It’s the venue that launched the careers of some of the greatest stand-up comics of the past 50 years. To anyone with an even remote interest in comedy, the image of The Improv stage, with its famed red brick background, inspires great reverence.
Originally a Vietnamese restaurant, the original New York Improv club was founded by Budd Friedman and his then-wife Silver back in 1963. Though the club’s early days featured mostly musical performances from Broadway actors (as well as a young Liza Minnelli), the club primarily garnered a reputation as the place-to-be for young aspiring comics looking to hone their craft. Early stand-ups included Robert Klein and Alan King, and, as the years went on, the alumni base would include George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (just to name a few). The latter two reportedly came up with the idea for Seinfeld while at the Improv.
While the New York club closed some years back, there are currently 25 Improv clubs spread across the U.S.
Tonight, EPIX will air The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall, an hour-long special detailing the highlights (and struggles) of one of comedy’s most legendary venues, with stories and anecdotes courtesy of the aforementioned Leno, Seinfeld and David as well as Jimmy Fallon, Ray Romano, Bill Maher, Judd Apatow, Russell Brand, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Lewis Black and Kathy Griffin.
On the eve of the documentary’s premiere, we spoke with Friedman and his partner/co-producer Mark Lonow about the project.
Paste: Can you tell me a little about the genesis of the documentary?
Mark Lonow: We were actually approached by Judy Pastore who had worked for EPIX and we kind of got a concept for it and she went back to EPIX to pitch it and it worked. They bought it and shot it.
Budd Friedman: Judy, being an old customer of The Improv, is an old friend of ours who moved east from years ago.
Paste: Were you guys majorly involved with it the whole way through?
ML: Pretty much so. I sat through all the shooting and Budd certainly reviewed everything and it was our name that got all the stars to come down—Budd’s relationship with them, yes.
Paste: The Improv has such a long varied history, how did you decide what to fit or what was important?
BF: That’s a good question. As far as the comics are concerned, Mark and I drew up a list of special interviewees. We submitted it to EPIX. They crossed off a few names and then we went out after the names that they didn’t’ cross off. The only problem we had was in the scheduling because we had time put aside in New York and L.A. for the interviews and certain people were just not available. For example, Robert Klein, Bette Middler, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams—nobody important [laughs]. So we got stuck with Judd Apatow, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, people like that.
Paste: They’re telling all these great stories. Are there any that you had to regretfully cut for time?
BF: Oh yes, I think we have enough for three more specials. Right, Mark?
ML: Without question. Actually, we tried to convince [the network] to make it a two or three episode special, but they wouldn’t go for the extra money but we have so many stories—funny, heart-wrenching. Also, talking about the people who weren’t comics who helped formulate the milieu of The Improv—[in New York], Danny Aiello being the doorman, Dustin Hoffman playing the piano. People who just hung out—Bruce Willis and so on. There’s so much history and so much depth to the club other than just the comedians that, yeah, we had a lot of stuff.
Paste: Are you trying to look for other outlets to maybe include those stories? Maybe on the DVD?
ML: Do you have any connections with a production house to get us a series? But we are doing a DVD, yes. It will be in DVD form.
Paste: What about something like a podcast?
ML: Actually, as we speak, New Wave Entertainment is pitching a concept that we’ve worked on to the networks and we will then go back and pitch those that are interested. At the moment, we can’t be more specific.
BF: But it’s not part of this [project].
ML: It’s not but they’re using our comics.
Paste: What did you find to be the hardest part of putting the documentary together? Was it just the logistics or—?
ML: No, this interview [laughs]. No, the hardest part was really putting the storyline together because, at one point in the beginning, it leaned too much to the New York club, which was closed. It had a bit too much reminiscence about people who had passed on or who really had a flavor of depression [laughs]. We wanted to keep it up and wanted to keep it contemporary and we wanted the 25 clubs that are still functioning to be the focal point and really the story—Budd’s history of founding it and promoting it and keeping it going. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to be on the positive side, so we had a little trouble—not a lot—in finding that throughline.
Paste: Budd, when you first founded the club, did you have any expectations for how it would develop?
