The Improv Celebrates 50 Years of Great Standup

Budd Friedman and Mark Lonow play it for laughs

It’s been said that at the root of all great comedy lies anger and resentment, and judging from the first meeting of longtime Improv partners Budd Friedman and Mark Lonow, perhaps that maxim applies to great comedy businesses as well.

Having recently opened his first West Coast outlet of the Improv on Melrose in Los Angeles, Friedman had returned home to New York in the late 1970s. He visited the original comedy club he started back in 1963, which by that point had seen such regulars as Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, Lily Tomlin, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman and Freddie Prinze move onto widespread recognition. It also had sown the seeds of the mainstreaming of standup comedy, which would explode in popularity over the coming decade.
“You’ve got to understand, I built the Improv with my bare hands,” Friedman says. “So if anyone touched anything or looked like they were going to break something, they’d feel my wrath.”

Young actor and comic Lonow had apparently not received this memo. With Friedman looking on, Lonow launched into an elaborate imitation of a wild ape, tearing across the stage, teetering on the edge, and swinging across the club from the light bars overhanging the audience.

“I was livid,” Friedman says. “I was so upset I couldn’t even watch the rest of his act.”

Naturally, the two became partners two years later. In many ways, it was a fitting start to a partnership that has weathered more than its share of strange turns and happy accidents, much like the one that gave birth to the first Improv half a century ago.

After spending time in Boston as an ad man, Friedman moved to New York in the early 1960s to make it big on Broadway. Not as an actor — “I didn’t have the guts for that” — but as a producer, “which was also kind of ballsy,” he recalls. “Because I didn’t know anyone in Broadway, I didn’t have any money, and I had very little taste.”

What he did have was a 74-capacity cafe in Hell’s Kitchen, which he turned into an after-hours performance space for Broadway singers. A few months after opening, comedian Dave Astor made the Improv his latenight hangout, and his fellow comics followed suit. Before long, talent bookers for Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan had become familiar faces in the Improv audience, and standup comics went from support players to the main attraction.

The concept of a performance space entirely dedicated to comedy was still novel at the time, and it took a spell to catch on.

“Believe it or not, standup comedy was a very erudite art form. In 1965, 1970, even the 1980s, who the hell went to a club to watch Jew comics all night?,” says Lonow, who is Jewish. “It was a very limited audience.”

After Friedman expanded to Los Angeles, however, cable TV had begun to erase that sense of specialization, as well as to homogenize what was once a very regionally specific medium. Further, with Lonow now on as a partner, the club began to experiment with more locations (satellite licensed Improv branches began appearing across the country), more media (A&E series “An Evening at the Improv” bowed in 1982 and ran well into the 1990s), and more voices.

“Budd was always more traditional,” Lonow says of his partner’s tastes, “and for a very long time really frowned upon blue language. We were the clean room; other rooms were the dirty rooms. I brought a looser atmosphere, which allowed more young comics. Eventually Budd came around. He understood that the times were changing.”

Friedman isn’t sure he agrees: “Mark pushed for blue acts? He must have done it very subtly.”

As the Improv expanded, Lonow and Friedman also experienced the downside of their own success. By the early 1990s, dozens of competing clubs had began springing up all around, and both audiences and talent bases grew more and more diluted.

As Friedman recalls, “Everyone said, if a guy like Budd Friedman can be successful doing this, why can’t I?”

“When Budd first opened, there were maybe a hundred standup comics – and I mean in the whole country, and I might be exaggerating – and no dedicated standup comedy clubs,” Lonow says. “Then suddenly everyone was a comic. Everyone with a microphone and a flashlight put up three folding chairs and became a comedy club. So you’d pay 20 bucks and you went and saw a terrible comic, and that cast aspersions over the entire industry.”

While the Improv felt the brunt of the contraction, downsizing from 17 locations to 11, it eventually bounced back, partially thanks to the loyalty of its substantial alumni base. After all, the Improv is the kind of place that once featured Rodney Dangerfield as a regular emcee, future HBO and Starz topper Chris Albrecht as a manager and partner, and present day CBS president Leslie Moonves as a bartender.

“All these guys came up together,” says Judy Pastore, an Improv regular who produced the Epix special “The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall.” “They all helped each other, it was like a club. And the Improv was their clubhouse.”

That clubhouse effect had a profound influence on the comedians who honed their craft within its hallowed walls. Albrecht first came to the Improv on the talent side of the stage in 1973, performing in a comedy act with Bob Zmuda (who would later team with Kaufman).

“The Improv policy was that comedians had to come in hang out at the bar and see if you could get on,” Albrecht recalls. “You’d come in and not know if you were going to go on at 11 or 12 or 1 or at all — you were just hoping enough customers would hang out around so you’d get a shot on stage. But the great thing about hanging out at the bar was that it was full of comedians. You learned a lot about how to be funny just by interacting with so many other people who were trying to do the same thing. The atmosphere was intense and intimidating, yet incredibly fun. It was boot camp.”

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