Comics claim Improv tapes on wrong track

A bootleg series of illegal tapes of latenight laughs allegedly made by the management at The Improv has got a fistful of comics hopping mad and they say it’s no joke.

Comedians Bob Shimmel, Carol Siskind and Dom Irerra have hired attorney Ian Imrich to look into the possibility that The Improv illegally taped dozens of comics — including Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Belzer, Paul Provenza and Sinbad — performing at the Los Angeles-based venue and sold the tapes to an Atlanta distribution company.

Imrich said Monday he was ready to file suit against the well-known laugh emporium this week on charges of copyright infringement and fraud, seeking more than $ 1.2 million in damages.

Imrich said the charges would be filed against co-owner Mark Lonow, his wife Joanne Astrow and The Improv, but that longtime owner Budd Friedman would not be named individually in the suit.

“I don’t think he (Friedman) knew what was going on,” Imrich said. Shimmel and Siskind allege that Lonow and Astrow made twosets of six tapes — titled “Comedy after Hours” and “Live from the Improv”– and sold them to the Atlanta-based Southeastern Tape Distributors and Score Prods.

Improv attorney Edward Blau, who also represents Score, said that all the comedians involved consented, either verbally or in writing. Those that didn’t were taken off the tape, he said.

“The Improv has made an attempt to send checks to the comedians who were on the tape,” he said. “Some of them were cashed. Some went to the wrong addresses. Every attempt has been made to let these people know. ”

Shimmel, who is heard on the tapes for 32 minutes, maintains that he never signed a release. “I was very upset because there was no way I gave permission to be on there,” he said. “Not only did I not sign, nobody told me they were recording me.”

Blau said that all comedians involved retained full ownership of their material, which would not be the case if it were a major label release.

Shimmel, who has a rider in his contract that prevents him from being taped without his knowledge or consent, said he discovered the tapes accidentally at a gas station in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He said initially Lonow and Astrow told him that a cleaning woman had thrown out the releases and that if he had not signed one, it was merely an oversight.

Astrow later called Shimmel and said she had made a mistake and that a check was on its way. Shimmel said he received a check for $ 48.50, which he did not cash, refusing it as payment for the work.

Shimmel said he offered to accept performance dates at the Improv in lieu of payment, but was refused by Lonow and Astrow.

Blau said the tapes had only sold some 18,000 copies. “It’s much ado about nothing.”

Bob May, a spokesman for Score Prods., confirmed that his company distributed the tape. He too said only a “very small” number of tapes had been sold. And he said he understood the Improv had obtained releases from more than 200 comics.

Shimmel said that some comics had agreed to be taped for a one-time radio show but did not consent to a tape for distribution.

The tapes have got the comedy world buzzing, but few comics want to be associated with the potential lawsuit for fear of recrimination. Imrich said at least a half dozen other comedians had approached him about joining the suit, but were waiting for the reaction after the filing.

One comic, who was on the tape but did not want to reveal his name, said he approached Friedman and Lonow about the recordings and was threatened with a blacklist.

Shimmel said he has not worked at any Improv clubs since he came forward.

Shimmel added that comics should have the same kind of protection that the music industry provides its recording stars.

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