History of the Improv

In the beginning….there was Budd

For over half a century, the Improvisation Comedy Clubs have remained the premiere stages for live comedy in the United States. Over the decades, the talent who has played center stage represents the Who’s Who of American Comedy, including Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Freddie Prinze, Andy Kaufman, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Ellen DeGeneres, Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, Jeff Dunham, and Dave Chappelle.

Today, the Improv stage continues to be the most important live venue for new comedians. But, its start in 1963 was anything but legendary.

The Improvisation was founded in New York City by Broadway producer Budd Friedman. Budd hoped for a place where Broadway performers could meet after their shows, an intimate setting where performers could simply eat, drink (coffee, at first, as the Improvisation did not have a liquor license) and, most importantly, sing. The Improvisation quickly gained attention as the gathering spot where young Broadway artists would hold sing-alongs into the wee hours. Budd has a very vivid memory of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli singing, accompanied at the piano by Peter Allen. (Google them if you aren’t sure who these legends are!)

Our iconic brick wall started in the NY club as well – out of necessity. When Budd ripped the red wall panels and mirrors off the wall left by the previous tenants (A Vietnamese Restaurant. In the 1960’s. Not hard to see why it didn’t make it!), he discovered this great red brick wall. Since he knew nothing about dry walling (and couldn’t afford it, even if he did), he simply left the brick in place, which soon gave the club its signature.

One year later, the Improvisation’s first comedian, Dave Astor, appeared on stage to try new material. It worked– and others quickly followed. Soon, comedians began to dominate the rotation, as singers were phased-out of the nightly line-up. The Improvisation became the place for live comedy. In fact, the only nightly stage for live comedy. Little known Dave Astor made Budd the Impresario of comedy virtually overnight. The legendary club was just beginning.

Future giants of American comedy all vied for stage time at the New York club. In an effort to be noticed by Budd, nothing was off-limits to young comedians desperately hoping to be selected.

Lily Tomlin hijacked a parked limousine and had the stunned driver circle the block so she could make the proper entrance for her meeting with Budd.

Jay Leno drove weekly between Boston (he is a graduate of Emerson College. His major: Speech therapy) and New York, hoping that someone would notice him hanging around the Improv. Or sleeping in the Improv parking lot. Eventually Budd did—impressed that Leno would log so many miles and countless hours in the hope of getting his first minutes on stage.

Andy Kaufman interviewed with Budd and never broke out of his “Latka” accent. It wasn’t until Kaufman performed on stage that Budd realized he had been duped!

A remarkable list of talent was building; the debut of 16 year-old Freddie Prinz one night, legendary Milton Berle the next. In one month, audiences could catch the greats and soon-to-be-greats– George Burns, Robert Klein, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Lewis, and Rodney Dangerfield, who was the Improv’s part-time emcee for four years.

Many future stars worked at the Improv— even if not on stage. There were door hosts Danny Aiello (“Godfather II”, “Moonstruck”), Keenan Ivory Wayans (“In Living Color”, “Scary Movie”), and Joe Piscopo (“Saturday Night Live”). Waitresses included Karen Black (“Easy Rider”, “Five Easy Pieces”) and Elaine Boosler. A guy named Barry Manilow would play piano. And, it was not unusual to find Dustin Hoffman at the piano when the regular Improv pianists were on break!

Contrary to popular belief, Bette Midler was never a waitress at The Improv. But she regularly performed on stage, and Budd became her manager, helping to book her first appearance on “The Tonight Show.” Next to Johnny Carson, The Improv stage was arguably the most important stage in all of show business. For a young comedian, success at the Improv meant everything.

Go West Young(ish) Man

Budd had a vision to expand the Improv and, in 1975, he headed West and left Chris Albrecht as the manager in-charge of the New York club. Albrecht had reached a career zenith, unless you consider eventually becoming the President of HBO somewhat noteworthy.

Budd opened his second Improv on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, California, where it still stands today. The club included the trademark piano and the iconic brick wall. Jay Leno helped paint the ceiling.

As in New York, the next generation of artists and entertainment executives worked the Improv—on stage, in the house, or at the bar. Actor Daniel Baldwin, uber comedy manager Jimmy Miller (Jim Carrey), and writer/producer/director Judd Apatow (“The 40 Year-Old Virgin” “Knocked Up”) were part of the fraternity of door managers. Debra Winger (“Urban Cowboy,” “Terms of Endearment”) and writer Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”) were waitresses. And, mixing drinks at the bar, Lesley Moonves, the current President of CBS.

