Everybody knows that Budd Friedman's Improvisation is a comedy club; in fact, to many it is the comedy club. After all, this is the place where performers such as Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman got their start, a place where fresh talent is as cheap as day-old sushi. But that's old news.
There's another side to the Improv, a side that most people don't know about. The Improv just happens to be one of Los Angeles' great local hangouts, a neighborhood watering hole packed nightly with actors, models, bus drivers, unemployed chefs, hairdressers and just plain denizens of West Hollywood, a comfy, informal place to schmooze, drink and munch on stale popcorn. When it comes to being a bar, the Improv is strictly equal opportunity. If you can't feel at home here, you belong in an igloo, because this bar's hot.
Picture a bar so hot that the co-owner, an open-shirted New Yorker named Mark Lonow, actually comes out onto the sidewalk to beg not to be written about. As I was leaving the bar at 2 a.m., on a night when I had spotted Marcus Allen, Chris Reeve and Andrew Stevens, Lonow came out after me and told me that they already had too much business. Then he suggested I choose another subject. Now that is hot.
Things don't heat up early, though. At 6 they have a happy hour, serving snacks like Cajun-style chicken wings and homemade pizza, and the regulars begin to congregate. By the time the show starts in the main room, around 8, the bar begins to fill. By 10, things are cooking.
The Improv also has different things happening during the week. Tuesday night is "art night," and a space is provided for an exhibition from a local artist. Loretta, the bartender, doubles as curator. Sunday and Monday are "dance nights," wild affairs where the restaurant adjacent to the bar is converted into a dance hall. Dance night at the Improv carries an $8 cover charge, but that doesn't seem to deter anybody. One of the managers referred to it as a "panacea for human suffering." A better description would be "co-eds set record for packing phone booth." Don't go if you're shy.
On a typical night at the Improv's bar, you can see a variety of people, some of them famous. At least half of the people I talked to one night had that searching hope in their eyes. Stand-up drinkers sip Irish coffees. A waifish blonde is trying to get a guy named Amit, from Israel, to undo one more button on his shirt.
This is a late-night crowd. David Letterman is on too early for these people. When you leave, there is a receiving line on the sidewalk for all the regulars. Everybody is kissing and hugging like old friends, even if they only met that night. A woman in a leopard-skin pillbox hat, a free-lance photographer and model named Danae, is doing some of the kissing. So is a fellow named Carl. Everyone is wearing outrageous clothes. It looks like the end of a wedding party for two rock musicians. I feel self-conscious in a button-down shirt.
As I'm about to walk to my car, I see two young women looking at me as if they know me. Do they think I look funny in this shirt? "Oh don't worry about it," one of them replies. "We get all kinds of strange people in this place."
The Improvisation, 8162 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 651-2583. Open nightly until 2 a.m.