Budd Friedman with Lily Tomlin (left) and his wife, Alix Friedman. Photo courtesy of Jeff Abraham

Improv founder Budd Friedman looks back in laughter in new book


Budd Friedman helped launch the careers of some of comedy’s brightest stars, including Jerry Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Maher, Larry David and Billy Crystal. He also invented the modern comedy club as we know it. Now, he’s released a book detailing the history of the club he founded.

Friedman’s book, “The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up,” co-authored by Tripp Whetsell, includes a foreword by Jay Leno and commentary from many of the comedians who appeared on the Improv’s stage over the years.

Friedman, 85, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Alix, said he decided to write the book because, “I thought everyone should see my side of things. I let the comics have their say about me and my accomplishments.”

Friedman opened the Improv on West 44th Street in Manhattan in 1963. He wanted it to be a place for Broadway performers to hang out after their shows because he had dreams of becoming a Broadway producer. Soon, people like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Christopher Plummer, Bette Midler and Dustin Hoffman dropped by, and the club became a sensation among the Broadway crowd.

As Whetsell recalled, one year after the club opened, comedian David Astor asked to go onstage and do his act. Other comedians started following because they’d rather perform there than open for performers at jazz and strip clubs. They’d do their act in front of the famous brick wall, which eventually became a staple at other comedy clubs.

“It was a very eclectic bunch of comedians,” said Whetsell, who is a comedy journalist. “They were very experimental. Even though singers were the main draw for many years, eventually the comedians became the main draw.”

In 1974, Friedman left New York for Los Angeles and opened up a second Improv, on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. There, he discovered one of comedy’s biggest emerging acts: Robin Williams.

“From the moment he walked in, it was obvious to me and everybody else that he was going to become a big star, perhaps even one of the biggest we’d ever seen, which, of course, turned out to be true beyond anything we could have ever imagined,” he wrote in the book.

Comedians such as Williams, Kaufman and Leno were drawn to the Improv because of how Friedman treated them. “I’ve always had the attitude that the comedians are already right, even when they are wrong,” he said.

And Friedman also had standards for the comedians he booked at the club. “I looked for originality,” he said. “They had to talk in their own voice.”

Although the club was welcoming well-known comedians and taking off through the 1970s, Friedman was in a bitter rivalry with Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. Before the decade was over, the Improv burned down and Friedman was finalizing his divorce with his first wife. As his 46th birthday was approaching, he almost called it quits.

Instead, he turned it all around. He struck a deal with A&E to put out a weekly syndicated comedy show called, “An Evening at the Improv,” which ran from 1982 to 1996, and he started expanding his comedy empire. The New York location eventually closed, but the Improv has 22 locations in 12 states, including the rebuilt flagship L.A. location.

Although there have been many memorable moments at the club, what sticks out the most for Friedman is the night he met Alix, in 1981. “She came into the club and sat down, and I was immediately struck by her beauty,” he said. “I was dating a girlfriend of hers, but it was then that I decided that I was going to date Alix instead.”

Today, Friedman has taken a step back from managing the club. He spends his time with Alix and reflecting on his earlier years.

“I look out of my house, which is over the Los Angeles Country Club in Westwood, and I see myself in better years,” he said. “I used to look out over the terrace and yell down to the golfers, ‘Bend your elbows!’ ”

Friedman’s daughter Zoe has carried on her father’s legacy in the entertainment business, as a senior vice president of development at Blue Ribbon Content, a digital production company, and as co-founder of Comedy Gives Back, which leverages live comedy to raise money for charity. 

Whetsell said the Improv has played an integral role in the comedy industry that will live on. “It was the first comedy club in America that pushed comedy in a full comedic format. It created the template for comedy clubs today.”

Friedman added that his club shaped two generations of comedians. And even though platforms like Comedy Central, YouTube and Snapchat have made comedy accessible to everybody, he believes the clubs will continue to flourish.

“They’re here to stay,” he said. “Especially the Improv.” n

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