The Improv: 50 Years Behind The Brick Wall

When Budd Friedman’s Improv comedy club turned 40, he celebrated with a primetime anniversary special on NBC (that aired against the final sing-off of the first season of American Idol). Now at 50, The Improv reminisces once more, this time with a one-hour documentary on cable/online via EPIX, The Improv: 50 Years Behind The Brick Wall.

The documentary premiered Friday night but repeats today and later this month. It’s airing in conjunction with EPIX’s “free preview weekend” so anyone can watch it.

Fifty isn’t the new 40, and EPIX isn’t quite the new NBC or even the old Peacock Network. This look back at five decades of funny starts at the original Improvisation club on Ninth Avenue and West 44th Street in Hell’s Kitchen of New York City, heads west to Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue, and eventually expands out across America to two dozen locations and more than a decade of showcases on cable TV via An Evening at the Improv. You can see several now famous comedians back when they were young and hungry for their first TV credits in this collection of clips from An Evening at the Improv from 1987-1989: Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Allen, George Lopez, Martin Lawrence, Jeff Foxworthy, Jeff Garlin, Brad Garrett, Bill Maher, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Engvall and so many more. Including Adam Sandler, who narrates the 50th anniversary documentary for EPIX.

That show. That brick wall. As responsible as perhaps anything for fueling the massive comedy explosion of the late 1980s.

“The entire ’80s to me was The Improv on Melrose.” Seinfeld says in the documentary.

The Comedy Store may have been the first to attract all stand-ups to Hollywood, and the first to provoke those same comedians to picket and strike for fair wages (or even any payment for their services rendered). But it was The Improv that burned. Literally. In a fire in 1979.

Jay Leno recalls sleeping in the alley adjacent to The Improv to ensure his spot in line for auditioning for a regular spot in the club’s rotation. “Just to get on at the Improv, it was worth it.” Judd Apatow worried more about Friedman’s reaction than any audience’s. “Can I make this one person like me?” Apatow said.

Friedman didn’t just own The Improv, he also appeared on most episodes of An Evening at the Improv as the host/emcee. Which, of course, made him larger than life to all of the comedians. There’s talk in the documentary about the club’s roundtable and the chance invitation to sit with Friedman after your set. The bar outside the showroom was an equally legendary hang for a generation — until only this past year, when Friedman and business partner Mark Lonow renovated the joint.

You can see party pictures from the 1980s there, though.

Kathy Griffin recalls asking her parents to drive her there just to sit and people-watch; years later, she wasn’t just watching — “I’ve fucked more guys there than I can count.” The male comics made out like bandits, too. “If you’re a dude, male comic, and you’re doing OK at the Improv, you’re getting hot pussy. Hot pussy. Hot. Like disease-catching pussy. That’s how good it was.”

Cut back to Apatow: “My time at the Improv was about not getting laid. I mean, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was inspired by me not getting laid at the Improv, and watching other people get laid.”

Sandler, Griffin, Apatow, Leno and Seinfeld are joined by recollections from Lewis Black, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman and four of the Wayans brothers (Keenan Ivory, Damon, Marlon and Shawn).

We hear about the early influence of Robert Klein on a generation of New York comics, the eccentricities of Andy Kaufman, glimpses of Richard Pryor’s lesser-known “Live and Smokin” special filmed at the Improv, plus a grainy clip of Bette Midler performing live at the Improv in 1985. And it’s firmly reinstated as part of the origin story of Seinfeld that Seinfeld left his pitch meeting with NBC with nothing to show for it, not even an idea of his own to pitch, went to the original Improv in NYC, told David about it, and then the two of them went for a walk and discovered the idea for their “show about nothing.”

In this clip, Fallon discusses trying to make his mark as memorably as Andy Kaufman with an early routine in which he shaves himself onstage. You remember that Fallon bit, don’t you? Of course not.

At moments, the documentary drifts even farther away from the guest of honor.

For minutes at a time, we’re watching comedians talk about other comedians they love and were inspired by, and it has nothing whatsoever do with The Improv. Like this clip of Griffin and Silverman about Lily Tomlin.

And if you pay really close attention, you may spot some old video footage shot in other NYC comedy clubs such as the Comedy Cellar and Comic Strip Live, as well as a short film from Louis C.K. that starred Romano, Dave Attell and Chipps Cooney, and random stories about Rodney Dangerfield.

Why leave the Improv for any of this, though?

There already are enough other clubs looking to take ownership for discovering, launching and/or nurturing the careers of the comedic stars we love today. Just see the newly redesigned and think about Dangerfield’s Young Comedian Specials, or read the book “Make ‘Em Laugh” about the history of the Comic Strip, or check out this new profile the New York Observer published on Friday about Caroline Hirsch, the Caroline of Caroline’s.

None of them have the point of view that The Improv or Budd Friedman has. Tell your own story. Friedman has plenty of them, as he shared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon or with my friend Julie Seabaugh for Chicken Scratch Comedy.

Anyone who likes to poke fun at the 1988 film Punchline will gloat even more upon Lonow’s acknowledgement that he once tried to sell Friedman on the very idea of installing a steam room with lockers and robes for the comedians. “He looked at me like I was a fucking idiot!” Lonow recalls.

More of this, please.

As we’re taken through the boom of the late 1980s through the development deals and stand-up sitcoms up to the crash of the mid-1990s, which took out comedy clubs nationwide — including the original Improvisation in New York City — Sandler notes that The Improv is back again in 25 cities (well, 23 according to The Improv website today).

The end credits read “In Fond Memory of Mark Anderson,” who died in 2012 and was the main man in making The Improv a national chain.

I just cannot help but wish there was more Improv in this 50th anniversary documentary. Then it really would have been golden.

The Improv: 50 Years Behind The Brick Wall, only on EPIX.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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