BUDD FRIEDMAN : Improv’s ‘Benign Dictator’
Perhaps the most familiar face in Los Angeles comedy is the smiling visage of Budd Friedman, the man behind the Improv. Since 1981, Friedman’s been using television to promote his clubs, and his appearances as a chuckling audience member and host of A&E;’s “Evening at the Improv” series have made him a nationally recognized figure in the comedy world.
“Club owners may complain that there’s too much stand-up on TV,” he says, “but they’re usually the ones that don’t have a show. Television has been great for the Improv, generating money and goodwill. And I don’t think it’s affected the club crowds poorly, because for all the comedy on TV, the club is still a very different experience.”
With partner Mark Lonow, Friedman has opened Improvs across the country, including the Santa Monica branch in 1988. Friedman notes that his clubs are not immune to hard times.
“I’ve been in the business for 30 years, and every year the business grew. That pattern changed two years ago. There’s no city in America I could think about going into with a new place right now.”
In 1963, after a brief career in advertising, Friedman used some inheritance money to open a small, late-night coffeehouse and restaurant in New York that catered to the theater crowd. Entertainment at the Improv was first a mix of music, comedy and variety, and there were nights when Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and Peter Allen shared the tiny stage. But it didn’t take long for the prodigal comics of Manhattan to realize they’d found a home base. Rodney Dangerfield became the unofficial house emcee, and Robert Klein was the Improv’s first breakout comedy star.
Friedman brought the Improv to the West Coast in 1976, to its present spot on Melrose in West Hollywood. He became a permanent L.A. fixture when he sold the New York club in 1979.
“When I came to L.A., Jimmie Walker, Jay Leno and Freddie Prinze were the nucleus of what was happening at the Comedy Store. I had to bring out somebody special from New York to get the Improv noticed. I went with Andy Kaufman and then brought out Elayne Boosler. It worked.”
Friedman describes his role in the clubs as that of “benign dictator” and even makes light of his reputation for being an occasionally tough taskmaster:
“Richard Pryor once said I had taken advantage of him because he was black, and I was absolutely heartbroken. When I got home my wife said, ‘You should have told him you take advantage of all performers, regardless of race, creed or color.’ I told Richard that line and he loved it. We had no trouble being friends again.”
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