Budd Friedman is a true legend in the world of comedy. As the founder and original owner of the Improv, Friedman launched the careers of some of the biggest comedians of all time, while also helping define the very concept of the stand-up club. With over 50 years in the business Friedman has seen it all, and he’s finally put it down in words, along with the help of many of his friends and colleagues. The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-up, out today through BenBella Books, gives a detailed account of Friedman’s career, the history of the Improv, and how crucial both have been to countless stand-up comics. Each chapter begins with Friedman’s own recollections before moving into extensive thoughts and quotes from Bette Midler, Jerry Seinfeld, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Crystal and more. It provides not just a look at Friedman and the peerless Improv franchise, but a snapshot of the last fifty-plus years of stand-up.
In this exclusive excerpt, Friedman describes his first encounter with one of the most brilliant comedians of all time, the one-of-a-kind Andy Kaufman. It’s a crucial anecdote for fans of Kaufman and comedy in general. The full chapter follows Friedman’s vignette with thoughts on Kaufman from Fallon, Michael Richards, Jerry Stiller, Dick Cavett and more, including remembrances from Kaufman’s collaborator Bob Zmuda and girlfriend Lynn Margulies.
From The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-up, by Budd Friedman with Tripp Whetsell
The story of how our early California years evolved wouldn’t be complete without devoting a couple of full chapters to some of the comedians we had in New York who were beginning to gain notoriety around this same period. Many of them would eventually light up the Hollywood Improv as well, but I’d be remiss not to mention their beginnings back East first.
Of these, the one I’m still asked about most frequently is Andy Kaufman, who arrived at West 44th Street about six months after our tenth anniversary in the fall of 1973. An enigmatic provocateur whose unflagging penchant for pranks and controversy often blurred the line between imagination and insanity almost beyond recognition, he was a wonderfully colorful kaleidoscope of contradictions from the get-go.
Above all, he helped redefine the very notion of what it means to be a comedian. In large part, this is because he never considered himself one and openly hated telling jokes. And nothing—and this shouldn’t come as any surprise—could have prepared me for meeting him for the first time. No other audition on either coast ever had the distinction of going from completely disastrous to utterly mesmerizing in a matter of seconds the way Andy’s did.
The event leading up to it was a random call I received one afternoon from a local coffeehouse owner from Andy’s hometown in the New York suburb of Great Neck, Long Island. At the time, Andy was twenty-three and still living with his parents in Great Neck. He had also recently been fired from his gig at the coffeehouse.
Instead of telling me this, however, the exact words of the same person who had given Andy the ax were, “You should see this guy. He’s terrific.” Other than that, I don’t remember much else about the conversation except for taking him at his word and saying something to the effect of, “Send him in.”
But while I agreed to let him audition for me, I didn’t really have any expectations. Keep in mind that I had been doing this for nearly a decade by then and I’d been disappointed before. In fact, very early on, I learned to adopt a wait-and-see attitude to avoid disappointment. And when a new performer does exceed your expectations, the excitement of seeing them before the rest the world knows who they are can be exhilarating.
So waiting and seeing was what I decided to do with Andy. In this instance, it turned out to be the right decision. When he showed up on the same night I got the call from this guy on Long Island, Andy immediately tried to catch me off guard by doing “Foreign Man”—an early prototype for Latka Gravas, the character that eventually became the basis of his role as the goofball auto mechanic on the late-seventies hit sitcom Taxi.
Though I was suspicious before he even opened his mouth, I still reasoned that I should give him the benefit of the doubt. As I always did with a new act, I began the audition process by asking where he was from—at which point his voice became childlike and he replied in badly broken English, “An island in the Caspian Sea.”
I couldn’t believe what was happening, and even though I immediately realized there were no inhabited islands in the Caspian Sea, there was also something very seductive in the way he said it and I put him on anyway. As soon as I did, Andy went up and proceeded to stumble through a sophomoric series of bad celebrity impressions, all of them in the Foreign Man accent and each one worse than the other, while the audience either stared at him or giggled nervously.
Clearly, we were being had. I was becoming increasingly impatient, not to mention angry, although looking back now I consider that night to be one of the most important milestones of the Improv. I can’t imagine what we would have been without Andy. That said, I remember being concerned at the time that there might be trouble if I didn’t do something.
Then Andy proceeded to pull off what would perhaps be one of the most spectacular sleight-of-hand tricks in the history of comedy.
Just as I was about to try to get him offstage without causing a riot, he announced in the same Foreign Man accent, “I would like to do the Elvis Presley,” and turned towards the brick wall.
After that, five seconds passed, maybe ten. From there, Andy turned back towards the audience and launched into a spot-on impression of Elvis singing “Treat Me Nice” as the audience went wild and I stood there in disbelief. Though it took me a minute or two to absorb what I had just witnessed, immediately after this he became a regular.
And not too long after that debut, of course, Andy became a cult favorite whose manic energy and envelope-pushing routines (eating ice cream onstage, reading The Great Gatsby, lip-syncing the Mighty Mouse cartoon show theme with a record player, etc.) would quickly make him one of the most celebrated talents ever to appear on our stage—and at the same time—elevate the Improv to a new level of acclaim.
The ripple effect also grew beyond the Improv thanks in no small part to the premiere of Saturday Night Live on NBC in 1975 where Andy was a featured performer during its first season. But even so—and despite his almost immediate audience appeal—there was likewise still something of an adjustment period.
Especially when it came to his comedic peers, he confounded them as much as he astounded them. On the other hand, if others weren’t also trying to emulate his style, at the very least they all wanted to catch a live glimpse. And of the later Improv contingent who never even met Andy, there were those, too, who would occasionally try to mimic his act onstage—usually with lackluster results.
The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-up
, by Budd Friedman with Tripp Whetsell, is out today through BenBella Books.
Listen to Andy Kaufman live in 1982, exclusively at Paste