BF: Absolutely not. It was all happenstance and good fortune on my part the way everything progressed. It was supposed to be a part-time, temporary venture so I could produce on Broadway. Fifty years later, I’m still looking for that elusive show [laughs]. But, no, I was just lucky with comics coming in. I was doing doing singers for those first few years and then the first comic came in and it grew from that.
ML: Well, I will say something. It’s a little bit more than luck. It is Budd’s real taste and eye for comedy that really made the choices. There were other clubs that opened and they didn’t seem to take exactly the same comics or even as many comics. So it was luck in how they started to congregate at the club but—
BF: Maybe I should say not so much luck as happenstance. I’ll go for that though, thank you—
ML: You’re welcome. [laughs]
Paste: When you were auditioning people for the club was there anything special you were looking for in terms of someone who was doing a different kind of comedy or just whoever made you laugh the hardest?
BF: One thing that Mark and I are adamant about is comics speaking in their own voice, not imitating someone else. I think that’s why we’ve been able to maintain our success over all these years because we’re looking for originals and not copycats. The comics that started and the comics that are around now, you’ll see a thread that connects them all together.
ML: It is that they find who they are and a point-of-view or attitude towards their material or toward the world. That’s what the core of the Improv solo is about.
Paste: The documentary talks a bit about Larry David. While he might not have been too great at first, he really came into his own later on. Are there any other significant comedians you saw started off on the wrong foot but who developed overtime at the club?
BF: Yeah, I think Lewis Black tells the story about when I told him not to curse so much and he said, ‘go f**k yourself.” That was cute. But, yeah, Jay Leno—I got to tell a story—he drove down three nights in a row from Boston and drove back when he didn’t get on. When he told me this, I said, ‘you drove down and back?! You’re on next!’ That was a great stroke of luck on our part, discovering him that way.
I love Jerry Seinfeld’s story of auditioning then he goes home waiting for the call. And, of course, we didn’t call anybody, we were expecting them to call us and thank God that got straightened out.
ML: Also, the permission that the comics had to do whatever they wanted on stage was one of the attractive elements of the club and a lot of them found themselves—like Larry—at the club because they could really fail without endangering their spot. So a lot of them formulated their personas at the New York club.
Paste: Budd, you’ve been responsible for helping break some of the greatest comedians of the 20th century. Do you ever stop to think about that legacy or are you more of a on-to-the-next project, type of guy?
BF: Always. And whenever my head gets too big, my daughter and my wife slap me down and bring me back down to earth.
ML: He has always taken to carrying Advil to keep the headache at bay.
BF: But no, I never would have guessed stand-up comics would be the major forces that they are in entertainment today. I knew Jay would be a great comic and be very successful but who knew that he’d be on The Tonight Show and host for 30 years? Or Jerry Seinfeld having one of the greatest sitcoms ever.
ML: I didn’t think anyone perceived that Larry David, who really couldn’t get through a set onstage, would be the co-creator of one of the most successful sitcoms in history. But the idea for that show was formulated at the club.
Paste: And I mean, with Jimmy Fallon, you have two Tonight Show hosts on your resume. That’s impressive.
BF: That’s right! And I just remembered, I looked at my old records that Pope Francis was once a bouncer at The Improv too [laughs]
Paste: You’ve met all these brilliant personalities over the year. Do you have any that you consider to be the biggest or strangest personality?
BF: I would say that would be Larry David.
ML: Larry and, what’s his name, Foreign Guy—Andy Kaufman.
BF: Andy was very strange but I got used to him very quickly.
ML: Larry’s temperamental and he really looks on his stand-up as an art form and he would get offended if you spoke while he was onstage or, God forbid, you heckled him.
Paste: Budd, since you’ve been doing this for so long, have you ever considered doing stand-up yourself or has that never crossed your mind?
BF: No, I used to MC and I still do occasionally. Las Vegas loves me, but the crowd on Melrose is too young for me now. I’d die a thousand deaths up here now, but I certainly enjoyed getting up and doing my few minutes MC-ing. I love to get a laugh, no doubt about it. But no, I never considered being a stand-up. Too tough.