The history of stand-up comedy in the US would be a lot different without Budd Friedman. In his new book, The Improv, Budd, along with co-author Tripp Whetsell, tells about the evolution of stand-up, from the days of the Catskills comedians through the current state of stand-up both on stage and on television. He talks about the Improv, the comedy club he founded, from it’s early days in New York and the expansion to Hollywood and also TV’s groundbreaking show Evening at the Improv.
Along the way, Budd’s story is also told by and about many who have graced the stage, who have tended bar, served as pianists, bouncers and waitresses and who have known Budd along his journey. Comedians like Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, who got their start at The Improv, actors like Danny Aiello, a bouncer at the Improv and Dustin Hoffman, who served as the pianist for many shows early in his career. Bette Midler talks about her early days at the Improv and Jerry Seinfeld and Judd Apatow about their days there.
Guests at the club such as Judy Garland also figure into the stories, giving insight into the entertainment business and those who perform. Established comedians like Rodney Dangerfield also figure in The Improv, with personal memories providing rare observation into who they really were. And the story even includes Leslie Moonves, who went from being one of the first bartenders at the Hollywood Improv to Chairman of the Board, CEO and President of CBS.
Budd himself serves up many great stories about his own history, with memories of people like Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman who went from auditioning for Budd on to stardom. Budd answered some questions recently for The Boise Beat about the book and the people he’s known and of course, about the Improv.
Q: It’s a fascinating book. Why did it take you so long to write it?
A:People have been after me for years to write one and I never seemed to have the time, although I had started this project a few years ago with another writer that never went anywhere. After that, it stayed on hold for a while until my co-author Tripp Whetsell approached me about doing something and we managed to get it off the ground.
Q: You’ve got so many greats that contributed stories to the book. Did it bring back a lot of memories as you sifted through them?
A: More than I can count and the best part was that it brought them all back as if they’d happened yesterday. In fact, I’m already planning volume two.
Q: Why did comedy “speak” to you so well?
A: It’s not that it necessarily “spoke” to me, although I’d always enjoyed listening to comedians and keep in mind that when the Improv first opened we only had singers. As this evolved, however, and we began presenting a mixture of both before comedians took over the balance of my enjoyment factor definitely shifted. Over time, I also discovered that I had a much more receptive ear when it came to hearing the same jokes over and over and improved upon with nuances versus hearing the same song, which became tedious.
Q: With the Improv’s culinary history, do ever get a craving for a hamburger?
A: Yes, I eat them all the time. When I’m feeling really decadent, I eat them with cheese and bacon.
Q: And what about the monocle?
A: That started in the early days of the New York club when the waitresses would ask me to approve one of the customers’ checks before they put it through, which I had a difficult time doing because the club was very dark and I couldn’t read them. This made for a lot of mistakes, only I was too proud to admit that, and I didn’t need reading glasses in those days, so I opted for the monocle instead. I could just hang it around my neck and it’s been my trademark ever since.
Q: With TV stars performing and visiting the Hollywood Improv, was Hollywood really a different scene than New York?
A: Yes. We developed talent in NY, but in LA we have more people on their way to stardom. In New York, we were just beginning.
Q: So Andy Kaufman never thought of himself as a comedian? But you did?
A: Yes. He was probably one of the best if not most original comedians we ever had, although the first time he came into the club and auditioned for me in the foreign man character that later became the basis for his character on Taxi, I didn’t know what to make of him. Then, when he did his famous Elvis impression that same night, he immediately became a regular and was one of my favorite comics of all time after that.
Q: When the comedy team of Al Franken and Tom Davis first played the Improv, did you think you were watching a future U.S. Senator?
A: Absolutely none. Even today, I still find it very hard to believe he’s a senator.
Q: So Robin Williams just excited you from the very beginning at the Hollywood Improv?
A: Yes. He was the most amazing performer I ever saw and from the moment he walked in it was clear to me and everyone else that he was going to be a major star who turned to be bigger than any of us could have ever imagined.
Q: Do you think “An Evening at the Improv” changed the TV comedy landscape as much as the clubs changed the overall comedy landscape?
A: Yes and not necessarily all for the better because while we were the first show on television that presented viewers from all over the country with the opportunity to watch live stand-up without leaving their living rooms, it also in advertently created a monster in the sense that there were eventually so many shows like ours on television that it became diluted. It was also the same thing with comedy clubs. After a while, every city in America had one and everyone thought they could be a comedian, which of course, isn’t true and we wound up paying a price for that.
Q: Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon started at the Improv. When you knew Johnny Carson, did you think you’d be training his replacements?
A: I couldn’t fathom that. For one thing, Carson was irreplaceable. These guys, as good as they are and they bring something entirely new to what Johnny did.
Q: Does your good friend Jay Leno take you for drives in his cars? Have a favorite?
A: Yes, but none of our trips were ever planned. it was only because he was giving me a lift somewhere. When I first got to LA to open an Improv out here, Jay picked me up at LAX in a ‘54 Buick he owned.
Q: Richard Pryor was one of your favorites from the early days. Have a great story about him?
A: Yes, there are two. The first one was when he paraded around the club naked from the waist down to distract a singer who was performing the second year we were open. The singer just went on performing without missing a beat, and when my then wife looked down at Richard she said, “There goes another myth. There was another time not long after that when he accused me of being a racist for not paying him, which I wasn’t doing with any of the comics at the time.
Q: Thanks, Budd, it’s a fascinating book!
Budd Friedman’s new book, The Improv, co-authored by Tripp Whetsell, is now available at major booksellers, in hardcover and also Kindle and Audiobooks. The book really makes the story of stand-up comedy and comedy clubs come alive. It is a great read and highly recommended.
By Budd Friedman with Tripp Whetsell
Publisher: BenBella Books (September 19, 2017)