In 1963 a man named Budd Friedman changed the world. And I’m not being over-dramatic. He literally changed the world, and especially the world of entertainment, by opening what became the world’s first ever comedy club, The Improv.
It was on 44th Street and 9th Avenue, in Manhattan, and it started out as a coffee house and a place for actors to come and hang out, and maybe get up on stage to perform after they got off stage at the nearby Broadway theatres.
At first it drew actors and singers, and then comedians began to come and perform. Budd was the onstage host, and Danny Aiello was the door host/bouncer. After a while more and more comics started showing up to hone their craft.
Before The Improv came along comics would perform only in nightclubs and theatres as part of variety shows, but there had never been an establishment that offered only stand-up comedy.
After a couple of years Budd noticed that the comics were predominating, and that the audiences loved it, so he started doing all comedy, hence the world’s first comedy club!
Fifty years later The Improv is still going strong on Melrose Avenue in LA. I performed there a couple of times myself.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Improv, EPIX, the network that brings you the biggest movies including three of the biggest of 2012, like The Avengers, Skyfall, and The Hunger Games, is releasing “The Improv-Fifty Years Behind The Brick Wall” on Friday Dec. 6th, 2013.
Narrated by Adam Sandler and produced by Judy Pastore, Monica Bautista, Budd and his partner Mark Lonow, (who joined him in 1979), and Budd’s accomplished daughter Zoe Friedman, who actually was the Exec. Producer, the film features footage with Judd Apatow, Lewis Black, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld, and Damon, Keenen, Marlon, and Shawn Wayans all in intimate sit-down recollections of their early days at The Improv. accompanied by archival video footage and rare photos. Only a legend like Budd could assemble that many huge names!
And those are just some of the comedy stars he helped become household names. Besides having Danny Aiello as his door host/bouncer, other workers went on to achieve greatness.
First there was Chris Albrecht who managed the club when Budd went to LA in 1975, and went on to become the Pres. of HBO, then Les Moonves, currently the Pres. and CEO of CBS, who was a bartender. There were the waitresses, like Karen Black, who I got to work with last year on Kroll Show, and who we just lost to cancer this past August, and cable TV’s pioneer female comic/legend Elayne Boosler, who also toiled as a waitress, and then there were a couple of other door hosts you may have heard of including Keenen Ivory Wayans and Joe Piscopo.
A&E immortalized Budd when they had him host “An Evening at The Improv” from his Hollywood club, which was a weekly series that ran from 1982 through 1996. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t performing in those days and never got to be on, but I watched the show religiously!
Over the years I got to know Budd and his partner Mark Lonow who joined him in 1979. As a matter of fact, I wrote Budd and his lovely wife Alix into a feature film script I wrote in 1990 called Baby and Max, about a comic named Max Arnold who gets the worst gigs imaginable. The film opens with Max trying to entertain a guy on Death Row. He’s about to get the electric chair, and is already strapped in, and Max is in the execution room trying to tell him jokes.
On one of his other horrible gigs he’s trying to entertain passengers on a cross-country flight from NY to LA, by telling jokes in the main aisle of the plane, when he gets discovered by Budd Friedman who’s on the flight with his wife Alix. To find out what happens next you’ll have to come up with a budget to make the movie!
This past July at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, which is the biggest and oldest comedy festival in the world, Budd and Mark were honored with an award and the red carpet treatment. I interviewed them both, once together on the red carpet and then separately!
Budd and I have history! I recall many years ago he made a party in Montreal to honor Milton Berle who may have been the first honoree to be inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame, and Milton invited me to attend as his guest. He was also my sponsor in The Friars Club. We sat at a long table, with Budd at the head, me on his right and Milton directly across from me. Budd went to read the menu and put a monocle into his eye. I had never seen that before and was kind of surprised.
Around 1970, I had created a character I called “Spoon-eye” who went around holding a spoon in his eye like a monocle, as if he didn’t know it was there. It sounds silly but at one point Conan O’Brien came out on his show with a spoon in his eye, and it took Cindy Adams to write that it was I who started that. She wrote, “I don’t know who would even want to take credit for such a thing but it was Jeffrey Gurian who did it first.” I actually showed it to Salvador Dali back around 1978, who was so intrigued he actually tried to put one of my spoons in his ear, instead of his eye. I still have that spoon!
Anyway, when Budd put his monocle in I took out a spoon and put that it MY eye. Budd looked at me like “What the heck are you doing?” and I made the mistake of trying to tell him it was very big on “The Coast.” He said to me, “I live on The Coast and I NEVER saw anyone do that!” Milton just sat there confused and I quickly changed the subject!
In 2007, Kent Emmons from All Comedy Radio made me a party in LA for my new book at the time based on my years of writing for the Friars Roasts. It was called “Filthy Funny, and Totally Offensive” and featured nasty jokes from over 250 celebs like Drew Carey, Jason Alexander, Chris Elliott, Jeff Garlin, the late Greg Giraldo, Colin Quinn, the late Patrice O’Neal, Artie Lange, Joan Rivers, Jason Alexander, and more than 200 more. Budd was there as evidenced by the photo below!
Budd is also in the recent documentary film I co-produced called “The Business of Comedy, with Exec. Producers Scott Sobel of Scott Entertainment and Gary Licker who also directed the film. It features Budd along with Robert Klein, George Wallace, Tom Dreesen, Susie Essman, Shecky Greene, and comedy club owners who were inspired by Budd, Rick Newman and Richie Tienken. In actuality all comedy club owners were inspired by Budd, which is why when I opened this post I said that Budd changed the world! In the photo below, a young Budd Friedman with a goatee, is on the upper right corner!
This is the trailer for the doc.
So on Dec. 6th at 8 P.M. ET, make sure to watch “The Improv-Fifty Years Behind The Brick Wall” on Epix and Epix.com . You’ll thank me for the tip!
Watch the Epix trailer in case you need convincing: