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How the Improv Changed Comedy Forever

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At the Improv, even the garbage could get a laugh. Gerson “Budd” Friedman, founder of the Hell’s Kitchen comedy club, remembers a night decades ago when Rodney Dangerfield was onstage and a pair of attractive young women arrived at the club. “He stopped in the middle of a joke and said, ‘Look who walked in!’ ” recalls Friedman. Actor Jack Knight, who later had a recurring role on Cheers, leapt out of his seat to check out the women, crashing his head into a dangling lightbulb. “When the busboy threw out the shards into a metal trash can,” Friedman continues, “there was a huge crash. Then Rodney said, ‘Hey, it sounds like a robot throwing up!’ ”

Such raucous stories — and some darker ones — fill The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up, which Friedman assembled with assistance from journalist Tripp Whetsell. The result, thanks to the hundred-plus interviews with a who’s who of stand-up history, is a chummy page-turner that lays out how Friedman unwittingly drew up the modern comedy club blueprint. It was pretty simple. “Without the performers I would’ve had a very shitty restaurant,” says Friedman, 85, from his home in Los Angeles. “Instead, I had a very successful nightclub.”

Born in Norwich, Connecticut, and raised in the Bronx, Friedman fell into show business when he met the woman who would become his first wife, Silver Saunders. A Broadway hoofer, she would frequently lament to Friedman that midtown didn’t have a place for her and her fellow performers to go after a show to eat and drink on a budget, and maybe even get up onstage to do a number just for fun.

Before the Improv, comedians typically appeared in cafés, restaurants, and nightclubs throughout Manhattan as openers or emcees for musical acts. This was also the norm for a time at the Improv, which Friedman opened in 1963 on West 44th Street near Ninth Avenue. “I can’t help but think that a part of me must have been insane when I look back now at why I decided to start the Improv,” writes Friedman, who struggled to make ends meet for much of the first decade after the club’s opening.

“He was really living hand to mouth,” says Whetsell. “He didn’t realize there were places where you could buy food in bulk. He’d go to the butcher to buy meat and he’d get popped for that.” A desperate Friedman would sometimes pay a supplier up front with an unsigned check, giving him an extra day to scrounge funds together for the purchase.

Though Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Barry Manilow, and other big-name musicians took the Improv stage early on, a gradual shift saw fewer musical acts, who were replaced by stand-ups. Until late 1972, when Catch a Rising Star opened on the Upper East Side, the Improv was the only club in Manhattan that housed such shows. Its bookers had the pick of the comedy litter.

The list of comedians who performed at the 74-seat Improv during the Sixties and Seventies is beyond incredible. Naming just a few, there was Richard Pryor, Stiller and Meara, Lily Tomlin, Robert Klein, George Carlin, Joe Piscopo, and Jay Leno — whom Friedman praises as the funniest comic he’s ever seen, along with Robin Williams. The Tonight Show mined the Improv for talent, and soon similar clubs copied many of Friedman’s business and design ideas, including the now iconic brick wall behind the stage, which Friedman only left exposed at his place because he couldn’t afford new drywall to cover it.

As the Improv continued to thrive through the Seventies, Friedman developed personal relationships with numerous comics, including Richard Lewis, who sees an entire chapter devoted to him in Friedman’s book. In early ’71, fellow comic David Brenner instructed Lewis to earn his comedy stripes at other clubs before even attempting to perform at the Improv. Over six months, Lewis honed his act at open mics around the city before finally making his Improv debut. He killed so thoroughly that Friedman asked him to perform again during the late show. Lewis gladly accepted…and then bombed in front of four people at 2 a.m.  

In 1974, Friedman opened a second Improv location on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, sparking a “turf war” with Comedy Store club owner Mitzi Shore. Whetsell says Shore “basically made Budd’s life miserable,” telling performers they weren’t allowed to go up at the Improv if they wanted stage time at the Comedy Store. “She was very threatened by Budd’s presence,” says Whetsell of the feud, which was recently fictionalized in the Showtime dramedy I’m Dying Up Here. Though the program dug up unfortunate memories — and featured a character, Teddy, who’s loosely (and unflatteringly) based on Friedman — the Improv owner says he enjoyed the show.

Ultimately, the Hollywood Improv and Comedy Store would coexist, and both remain in business today. The original Improv shuttered in December 1992, however, one of many club casualties after the Eighties stand-up bubble finally burst. “Having it fold was very traumatic,” writes Friedman, kind of like having your childhood home hit with a wrecking ball.”

For Friedman, who’s seen the Improv brand spread to more than thirty different locations through the years — twenty of which remain open — not to mention the cable TV show An Evening at the Improv, the memories remain. “I appreciate the recognition I’ve gained over the years,” he says. “Comedy would be very different without my work at the Improv.”

The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up
By Budd Freidman, with Tripp Whetsell
BenBella Books
400 pp.

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