Robin Williams Accused of Stealing Jokes in Comedy Tell-All Book

Jimmy Fallon's joke bombs and Johnny Carson getting drunk in the audience are part of Budd Friedman’s oral history of his famed comedy club The Improv.
Courtesy of Budd Friedman
Bud Friedman with Oprah Winfrey and Robin Williams.

Budd Friedman — the legendary figure in the stand-up comedy scene who founded both the New York and L.A. comedy clubs The Improv — took on the heavy task of telling his own story by teaming with writer Tripp Whitesell for an oral history of The Improv. The tome will give comedy insiders plenty to wag their tongues about as they dig through the dishy walk down memory lane.

An entire chapter is devoted to iconic comedian Andy Kaufman and his antics, with Friedman writing that Kaufman is still the one he's asked about most frequently. Jimmy Fallon says that he tried to have his own Kaufman-style moment during a talent showcase, but his outlandish attempt to draw attention — shaving his head onstage while telling jokes that had nothing to do with razors, shaving cream or the bowl of water onstage — admittedly bombed.

Long-time L.A. Improv house emcee Bruce Smirnoff dishes about the time Friedman put him onstage for a set while Johnny Carson was in the audience. Carson allegedly got drunk while Smirnoff bombed, getting heckled offstage by his own agent's son. After the set, as the story goes, Smirnoff was forced to drive Carson home all the while Carson was in the backseat making out with a woman from Chicago who "couldn't have been more than 18."

Equally controversial, Richard Lewis and Robert Wuhl both accuse the late Robin Williams of stealing jokes due to his sponge-like brain. "Some comics hated him for it," says Lewis. "But I wasn't one of them."

Friedman even let Smirnoff tell the story of the time he couldn't keep the secret that David Letterman was coming down to do an unannounced set at the Hollywood Improv in the early '80s. So when Letterman did show up, he saw the crowds and made a break for it. "Dave just walked out of the club, got back in his truck, and drove away."

The book — titled The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up — is now on shelves with a foreword by Jay Leno. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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