In the beginning….there was Budd
For over half a century, the Improvisation Comedy Clubs have remained the premier stages for live comedy in the United States. Over the decades, the talent who have graced our stages represent the Who’s Who in American comedy, including Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Freddie Prinze, Andy Kaufman, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Ellen DeGeneres, Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, Jeff Dunham, and Dave Chappelle.
Today, the Improv stage continues to be the most important live venue for new comedians. Its start in 1963, though, was anything but legendary.
The Improvisation was founded in New York City by Broadway producer Budd Friedman. Budd hoped for a place where Broadway performers could meet after their shows in an intimate setting where performers could simply eat, drink coffee (the Improvisation did not yet have a liquor license) and, most importantly, sing. The Improvisation quickly gained attention as the gathering spot where young Broadway artists would hold sing-alongs into the wee hours. Budd has a very vivid memory of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli singing, accompanied at the piano by Peter Allen.
Our iconic brick wall started in the New York club as well, almost by accident. Budd ripped down the red wall panels and mirrorsleft by the previous tenant,a Vietnamese restaurant, and discovered a fantastic red brick wall. Since he knew nothing about dry walling (and couldn’t have afforded it anyway), he simply left the brick in place, which soon grew to be its signature.
One year later, the Improvisation’s first comedian, Dave Astor, appeared on stage to try out new material. The set went well and others quickly followed. Soon, comedians began to dominate the rotation, as singers were phased out of the nightly lineup. The Improvisation became the place for live comedy. In fact, it was the only nightly stage for live comedy. The previously unknown Dave Astor made Budd the impresario of comedy virtually overnight. But the legendary club was just beginning.
Future giants of American comedy all vied for stage time at the New York club. In an effort to be noticed by Budd, nothing was off limits to young comedians desperately hoping to be selected.
Lily Tomlin hijacked a parked limousine and had the stunned driver circle the block so she could be seen making a proper entrance for her meeting with Budd.
Jay Leno drove weekly between Boston and New York, hoping that someone would notice him hanging around the Improv, or sleeping in their parking lot. Eventually Budd did—impressed that Leno would log so many miles and countless hours in the hope of getting his first minutes on stage.
Andy Kaufman interviewed with Budd and never broke out of his “Latka” accent. It wasn’t until Kaufman performed on stage that Budd realized he had been duped!
A remarkable list of talent was building; the debut of 16 year-old Freddie Prinze one night, legendary Milton Berle the next. In one month, audiences could catch the greats and soon-to-be-greats: George Burns, Robert Klein, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Lewis, and Rodney Dangerfield, who was the Improv’s part-time emcee for four years.
Many future stars worked at the Improv— and not all onstage. Among the door hosts were Danny Aiello (“Godfather II”, “Moonstruck”), Keenan Ivory Wayans (“In Living Color”, “Scary Movie”), and Joe Piscopo (“Saturday Night Live”). Waitresses included Karen Black (“Easy Rider”, “Five Easy Pieces”) and Elayne Boosler. A guy named Barry Manilow would play piano. And, it was not unusual to find Dustin Hoffman taking his place when the regular Improv pianists were on break!
Contrary to popular belief, Bette Midler was never a waitress at The Improv,but she regularly performed onstage, and Budd became her manager, helping to book her first appearance on “The Tonight Show.” Next to Johnny Carson, the Improv stage was arguably the most important in all of show business. For a young comedian, success at the Improv meant everything.