Comedy at the new Hollywood Improv was not without some drama. In 1979, a talent strike was organized against Mitzi Shore and her Comedy Store for not paying non-headlining comedians. The Improv was set to reap the benefits with all comedians working our stage only—until a massive fire nearly burned the entire building down. The cause was arson and rumors were rampant, from a competitor of Budd (there was only one) to a disgruntled comedian who bombed on stage. The mystery was never solved, but the fire did close the showroom. To help Budd quickly rebuild, Improv favorites Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman organized fund-raising shows, one of many examples where legendary comedians have shown their support throughout the years to the place that jump-started their career.

An Evening at the Improv

In the 1980’s, a new cable network, the Arts & Entertainment Network (better known now as “A&E,” the home of Dog, the bounty hunter) began airing “An Evening at the Improv”, a weekly comedy series taped at the Hollywood Improv and hosted by Budd Friedman. Cable television was exploding across America, and Budd – along with his signature monocle– became as well known to viewers as Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan. “An Evening at the Improv” offered television exposure to new comedians and brought stand-up comedy into homes across the country as never before.

Comedy Boom of the 80’s

In the 1980’s, spurred by the growth of cable television and hit movies, comedy dominated pop culture. Robin Williams was on virtually every magazine cover for his movie roles. Along with “An Evening at the Improv,” there were widely popular HBO comedy specials and the juggernaut “Saturday Night Live.”

It was also a time was The Improv began expanding its comedy empire. After seventeen years of going solo and running the club on a modest budget, Budd realized that he needed some support.

His new partner was Mark Lonow (himself once part of a New York comedy trio with his wife JoAnne Astrow and Henry Winkler, the Fonz from “Happy Days.”) Mark had moved to Los Angeles, become a successful producer/director, and would soon be credited with helping to make the Improv a more profitable business.

Together, Budd and new partner Mark began a national expansion of The Improv, opening locations in San Diego, San Francisco, Brea, Irvine, Tempe, Washington D.C., Dallas, Addison, Cleveland, Miami, Las Vegas, Reno and London, England.

Comedy fans, often for the first time in many cities, were able to see their favorite comedians in an intimate club setting. For the grand opening of the Improv in San Diego, Robin Williams performed and was surprised onstage by his idol, Jonathon Winters. They performed together for the very first time.

Comedy Slowdown in the 90’s?

Comedy was King in the 1980s, and that led to an inevitable slowdown in the 1990s.

Many new clubs attempted to duplicate what The Improv had so successfully accomplished, often with poor results. Worse, those new clubs increased the need for comedians to perform all across the country, and the result was a dilution of talent. While the Improv still delivered the best comedy talent available, some acts on some nights were, to be honest, largely forgettable (we hope you weren’t in attendance to see the comedian who XX.) We are still apologizing for him.

While nothing can capture the live experience of comedy, many were content to stay home and watch Comedy Central, a new cable network also luring away top comedy talent.

The 90’s did give rise to the stand-up comedian-as-actor, thanks to such huge prime-time successes as Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen, and Ellen DeGeneres. In fact, many of the concepts for those hit series were developed on our stages, and the deals negotiated at our tables.

A New Era of Expansion

A new century began with a new generation of explosive comedy talent. Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Jeff Dunham, Dane Cook, David Spade, Pablo Francisco, Brian Regan, Sarah Silverman, Daniel Tosh, Gabriel Iglesias, Jo Koy, Sebastian Maniscalco, Todd Glass, Aisha Tyler, Bobby Lee, Anjelah Johnson, and Jamie Kennedy, to name a few, have once again helped make The Improv the place for top comedy.

And The Improv was once again expanding. In 2002, Budd partnered with Al Copeland to create six new clubs: Irvine, San Jose, Brea, Ontario, Pittsburgh, and the re-launch the historic Improv on Melrose Avenue.

In recent years, The Improv opened in Chicago, Denver, Tampa, West Palm Beach, Arlington, Louisville, Baltimore and Orlando.

New clubs are now being planned, both domestically and internationally, ensuring that The Improv promise remains true— To deliver the best comedy talent, quality food and service in the most celebrated—and largest—comedy club chain in the world.

Improv on the big and little screens

The Improv has long been as much a part of Hollywood as any other establishment in the country. We’ve been the site of hundreds of tapings for both film and television, not to mention a countless number of comedy CD recordings. The critically acclaimed “Funny People” was the latest movie to be filmed at the Hollywood Improv, but other movies such as “Man on the Moon,” “The Aristocrats”, Robert Townsend’s ”Hollywood Shuffle,” and “The Goodbye Girl” also had major scenes shot at the Improv.

For television – other than the obvious 400+ hours of An Evening at the Improv– we’ve been featured on Last Comic Standing (which has taped in multiple Improv locations) and dozens of comedy specials on HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central. Other shows include A & E’s “Gene Simmon’s Family Jewels,” E’s ”Denise Richards: It’s Complicated” and the short-lived NBC series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” as well as our own HBO’s “An All-star Toast to the Improv” and “The Improv 40th Anniversary Special” on NBC.