Budd Friedman, with help from Tripp Whitesell and interviews from dozens of the famous comedians, musicians and actors who worked for Budd over the past 50 years, has just published an oral history of his club, The Improvisation, which became simply The Improv and then much more than that.
Among the major highlights of The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up, a cable TV showcase that spurred the great comedy boom of the 1980s (A&E’s An Evening at the Improv), as well as the national franchising of the Improv comedy club chain.
Jay Leno wrote the foreword to the book.
But just as Johnny Carson transformed the comedy game by taking The Tonight Show from 30 Rock to Burbank in the early 1970s, Budd’s decision to follow suit amid his divorce from Silver and go to California would prove crucial in both giving The Comedy Store a rival when the comedians decided to strike in the latter part of the ’70s, and then, as mentioned above, going full Hollywood with the TV series.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Budd’s Improv memoirs, provided to The Comic’s Comic courtesy of publishers BenBella Books.
Chapter 26: My Early California Adventures
With a deal finally inked for my new LA club, which I initially named the Hollywood Improvisation, the first thing I set out to do was find investors to help absorb some of the risk. Naturally, the first people I turned to were comedians like Jimmie Walker and Freddie Prinze, who were both starring on the hit sitcoms Good Times and Chico and the Man, respectively. In addition, I asked Liz Torres, who had been one of my first waitresses in New York and was now a successful actor in her own right, as well TV producer Ernie Chambers, screenwriter Norman Stiles, and actor-writer Stanley Ralph Ross.
All of them enthusiastically said yes. The reason I asked them was that I wanted to get people with names who had a following and could draw people in, most importantly from the film and television industry. My plan worked, too, because after a breakfast meeting organized by my attorney, Stand Handman, in the legendary Polo Lounge at The Beverly Hills Hotel, I wound up with fourteen limited partners owning 1 percent each for $2,000 a share.
One of the most promising prospects at the meeting was Carol Burnett’s business manager. Though Carol chose not to invest, Harvey Korman, then one of the co-stars of her CBS variety show, did. At the time, Harvey’s career—whose other highlights included being Danny Kaye’s former sidekick, playing Hedley Lamarr in the 1974 Mel Brooks western satire, Blazing Saddles, and The Great Gazoo on the 1960s animated children’s series The Flintstones—was at its peak thanks to his work on The Carol Burnett Show, for which he was nominated for six Emmy Awards and won four times.
My friendship with Harvey also dated all the way back to the early days of the New York Improv when he came in late one night and we struck up a conversation with two women even though we were both married. Afterwards, we decided to go out for breakfast at an Italian restaurant on Second Avenue that stayed open all night—and where, aside from the fact that we each had wives, we realized that nothing was going to happen as soon as we sat down. This was followed by about ten or fifteen minutes of almost complete silence until one of the ladies finally said, “We’re going to go. I have a car. Can I drop anybody off?”
With that, Harvey got up and walked out, although I took them up on their offer and they drove me home. Although I didn’t see Harvey again until he came into the club about a year later, the first words out of his mouth were, “Did you get any action that night, Budd?”
“Not a thing,” I said.
“Thank God,” he replied.
I’m sure if I had, he would have been furious with me, but Harvey turned out to be one of my dearest friends and most trusted confidantes in Hollywood right up until his death from a brain aneurysm in 2008. I also valued his opinion when it came to other comics, particularly after he brought Johnny Carson in one night in the mid-seventies. They came specifically to see Jay Leno, which Jay credits for helping to get him his first appearance on The Tonight Show.
The night Harvey brought me in, Johnny gave me some great advice because I was a better performer than I was a writer. He said, “You have a great way of telling a joke, but they need to be stronger.” He taught me that and it’s true—in other words, if you have a strong joke on paper, and if you’re a strong performer, you have a much better chance of it working.
A lot of performers write funny, but they don’t have any stage presence, and vice versa. On the other hand, if you can really deliver and it’s well written, it kills on both levels. I remember learning that from Johnny. The other thing he said was, “You can’t shout your way through a set.”
CHRIS KORMAN, marketing and branding executive and son of Harvey Korman:
Jay always acknowledges my father for helping him get on The Tonight Show because he got Johnny Carson to come see him that night at the Improv. I don’t know how many investors Budd had in the beginning, or what their relationship was before that, but I know my dad was one of the first. I also didn’t discover this until I was about fifteen or sixteen, and he told me one night when he took me to the club dressed in a tuxedo. I remember that Connie Sellecca, who was starring with James Brolin on the ABC nighttime soap Hotel, was there, and I innocently tried to strike up a conversation with her in the parking lot until my dad interrupted me.
