One of the most influential people in the history of comedy died this weekend at 90 years old.
Budd Friedman attained that status by opening up a nightclub in New York in the early 1960s called The Improvisation. At first, he meant it as a place for people in the theater community to go after their shows to have some drinks, get up onstage, and have fun. Eventually, it morphed into the first full-time comedy club, the place where standups like Robert Klein, Jay Leno, Richard Pryor, Gabe Kaplan, Richard Lewis, David Steinberg, and Freddie Prinze honed their routines in front of paying audiences.
After several years of success in New York, Friedman moved the concept to Los Angeles in the 1970s, because so many in the comedy community had moved there to take advantage of Johnny Carson doing “The Tonight Show” from Burbank. That show was the springboard to lots of careers, and it was at the Improv (and The Comedy Store) that so many comics were noticed by talent scouts for Carson.
In the 1980s, Friedman convinced A&E to carry a weekly show called “An Evening At The Improv,” which he hosted before turning things over to a guest emcee and a roster of comics he’d hand-picked. It lasted for 15 years. Friedman also managed several of the performers (including Bette Midler, who’d started as a waitress in the original club) and expanded his empire to two dozen other cities with Improv franchises.
I only met Friedman once. It was in January, 2013, when my friend Mark Evanier invited me to a gathering of Yarmy’s Army, a group of older showbiz veterans (e.g. Pat Harrington, Jack Riley, Chuck McCann) who got together every month in the back room of a Chinese restaurant to share stories and catch up. I didn’t want to come off like a fanboy, but I did get Friedman’s attention long enough to ask him to verify a story I’d heard about Lily Tomlin’s very first night at The Improv, when she showed up in a limousine — a remarkable entrance for an unknown, which she was at the time.
Friedman explained that Tomlin had gone to a Broadway theater, approached a limo driver who was just sitting there while his clients were inside the theater, and paid him five bucks to drive her two blocks to the Improv so she could seem like a big shot and impress the boss. It worked. She caught Budd’s eye and he put her onstage, where she was enough of a hit that he used her regularly after that.
I only talked with Friedman for a few minutes, but told him I’d like to have him on my show some day. He said he’d be happy to be my guest when he finished the book he was working on about the history of The Improv. Unfortunately, by the time the book was published in 2017, he’d had a stroke which affected his speech to the point where he couldn’t do it. However, I did speak to his co-author Tripp Whetsell, who shared lots of stories about The Improv and the man who had started it all. You can listen to that conversation here.