Comedians like Richard Lewis, Ray Romano and Keenen Wayans vividly recall their first time at one of the Improv clubs. Others, such as Larry David and Bill Maher, remember an overarching sense of community that permeated those clubs in Gotham and Los Angeles.
As David explains, “The Improv was a place for me to finally do something with my life, because I was heading on a fast track to nowhere and this gave me a place to try this new thing.”
While he doesn’t remember his very first time at the club, he does recalls “going on really late at night in the beginning, and there were five or six people scattered throughout the room. It wasn’t easy. But it sort of became the center of my universe. All my friends were there. We would just hang out there, and we had a softball team. I finally found a group of people I couldn’t offend.”
Maher used to cab to all three clubs in Gotham — the Improv, the Comic Strip and Catch a Rising Star — clocking in three sets a night on occasion. But he has a special attachment to the Improv on Melrose in Los Angeles.
“When I came out here to California, one reason I have such affection for Budd (Friedman, Improv co-founder) is that (club) was my home for 10 years,” he says. “That was the Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name. That’s what that club was for me my first 10 years out here, starting in 1983 until doing ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993. Those 10 years were the diciest part of my career, because it wasn’t the beginning and it wasn’t finally the thing I did that allowed me to have a career. The Improv was my anchor when I was frumpering around and being an actor and finding my voice that has everything to do with finding your way in show business and finding your niche. The one thing that was the constant in my life, the one thing I could count on and was relevant was the Improv. I always had the Improv. When I was coming off a shitty grade-B movie, I always kept up my two or three sets a week, and it’s where I met girls.”
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Like Maher, Wayans has played all three clubs in Gotham, but did most of his standup at the Improv.
“Most comedians were pretty loyal to the club they started at, although some of us worked all three,” he says. Each venue had its own personality.
“The Improv on 44th and 9th, it attracted more tourists, a Jersey crowd, especially on the weekend. And they were rowdy and drunk by the time they go to the club,” Wayans recalls. “Catch a Rising Star, because it was on the Upper East Side, had a little more upscale audience, and the Comic Strip was even further uptown so it had a more local feel.”
Wayans also performed at the Improv on Melrose.
“I saw Budd and Mark (Anderson, co-founder) build that club from scratch,” he notes. “When they got it, it wasn’t doing well and then the comedians strike hit and that really knocked them, and there was a fire — one thing after another that they had to overcome. But they stuck with it and the comedians stuck with them, and they built it into a great room.”
Wayans and Romano both came to the attention of the Improv family through its audition night. The ritual: Would-be comedians showed up at the club in the afternoon, put their names in a hat, and 20 comics were picked to go on that night.
Romano says there were about 50 contenders the afternoon of his first night.
“I got number 19 out of 20, which meant I went on very late,” Romano says. “I had five minutes of awful material, but I got laughs. One or two things weren’t as awful as the others. I got laughs because I gave a little glimpse of somebody who could do monologue, but mostly because the audience is very giving and very receptive on audition night. It’s all friends and family. That night was good and bad — good because it gave me the bug, filled me with this thrill that stayed with me and kept me going. But it was bad because it made me think this is easy. It’s not easy. I found out the hard way.” And he didn’t do standup for another two years.
Wayans shared the stage his first night with Robert Townsend. “And I bombed terribly. But I was probably the happiest I’d ever been in my life, just because I’d done it,” he says. “I’d dreamed about doing standup my entire life, since I was 8 years old. Nothing else mattered when I got up on stage.”
After that first night, Wayans went back to the club as a student.
“I watched shows and studied what the comedians did and how they made their jokes work. I learned stage presence. I learned how to be at the front of the stage and where the light is and how to interact with the audience and how to animate a bit on stage and how to handle hecklers. And my second time at the Improv I passed.”
Standup comedian David Brenner advised Lewis against doing audition night or open-mic night, way back in 1971.
“Brenner was a star already,” Lewis recalls, “and he told me, ‘Don’t burn your bridge there.’ Dustin Hoffman was hanging out at the Improv and Bette Midler was singing. So instead of doing open-mic night, I hung out at the Improv for months and instead played the worst dives in the world.”
Finally, Brenner told him he was ready to be seen by Friedman, and Lewis scored.
Friedman walked on stage and told the young comic, “You’re the new all-star of this class of 1971!”
“That’s one of the few important pieces of advice I ever got: Don’t be in a hurry to be seen. I never looked back and the Improv became my home,” says Lewis.
“The Improv was known for being a place where you could take more risks. It’s the place where you were going to find out who you were as a comedian.”