West 44th and Ninth is now the home of a reasonable Italian restaurant, but that same space was where history began, and now a brand new book recounts the entire story covering over half a century of comedy stories.
In 1963, 30-year-old Budd Friedman opened an after-hours coffee house for Broadway performers called the Improvisation. He wasn’t looking to change the business of comedy forever, but he did. That West 44th Street location in a seedy section of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen became the first venue ever to present live stand-up in a continuous format, and in the process, reinvented the art form. That mic and a brick wall formula also became the template for comedy clubs for decades to come.
In the fifty years that have passed since then, the Improv expanded to Los Angeles, launched a cable television series, closed the historic New York location, and grew to 22 franchises in 12 states. This brand new oral history of Budd Friedman’s Improv tracks the history of the legendary club through the words of Friedman himself as well as with commentary from a who’s who of famous comedy alumni including Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Maher, Richard Lewis, Robert Klein, Larry David, Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Judd Apatow, Al Franken, Paul Reiser, Howie Mandel, Bob Saget, Dick Cavett, Paul Provenza, Drew Carey and many more.
The history of the Improv is in many ways, a history of comedy itself, bearing witness to, and nurturing the birth of comedy’s biggest superstars, telling the stories of their rises and sometimes their falls, and you can’t tell the story of the Improv without sex, love, drugs, feuds, friendships, so you’ll read stories about Rodney Dangerfield and how he was the first emcee at the Improv in the early New York days, you’ll read about Larry David and Jay Leno and what Jimmy Fallon was like in the early days.
I spoke to the author of the book, Tripp Whetsell, about taking on such an important and lengthy story. “The book was considerably longer,” he told me. “It was about 550 pages when I finished it at first.”Editing it down was no easy task,” he said because all the stories were terrific. The story is largely linear, with some chapters focusing specifically on comedy legends who were an important part of the club’s history. “You always start from ground zero. Everything starts from nothing. We start from his childhood growing up in Norwich, Connecticut to how he came to start the Improv, the whole thing,” Tripp said. “The funny thing about it was, the whole thing was an accident. The way he came to start the Improv was, he wanted to produce Broadway shows. And he was 30 years old. And he always had hints that he wanted to do something in show business, something like that. But he was a kid who grew up in the depression. His father died when he was nine years old.” Friedman’s mom was a bookkeeper and eventually moved the family to New York, he explained. After working in the Catskills and trying to make a go in the ad business, Budd met his future wife, Silver, and he came up with an idea to open an after-hours coffee house for Broadway performers, to support himself. “And that’s how the Improv started,” Tripp said. “He didn’t have any ambitions about starting a restaurant, or anything. It was just sort of a means to an end. And after about a year, comedians started coming up there to try out new material, and that’s how it evolved from there. A guy named Dave Aster, then you had guys like Pryor, started coming up from the Village, and that’s how it happened.”
Whetsell did a series of interviews with Budd spending hours via phone and in person to get the story down and Budd was very candid throughout the interview process. The book is not just a whitewash of the history; problems are addressed and the book also gets into some of the dirtier side of the business. The book addresses problems Friedman had with David Brenner for example, and that is just the beginning. “Budd and Jimmy Walker famously did not get along,” Whetsell said. “One of the reasons was because Jimmy would not perform at the Hollywood Improv after it opened.” He also admits that Budd didn’t like Chris Rock at first. “He thought Chris was a ripoff of Richard Pryor. Same with Eddie Murphy at the beginning, who Silver turned down at the New York Club when he first introduced her. Silver didn’t like him at all and thought he was a cheap Richard Pryor ripoff. Rick Newman [of Catch a Rising Star] was not particularly enthralled with him either. Then he went up to the Strip and just blew it away.”
As fascinating as the early New York days of the club are, Whetsell told me that he found the 70’s to be the most interesting era. “Because that was really the seminal turning point of comedy, when so much was happening. It was such an amazing time creatively. You had so many incredible names that were coming through there. Plus, you had the backstage drama of Mitzi and the two different clubs. I like both, but that period of when he first moved out there was some of the funnest stuff.” That era has been recently depicted in the fictionalized Showtime series, I’m Dying Up Here, but Whetsell’s book covers the real story including the contentious years and Budd’s relationship with Mitzi Shore. “They couldn’t stand each other. That’s pretty clear. He does not have much good to say about her at all. And she made his life a living hell. That’s no understatement.”
Order “The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up” from Amazon.com or anywhere books are sold. And both coasts can check out book signings with Budd Friedman and author Tripp Whetsell- first at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Friday September 22nd and then in New York City on October 19th at Shakespeare Books.