Fall Comedy Reads: Budd Friedman’s ‘The Improv’

Welcome to our Fall Comedy Reads series, where we take a closer look at some of the newly released comedy-related books worth checking out this month.

Budd Friedman loves celebrities. This point is driven home multiple times throughout his memoir/“oral history,” The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up. By comedian Bruce Smirnoff, who describes celebrities as “big, shiny objects” to Budd; by Ross Bennett, who explains that “Budd loves talent, but he loves being around celebrities and power even more.” But most especially by Budd Friedman, who admits, “I’m still obsessed with meeting and being around celebrities, which… could have well been another reason I started the Improv.” Nobody picking up this book could say they weren’t warned.

Friedman is responsible for founding The Improv in 1963 – originally a single comedy club in New York, now a major chain of comedy clubs across the country. In this book, he (with co-writer Tripp Whetsell) tells the story of his own life and the growth of his franchise, with occasional (block) quotes from comedians, business partners, and producers. It’s not quite a memoir, but not really an oral history. For the most part, it feels like Friedman had trouble selling the book as a memoir alone and was encouraged to fill about half the book with quotations – some of which go on for pages.

The Improv, like its author, is fixated on celebrities, to the extent that almost every single chapter is devoted to an individual or occasionally a comedy team. This can pay off, as it does in the case of Danny Aiello, whose chapter addresses only his work as a bouncer at The Improv, mentioning only in passing and contextually that he went on to be a respected actor. Where it particularly falters is in the case of Freddie Prinze, whose chapter is filled with interviews with comedians who barely knew or never met Prinze. Paul Reiser’s “I never met Freddie because I was still in college when he was starting out” is particularly baffling – what point is there to an oral history when the historians are only speaking as fans?

Many of the anecdotes that fill the book are not quite as funny as their tellers seem to think. Again and again, comedians insist that they have the funniest story, and the story’s punchline turns out to be that a comedian made a joke. One story Fred Willard tells about Rodney Dangerfield ends, “Two young girls who were twins were there, and he made some inappropriate sexual remark. I can’t remember what it was, but it was just hilariously funny.” This is exemplary of many of the stories that fill this book.

Where the stories get more interesting, Budd gets vicious and vindictive. In describing the famous rivalry between himself and Mitzi Shore in LA in the ‘70s (addressed at length in I’m Dying Up Here by Bill Knoedelseder, who’s also quoted in this book), Friedman vaguely describes Shore’s “unfounded accusations and vicious retaliation against me” and calls Jimmie Walker (interviewed extensively for this book) as “the single most ungrateful comic I have ever known” for performing at Shore’s Comedy Store instead of Friedman’s Improv. One chapter features several comedians explaining in detail why they prefered the Improv to the Comedy Store (including Jerry Seinfeld repeating his Comedy Store critique from Comedy at the Edge that The Comedy Store was a place for “wounded birds”).

None of this is really as insensitive as the way Friedman describes the death by suicide of comedian Steve Lubetkin. As many people have recounted, Lubetkin committed suicide likely to protest the way Mitzi Shore blackballed comedians who had participated in the comedian’s strike of 1979. His suicide note read, in part, “My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at The Comedy Store. Maybe this will help bring about fairness.” Friedman immediately explains, “The Improv was also about to receive a major blow that would be no less near catastrophic…when the club went up in flames.” That nobody suggested to Friedman that it would be inappropriate to compare a man’s death to a building fire with no injuries or fatalities (which Friedman also hints was started by Mitzi Shore) is appalling.

The Improv does contain some interesting anecdotes, but they’re surprisingly few. In many cases, as with Robin Williams, Robert Klein, and Larry David, the stories have already been told elsewhere. In some cases, as with Andy Kaufman, there just aren’t that many interesting stories to tell; some comedians are fascinating performers but introverted people. There’s probably an interesting story about the history of The Improv to tell – Budd Friedman just isn’t the best person to tell it. Someone less distracted by shiny objects would be a great start.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

Fall Comedy Reads: Budd Friedman’s ‘The Improv’