But as close as we were, my dad wasn’t the kind of guy who went around talking business, particularly with me. I also didn’t go a lot after that without my father even though Budd invited me to come in for free anytime I wanted. But I rarely took him up on that because I didn’t want to take advantage. I can also say that from an investment standpoint, the Improv was very lucrative for my dad. He genuinely loved Budd and I truly think it was mutual.
As I was making the final preparations for my move to Los Angeles in late 1974, I was also making contingency plans for the New York club, including asking Chris Albrecht to become my successor.
Budd didn’t ask me immediately. Right after he and Silver got back from France, that’s when I went to work as a bartender at another place over on Eighth Avenue called Jimmy Ray’s. I don’t remember if Budd stopped by or if he asked me to come to the Improv, but whatever it was, the way he presented it was that he wanted to go to LA for a month and he asked me if I’d be willing to come back and run the club.
I was, like, “Sure,” but not because I necessarily wanted the job. It just seemed better than being a bartender and staying up until five in the morning to close Jimmy Ray’s every night. So I went back to the Improv, and Budd was gone for about a month, maybe less. When he returned, he told me that he’d found a club and was planning to move. Then he offered me a partnership because he said he wanted to have more than an employee in charge.
It all made perfect sense—especially considering the irresistible deal he was offering me: 25 percent of the club for $25,000. This was a fortune in those days, but he also allowed me to pay it out over two years. I was practically broke at the time, so my grandmother borrowed the money from her credit union at United Airlines. I think it came out to fifteen grand that first year and $10,000 the second year, or vice versa. Anyway, I managed to swing it and then Budd and Silver moved to LA. One of his only conditions was that he wanted me to emcee because he didn’t want to spend the money [hiring another one], which was fine. Then things slowly began to change. There was this old bookkeeper named Tony who’d worked for Budd who would come in during the day. As I slowly started learning more about the business side from Tony, we began to experiment with things a little bit, like the food. Also, a couple of people from LA started to come in and perform there.
Budd didn’t tell me much about the move at first. He just said, “All right, I’m going to LA to look for space for the new club and you’re in charge.” At that point, a few months went by before Chris came, so there were tons of nights when I was the queen of the kingdom with the keys. It was pretty fucking amazing to be nineteen or twenty years old and running a New York nightclub. All of us, including Chris, were under the age of twenty-five.
DAVID STEINBERG, film producer and talent manager:
We were all wet-behind-the-ears kids who used to party a lot and we were kind of nuts at the time. But Budd’s decision to let Chris take over was a very astute one even though it wasn’t like he was the boss. He had an incredible comedy mind, which always made him smarter than everybody else. The best analogy I can offer was that Budd was more of a father figure whereas Chris was a partner in crime.
STEVE MITTLEMAN, screenwriter, actor, and comedian:
Chris and I attended the same high school in Queens, which probably helped me out a little bit, although he also liked my material and we hung out a lot. We played cards together sometimes.
I have warm feelings for both of them, but I also think it’s safe to say that a lot of the less-established comics were kind of intimidated by Budd, who had already had a huge reputation in New York. I think his leaving may have opened the door for new talent somewhat.
Following a series of farewell parties, I officially left New York in December of 1974 while Silver stayed behind with our two daughters, who were seven and nine at the time, so they could finish out the school year. Saying good-bye to my family, friends, and colleagues was obviously very bittersweet, and so was leaving the city I’d called home for most of my life as everyone wished me well.
When my plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport, where Jay Leno picked me up in his Oldsmobile, I immediately became convinced I’d made the right decision—especially after buying my first car, a 1959 white Cadillac that came complete with fins on the back. It reminded me a lot of the car I’d driven across country with a couple of college friends from New York University the summer after we graduated, and I felt like a teenager again.
For the first six months, I stayed at the Magic Castle Hotel before finally renting a four-bedroom house in Beverly Hills in the summer of 1975. The owner, a local high school shop teacher, had built the house himself. It was a wonderful place with impeccably detailed craftsmanship a large backyard, terrific views, and one major catch: It also came with a pet monkey who lived in an iron cage on the patio that I had to feed. Being the inveterate animal lover I am, I happily agreed, although the arrangement quickly came to an end one afternoon not long after I moved in when I reached inside the cage with a piece of celery and the monkey nearly took my arm off.
