There's a strong case to be made that the modern stand-up comedy club, a staple of the nightlife landscape, was invented by Budd Friedman when he opened the Improv in Manhattan in 1963, followed by the L.A. outpost in 1975. And like many important inventions, the whole thing practically happened by accident.
“I felt like I was lifting up without a flight plan,” Friedman says. “I didn't know what I was doing.”
More than any other owner/manager of a major NYC or L.A. comedy club, Friedman, 85, was an outsized presence, a distinct personality in his venue. From the 1970s to the 2000s, Friedman not only moved busily through the Melrose Avenue club — meeting, greeting, schmoozing, problem-solving and making sure things ran on schedule — he would also frequently take the stage as a show host, his trademark monocle commanding attention. Friedman ended up a performer of sorts in his own right; yet things were stacked against his West Coast venture at the outset.
“I walked into a hornet's nest in L.A.,” Friedman recalls. “Mitzi [Shore at the Comedy Store] was already a big player and she was telling her comics not to play the Improv, whereas I didn't have that rule.”
Nonetheless, Friedman met just about everybody in New York and L.A. comedy, booked them (or didn't book them), and had to handle their unique, strong and sometimes difficult personalities.
“Some comedians are as normal as can be,” he says. “For instance, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon. You also have the really tortured souls out there — people like Andy Kaufman.”
With the release of his book The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up (BenBella Books, $18.87), co-written with Tripp Whetsell, Friedman tells all of it, while also letting luminaries and employees from the era share their recollections in sidebars.
Born Gerson Friedman in 1932, Budd grew up in relatively bucolic Norwich, Connecticut, with strong family ties to New York City. His knockout older sister modeled for newspaper pinups during WWII, and mom and dad were genuinely funny and gregarious at parties. The seeds of showbiz were planted early.
After his father's unfortunate early death from an internal nose infection, Friedman's mother sold plus-size clothing and ran a sleep-away kids camp, both out of their home. Various Depression-era travails followed: displacement by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, adjusting to a move from Norwich to the Bronx, the family bouncing around various inexpensive NYC hotels. Friedman enlisted in the Army at the height of the Korean War, and was blasted by a grenade on Pork Chop Hill.
Before the NYC Improv's opening, stand-up comedy was usually treated as little more than a novelty to be sandwiched between music acts. Newer comedians slogged their way up through the ranks, performing between dancers at strip clubs. And being successful often meant playing the mainly Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.
The Improv — named for the uncharted feel of the endeavor, not improvisational theater — was carved out of a Vietnamese restaurant space in Hell's Kitchen, purposefully chosen for its location near Times Square. Friedman had recently escaped his advertising agency job and dreamed of being a theatrical show producer. He diligently constructed the space — performing much of the carpentry work himself, along with a helper — crafting its den-of-hip, after-hours vibe.
Comedians mixed with singers, many of whom were Broadway stage luminaries, and lots of actors hung out. A drunk Jason Robards pissed on the iconic brick wall behind the stage. Strippers unexpectedly took the stage and broke decency laws. One time Friedman went after a live rat on the stage with a baseball bat. Regulars including Dustin Hoffman, Albert Finney and Tuesday Weld loved the place.
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By the time Friedman opened the Improv on Melrose, the template of modern comedy showcase clubs — many strong comedians on a lineup doing relatively short sets, no hourlong headliner — had been established. A list of important comedians who called the L.A. Improv home would be meaningless, because it's just about all of them. The you-had-to-be-there magical vibe of the West 44th Street club was infused with Hollywood's energy, and the L.A. location and equaled — perhaps exceeded — the original's rich history. Friedman's book allows you to be there, roaming the corridor and bar, transfixed in the showroom, taking in the performances — on- and offstage.
Friedman and Whetsell will be at Book Soup in West Hollywood for a signing on Friday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. booksoup.com/event/budd-friedman-tripp-whetsell-discuss-and-sign-improv-oral-history-comedy-club-revolutionized.