Improv comedy club founder Budd Friedman tells all in new book

October 23, 2017 GMT

When it comes to comedy clubs, The Improv has defined quality and talent for decades. During the cable boom of the 1980s, “Evening at The Improv” was a portal into the world of stand-up comedy for many of us still too young to see comics live. That show was also the first time most of the world outside Los Angeles met Budd Friedman, the man behind the magic.

With a larger-than-life personality and a distinctive look that included a monocle, Mr.Friedman welcomed us into his domain to see soon-to-be stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno shine. Several decades later, The Improv remains a comedy institution, with more than a dozen locations around the world, including a popular D.C. spot.

To celebrate the release of his new book, “The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Comedy,” I went to Mr. Friedman’s Los Angeles home to talk to him about accidental beginnings, his famous eyewear and the greatest comics he ever saw.

Question: Why did you start the original Improv in New York City?

Answer: It was a complete fluke. Although I’d enjoyed listening to comedians as a teenager in the 1940s and ’50s, I never had any aspirations to start any sort of club, much less a comedy club.

In the summer of 1962, I moved back to New York to become a Broadway producer, with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever other than an idea I’d always had about someday doing something in show business. Again, I didn’t know what, and I had no clue what being a Broadway producer entailed, but I knew that I didn’t want to be an actor, and this seemed like the next best thing.

At the time also, I was dating a woman named Silver Saunders, who later became my wife and was in the chorus of “How to Succeed in Business,” which was the biggest hit on Broadway at the time. After the show got out each night, Silver and I would go out to eat with some of the cast to places like Sardi’s and Downey’s in the theater district, which none of them could afford on a chorus kid’s salary. My idea was to open something up in the Theater District that was affordable, and where they could get something cheap to eat, sing if they wanted to, and where I could expand my contacts enough to maybe produce my first show. It was never going to be anything but a temporary venture.

Q: How did it become a comedy club?

A: It was all an accident. At first we billed ourselves as a coffeehouse that served food because we couldn’t afford a liquor license. Anything went, which is how I came up with the name “The Improvisation,” which we later shortened to “The Improv.”

Even though we continued to present singers for many years to come, about six months after I opened, a very popular [comedian] named Dave Astor came in and asked if he could do a few minutes. It gradually evolved from there.

Q: After Dave Astor, who were the very first comics to play there?

A: Dave was a good friend of Richard Pryor, who was just starting out at coffeehouses down in Greenwich Village, and he came in one night. I knew he was special from the beginning.

Besides Pryor, some of our earliest acts, in no particular order, were people like impressionist David Frye, Stiller and Meara, Lily Tomlin, Ron Carey and Steve Landesberg. We also had Rodney Dangerfield, who came in drunk one night around 1964 and did one of the worst acts I’d ever seen, only to go back on the next night, where he killed. It was the most amazing transformation I’ve ever seen. He became our first unofficial MC after that.

Q: How did The Improv go from being one club in New York to a franchise?

A: The franchising didn’t start until many years later. The real catalyst, however, was Johnny Carson’s relocating “The Tonight Show” to L.A. in 1972, after which many of my biggest acts, like Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Gabe Kaplan and Freddie Prinze, followed suit. Back in those days, one appearance on Carson could make or break your career. One by one, many of my best acts were moving to L.A., and even though New York was doing better than ever, I decided it was time for me to make the move also.

Q: Did the cable TV comedy boom of the 1980s help or hurt the business of live comedy?

A: It was a double-edged sword. Undeniably, our show, which was the first stand-up comedy show on television, was a major catalyst for the boom because now all of America could experience what it was like to be in a comedy club without leaving their homes.

The downside of that was that everybody thought they could be a comedian and open a comedy club and it diluted things. After a while, it became almost impossible to tell the good from the bad. We definitely paid a price.

Q: How easily did you take to being in front of the camera?

A: Like a duck takes to water. I’ve always been a ham, and I loved every second of it.

Q: Why did you wear the monocle, and do you still wear one?

A: The monocle started in New York not long after we opened in the 1960s. I didn’t need glasses then, but I couldn’t see the menu only I was too vain to admit it, so I decided to start wearing a monocle. I still do.

Q: Who were the top 10 greatest comics that ever played The Improv?

A: If I had to rank them I’d say: Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Robert Klein, Jimmy Fallon, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield.

Q: Ultimately, what’s your legacy?

A: I built a better playground.

“The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up,” is now available.