Meanwhile, in preparation for the new club, I began galvanizing my relationships with many of my New York comedians, particularly Jay, whom I enlisted to help me paint the ceiling, although mostly I wanted to entice them to perform there. We had a lot of fun getting it ready, too, even though we had our work cut out for us. Just as it had been in New York, the LA club was rustic, although the conditions on Melrose Avenue were definitely a cut above West 44th Street for sure. That’s the best way I can describe things. In addition to installing new lights and a small sound system, one of the first things we did was put in a bar in the front room, which turned out to be one of our biggest assets even though we only served beer and wine in the beginning.
After that, we put in tables and chairs in the main show room, along with lowering the stage and adding a brick wall, which Jack Knight helped me with.
BONNIE BOLAND, actor and Jack Knight’s wife:
It was an empty building at first and Jack turned it into a beautiful place because Budd let him do it. We lived in the Valley at the time and I remember going over every day with our two kids and watching it unfold.
When Budd first called me about being an investor in the LA club, we’d been on the outs for a while, but I still agreed and there was no further discussion about it. It was me, Freddie Prinze, Harvey Korman, and Jimmie Walker, as I recall, and I did it sight unseen.
I remember wondering what I’d gotten myself into the first time I saw the club because the neighborhood itself was kind of dingy. It reminded me of Greenwich Village with little mom-and-pop stores scattered all around, and there was nowhere to park. The LA club was sort of dingy also, although it had the funky vibe New York had, which made it fun. But unlike New York, there was hardly anybody in that LA neighborhood at night back then, which I found strange because it was a showbiz town.
West Hollywood was definitely an up-and-coming area in those days, but it was still in Hollywood—and one of the reasons I chose this location was because Hell’s Kitchen was no great shakes either and we’d succeeded beyond our wildest imagination in spite of it. When we finally opened in March 1975, the place was mobbed.
The thing that stood out most to me about the opening night was that it was a big deal, and there were people lined up around the block. I don’t know how he did it, but Budd got everybody he knew in the business there.
DAVID STEINBERG, film producer and talent manager:
I didn’t really arrive at Melrose until 1980, at which point I was an expatriate from New York who was still this kind of new kid on the block. The Hollywood Improv back then was like the local commissary. You used to go there, drink too much, and then complain about the food because everything tasted the same. It was crap food, but it was fun because everybody was funny. And we all shared the same common bond of being in the comedy business.
Star-wise, the biggest person we had in the beginning was Freddie Prinze. We also had other New York guys like Richard Pryor, Richard Belzer, and Richard Lewis, along with Byron Allen, Wil Shriner, and Michael Keaton, who were just starting out.
When I first got to the Improv right after Budd opened, I was just fourteen years old, but Budd took a liking to me instantly. He literally treated me like I was his own son. He got me right on and off, and he always made sure that I didn’t follow any of the dirtier comics.
WIL SHRINER, actor, comedian, writer, director, and game-show host:
I used to show these little 8 mm films as part of my comedy act. I don’t remember the one I used the first time I went to the Improv. I do remember—besides the monocle Budd wore— that it was during a Sunday night showcase where he’d put comics up for about six minutes. Afterwards, he said to me, “Very good, very funny.” He didn’t come right out and tell me I was a regular, but I was after that first night.
Besides a plentiful and steady stream of talented and willing comics, another thing we benefited from in the beginning was having The Credibility Gap, an improvisational troupe that was a holdover from the Pitchell Players. Its members included Harry Shearer along with Michael McKean and David Lander, who were a year away from starring as Lenny and Squiggy on the ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Staffwise, I also hit pay dirt early on with actor Debra Winger working for me as a waitress, Danny Aiello’s son Ricky as a bouncer, and future president of CBS Leslie Moonves, who was one of the Hollywood Improv’s first bartenders.
EDITOR’s NOTE: Yes, Les Moonves tended bar for Budd! And Chris Albrecht, who’d go on to run HBO and the comedy festival in Aspen, and now runs Starz, helped tend bar and eventually took over the original NYC Improvisation from Budd! So many other before-they-were-famous name-drops, too! All through the book.