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Budd Friedman, the comedy club pioneer who founded the original Improv in New York in 1963 and gave early career breaks to the likes of Jay Leno, Robert Klein, Bette Midler, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman, has died. He was 90.
Friedman died Saturday of heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his wife, Alix, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Three years after Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show departed Manhattan for Burbank, Friedman opened a Hollywood outpost of the Improv on Melrose Avenue in 1975 in his first expansion of the brand.
There were 22 Improvs across 12 states in February 2018 when Friedman and partner Mark Lonow sold the company to Levity Entertainment Group, whose investors included Irving Azoff.
At his flagship New York hotspot, located at West 44th Street and Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, Friedman also employed Rodney Dangerfield as an MC, Elayne Boosler and Karen Black as waitresses/hostesses, Barry Manilow as the house piano player, Danny Aiello as a bouncer, Joe Piscopo as a doorman and Chris Albrecht to manage the place.
Midler sang at the club, and he became her first manager, getting her booked on The Tonight Show in 1970 for the first time.
Friedman, who used a monocle, also clearly saw the potential in comics like Richard Lewis, Dick Cavett, David Steinberg, Steve Landesberg, David Brenner, Lily Tomlin, Freddie Prinze, Gabe Kaplan, Chris Rock, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon and many, many others.
Early in his career, Leno “would drive all night from Boston every night of the week just to get three or four minutes at the Improv,” he recalled in a 2018 interview. Then, he would turn around and drive back that night (that’s about four hours, if you’re lucky, each way).
“Jay shows up and says, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Friedman, three nights in a row now I’ve been driving from Boston, and I can’t get on. When can I get on?” the club owner said in a 2006 interview for Emerson College and the Television Academy Foundation.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve been driving here and then driving back?’ … When I heard that, I said, ‘You’re on next.’ It was the smartest move I ever made.” He served as Leno’s first manager too.
“You know, the guy who invented baseball gets all the credit. I mean, there are a lot of great players and coaches along the way, but the guy who came up with the idea [deserves it],” Leno said. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for [Friedman], you know? I mean, he was a guy who gave us all a break.”
The youngest of three kids, Gerson Friedman was born on June 6, 1932, in Norwich, Connecticut. His father, Benjamin, had an auto parts business with his two brothers before he died at age 36 when Budd was 5; his mother, Edith, then supported the family by selling women’s clothing out of their home.
The Friedmans moved to an apartment in the Bronx in 1941, and Budd graduated from DeWitt High School. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, was wounded in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill and received the Purple Heart.
After earning his degree in advertising from NYU in 1957, Friedman worked as an advertising executive in Boston for two years before he returned to New York with the lofty ambition to produce a show on Broadway.
In February 1963, he rented out a recently shuttered Vietnamese restaurant for $250 a month to open an after-hours coffeehouse for Broadway performers, calling it The Improvisation. He got the idea from Silver Saundors, a singer-actress he was dating and would later marry; he figured the contacts he would find there would help him make inroads in the theater.
After taking down mirrors in the 70-seat restaurant to reveal the brick walls underneath, Friedman hired singers, not comics, to entertain. (Liza Minnelli performed there when she was a teenager, and her mother, Judy Garland, sang there too.) The cast of Broadway’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, including Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee, came for opening night.
About a year later, stand-up performer Dave Astor dropped by, liked the room, did his act and became a regular. Friedman began to focus on comedians, and the club began to thrive.
“That’s how I became a comedy genius, ladies and gentlemen, because of Dave Astor,” Friedman said. “I didn’t have the idea of opening [a venue] for comics. I got tired of singers singing the same songs all the time, but I could listen to a comic do the same jokes over and over because there was always a nuance I could pick up on.”
In becoming the first establishment to present a continuous stream of stand-up performers, the Improv created a template for all other comedy clubs to follow.
Friedman decided to set up shop in L.A. as comedians were leaving New York to follow The Tonight Show. “Back in those days, one appearance on Carson could make or break your career,” he said. “One by one, many of my best acts were moving to L.A., and even though New York was doing better than ever, I decided it was time for me to make the move also.”
At the Improv on Melrose, Judd Apatow worked the door, Debra Winger and Callie Khouri were waitresses, and Leslie Moonves and Kevin Nealon were bartenders as the club survived a 1979 fire and a turf war with Mitzi Shore‘s Comedy Store.
Saundors got the original Improv as part of a divorce settlement before it closed in December 1992.
Friedman also produced and hosted An Evening at the Improv, which aired on A&E from 1981-96; had a hand in launching the American Comedy Awards, produced by George Schlatter; and co-created National Lampoon’s Funny Money for the Game Show Network.
He also appeared as himself in Milos Forman‘s Man on the Moon (1999), starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman, and Apatow’s Funny People (2009), and he co-authored a 2017 book, The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up.
Survivors include Alix, whom he married in 1981 — his second wife saw potential in Adam Sandler, Sandra Bernhard and Rita Rudner when he didn’t, he noted — children Zoe (a veteran comedy exec at Warner Bros.), Dax (a Disney sales exec), Beth and Ross; and grandchildren Noah, Sophia, Jacob, Bronte and Gibson.
“Budd Friedman’s influence on live stand-up comedy is immeasurable,” National Comedy Center executive director Journey Gunderson said in a statement. “From the opening of his original Improv in New York nearly 60 years ago, which ushered in stand-up comedy clubs across the country, to his much beloved club on Melrose, Budd has always been stand-up comedy’s most important cheerleader, coach and master of ceremonies.”
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