Budd Friedman, founder of the Improv comedy club, dies at 90

A man with gray hair wearing a pinstripe shirt and sitting in a patterned armchair
A 2017 portrait of Budd Friedman at his home in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Budd Friedman, who earned the nickname the godfather of comedy by founding and expanding one of the most prominent comedy club franchises in the United States, has died. He was 90.

Friedman’s wife, Alix, told the Hollywood Reporter that the Improv comedy club founder died Saturday of heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he lived in Westwood. Erin von Schonfeldt, lead talent booker at the Hollywood Improv, confirmed his death to The Times.

“The comedy world lost a giant today,” the Improv team said in a statement.

“He was not a stand-up comedian or sit-com star or movie legend. But he gave birth to a generation of artists who defined American comedy and culture for decades. ... For almost 60 years, through stable and turbulent times, the Improv stages provided the platform for thousands of artists to speak their truth—and hopefully catch the watchful eye of Budd in the process.”

Perhaps the most familiar face in Los Angeles comedy is the smiling visage of Budd Friedman, the man behind the Improv.

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In 1963, Friedman founded the Improv’s flagship location — a late-night coffeehouse and restaurant in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York with a tiny showroom that attracted the theater crowd. It’s evolution into one of the hottest comedy clubs on the scene “was all an accident,” according to Friedman, who originally billed the venue as a coffeehouse that served food because he “couldn’t afford a liquor license.”

Though Friedman sold the original club in 1979, the Improv now boasts more than 20 locations across the country, including stages in Brea, Irvine, Oxnard, San Jose and Hollywood.

As the Improv’s stand-up footprint expanded over the years, Friedman and business partner Mark Lonow helped launch the careers of Jerry Seinfeld, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Billy Crystal, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias, Chris Rock and other household comedy names.

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Amid the rise of cable television in the 1980s and ‘90s, Friedman elevated his influence by hosting “An Evening at the Improv,” a stand-up comedy series that featured the likes of Ray Romano, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman and Drew Carey.

“Club owners may complain that there’s too much stand-up on TV,” Friedman told The Times in 1994, “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.”

When news of his death surfaced over the weekend, a number of comedians — including Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Kevin Nealon and Loni Love — paid tribute to Friedman on social media.

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“Budd Friedman. Can’t thank this man enough for what he gave to all of us,” Sandler tweeted Sunday. “A comedy home. All the stage time. All the tips. All the encouragement. A place for comedians to hang out and talk about nothing but comedy. ... No place like the improv. No one like this man. Great to so many. Thinking of Bud and his family today with so much love and appreciation.”

“Budd Friedman is the reason many comics you see today are working,” Love tweeted Saturday. “He put money in our pockets and provided a space for us to audition and be seen for our stand up…thank you so much Budd for believing in the power of comedy.. you changed the world now rest.”

Von Schonfeldt of the Hollywood Improv said the club hosted a party for Friedman’s 90th birthday in June. Even in old age and having survived a stroke, Friedman visited the club on a regular basis, sat at his booth in the back, sipped Champagne and was always giving the staff notes about improving the club.

Friedman is survived by his wife, Alix, daughters Zoe and Beth and stepsons Dax and Ross.

“He was super sharp, didn’t miss a beat,” Von Schonfeldt said. Above all, his passion for the business made him an iconic figure in the comedy world.

“Not only did he build the Improv, but he created the comedy club,” she said. “And so to leave that legacy of laughter without having stepped on anybody to do it is kind of unheard of.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.