever played. I think it’s—it’s what I live for. It’s really the art of acting at its highest. Because people will laugh and people will cry. And that makes me so happy.

The cast of SHOWTIME’s I’m Dying Up Here

Read our exclusive interview with Melissa Leo above, and make sure to catch new episodes of I’m Dying Up Here, Sundays at 10/9c only on SHOWTIME®!