Ponder the last half-century of American comedy without talents like Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Rodney Dangerfield, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis, George Carlin, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Bill Maher, Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy and countless others, and it’s not a lot of laughs. Most of the aforementioned funny folks may have endured and thrived without Budd Friedman’s Improv Clubs in New York and Los Angeles, but those stand-up stages were so essential to the launching and developing of so many careers it’s impossible to overestimate their impact on our culture. Friedman’s New York roots led him to open his first Improv Club in mid-town Manhattan in the early 1960s. In his recently published tome “The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up” (BenBella Books, $18.87), co-written with Tripp Whetsell, Friedman and associates reminisce about Friedman’s impact and The Improv’s role in “inventing” American stand-up comedy. It was just before the club’s doors opened that Variety first noted Friedman’s showbiz aspirations.
Was opening a nightclub your original entertainment business goal?
I was looking to become a producer on Broadway and this was a side diversion. I was putting together a project in 1963 about the Vietnam War called “The Draft Dodger,” but I couldn’t pull the investors together because everyone thought the war was going to end soon.
That original Variety article about your new club in 1963 stressed that your plan was untested and perhaps ill-conceived.
It took me about six months to find the location I wanted. The plan was to create an affordable place near the theater district where people who worked in theater could hang out. So I knew what I wanted and I took it as a challenge. I couldn’t afford a liquor license. So guys like [legendary songwriter] Doc Pomus would drop by with a brown bag.
If the bar wasn’t the draw, how’d you get patrons in the door?
We built upon the idea of live entertainment. We had singers for the first year-and-a-half and then comedy reared its ugly head. The Blue Angel was the hot club at the time but it was expensive if you were working in the chorus on a show. And so we got a crowd that came in after work in the theater. That’s how an industry was born.
Who were some of the names that made The Improv the place to go?
Rodney Dangerfield was the unofficial MC. Richard Pryor came in. George Carlin was not a regular but he was getting known.
Dangerfield became huge once he got TV exposure.
When Rodney started, he was doing a very erudite routine. It was very Upper East Side intellectual, like Dick Cavett. And I remember he wandered in one night drunker than hell and he bombed. It was the worst comedy act of all time. But then he came back the next night and he annihilated the crowd. Within a year or so of comedy catching on, the TV bookers started coming in and the word was out.
Did your original club crowd start to change?
It became known. In the early days, these weren’t huge stars, but the Actors Studio was nearby, so we became their place. Dustin Hoffman played piano. Actors like Christopher Plummer and Albert Finney hung out. Danny Aiello was the bouncer. I remember some guy from Mayor Lindsay’s office got completely out of hand and Danny took care of the guy.