December Monthly Mindbody

Improv Comedy Club in Cleveland Ohio

In the beginning.there was Budd

For over half a century, the Improvisation Comedy Clubs have remained the premiere stages for live comedy in the United States. Over the decades, the talent who has played center stage represents the Who’s Who of American Comedy, including Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Freddie Prinz, 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. But, its start in 1963 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, an intimate setting where performers could simply eat, drink (coffee, at first, as the Improvisation did not 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. (Google them if you aren’t sure who these legends are!)

Our iconic brick wall started in the NY club as well – out of necessity. When Budd ripped the red wall panels and mirrors off the wall left by the previous tenants (A Vietnamese Restaurant. In the 1960’s. Not hard to see why it didn’t make it!), he discovered this great red brick wall. Since he knew nothing about dry walling (and couldn’t afford it, even if he did), he simply left the brick in place, which soon gave the club its signature.

One year later, the Improvisation’s first comedian, Dave Astor, appeared on stage to try new material. It worked- and others quickly followed. Soon, comedians began to dominate the rotation, as singers were phased-out of the nightly line-up. The Improvisation became the place for live comedy. In fact, the only nightly stage for live comedy. Little known Dave Astor made Budd the Impresario of comedy virtually overnight. 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 make the proper entrance for her meeting with Budd.

Jay Leno drove weekly between Boston (he is a graduate of Emerson College. His major: Speech therapy) and New York, hoping that someone would notice him hanging around the Improv. Or sleeping in the Improv 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 Prinz 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— even if not on stage. There were door hosts 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 Elaine Boosler. A guy named Barry Manilow would play piano. And, it was not unusual to find Dustin Hoffman at the piano 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 on stage, 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 stage in all of show business. For a young comedian, success at the Improv meant everything.

Go West Young(ish) Man

Budd had a vision to expand the Improv and, in 1975, he headed West and left Chris Albrecht as the manager in-charge of the New York club. Albrecht had reached a career zenith, unless you consider eventually becoming the President of HBO somewhat noteworthy.

Budd opened his second Improv on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, California, where it still stands today. The club included the trademark piano and the iconic brick wall. Jay Leno helped paint the ceiling.

As in New York, the next generation of artists and entertainment executives worked the Improv—on stage, in the house, or at the bar. Actor Daniel Baldwin, uber comedy manager Jimmy Miller (Jim Carrey), and writer/producer/director Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year-Old Virgin” “Knocked Up”) were part of the fraternity of door managers. Debra Winger (“Urban Cowboy, ” “Terms of Endearment”) and writer Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”) were waitresses. And, mixing drinks at the bar, Lesley Moonves, the current President of CBS.

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