In 1963, on the corner of 44th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan, a man opened a space where people could come and stand up in front of other people and tell jokes, and, in so doing, he changed the world.
Or, at the very least, the world of entertainment.
That man was Budd Friedman, and that space was the Improv Comedy Club. Heralded as the comedy club that revolutionized stand up, The Improv was absolutely fundamental in launching the careers of the giants like Rodney Dangerfield, Andy Kauffman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Middler, Billy Crystal and Larry David, many of whom are interviewed in Friedman’s new book, The Improv. Written with Tripp Whetsell, it is the “first-ever oral history of how this game-changing comedy club came to be.”
It goes without saying that Friedman is a renegade and a visionary. He recently suffered a stroke, and even though, as ever, he knows precisely what to say, it’s a bit more difficult for him to say it. He’s no less charming and Whetsell was on hand to assist, which was seamless as the two clearly share that special bond of people who write together. Friedman was in town from LA, and the interview took place in his Upper East Side hotel, where he held court with his signature monocle.
Periel Aschenbrand: How’s New York treating you?
Budd Friedman: My wife and I saw Hello, Dolly and it was wonderful. It’s with Bette Midler, who I first managed.
PA: She’s wonderful.
PA: Okay. So whose idea was it to write this book?
BF: Mostly Mr. Tripp’s labors. He put so much effort into it.
Trip Whetsell: We worked on it together and it was a wonderful experience. We started it in 2014, when Budd came to NY to do Jimmy Fallon’s premier of The Tonight Show and I approached him about writing a book. And he was interested.
BF: It could not have happened in the olden days without the technology.
TW: Interviews are better in person.
PA: I agree. I only do them in person. I’m so interested to hear… Are you shocked at how popular stand up has become?
BF: I’ve been doing this for fifty years. It’s become gradually more popular.
PA: It’s become so mainstream now, did everyone think you were crazy back then?
BF: Oh, yes.
PA: You were really the first person to provide a home for so many of these comedians.
TW: I think that’s a very fair statement.
PA: You were such a visionary and such a renegade. Is it true that you once chased a rat off the stage with a baseball bat?
TW: The story was that there was a bad mouse problem and he kept cats in the basement to keep them away but one day a huge rat ran on stage and he got his Louisville slugger from behind the bar and smashed the living day lights out of it.
BF: I remember that. I remember also—this was 1963—there was a guy in there smoking a joint and I smacked it out of his hand and I said, “That better be a regular cigarette!”
PA: Oh my! I’m sure there was a ton of misbehaving that went on. It must have been so fun. Did you have your favorite comics?
BF: Sure. I had my favorites. The first person to do The Tonight Show was this guy Howie Mandel, who was ugly. And this beautiful woman was backstage and his routine was, “How do you do, my dear, I’m so and so,” and he goes up to this beautiful woman and does it and then he says, and “Who are you?” And she said, “I’m Racquel Welsch!” She was not impressed. She was actually insulted that he didn’t recognize her but he went on to do very well. He went on to be in a lot of movies.
PA: What was like for the women comics back then?
BF: Well, we had one, Elayne Boosler and she was brilliant. She did everything a man could. . .
PA: It was pretty radical in those days, for a woman to be doing stand up?
BF: I didn’t see it that way.
PA: Well, you were very ahead of your time. You were very radical yourself.
BF: I wasn’t radical, I was…
PA: You were normal and everyone else was behind the times?
BF: That’s right.
PA: It took everyone a few decades to catch up to you.
PA: Even your look was unique. There’s a lot of talk about your monocle.
PA: Can you tell me about it?
BF: The whole story behind is that I needed glasses but I didn’t want to get glasses because I didn’t wear a jacket and would I put them? So I came up with idea of a monocle, which was a great idea and gimmick and affectation.
TW: He doesn’t even need it anymore because he had cataract surgery.
PA: But you still wear it because it looks great?
TW: It’s like part of his uniform. He had to get something because couldn’t read the checks at the club and kept making errors. I don’t know where you got the first monocle? At the dime store?
BF: No. They had them at optometrist.
TW: How many do you have now? In your collection?
BF: One. I give them away. . .
PA: That must be a real prized possession, when you give them to people. . .You have such a unique perspective and so much insight into this incredible little world. And it’s changed so much, I imagine?
BF: It’s changed quite a bit.
PA: One of the things I wonder about, especially back then, is that comedy has the unique advantage, if you want to call it that, whereby you are able to talk about anything you want to—things one is generally definitely not supposed to talk about in mixed company—and you can get away with it… if you’re funny.
BF: Even then you had trouble getting away with certain things. Sarah Silverman, who was a regular at the club, did a routine about the Holocaust and I didn’t think that was funny.
PA: Do you think certain topics are off limits?
PA: Like what? The Holocaust?
BF: The Holocaust.
PA: Fair enough. Do you think you could you tell us about Andy Kaufman? How did you navigate him? Did people understand the humor initially?
BF: At first we thought he was just being a pain in the ass. He came to us in 1973 and he had been recommended by a coffee house owner on Long Island. He had just lost his job. We got a call from the owner telling us we should check out this kid but he didn’t tell us he had just fired him!
PA: Ha! How old was Kaufman at the time?
BF: Twenty three, twenty four. He came up and I said, in this accent. . .
TW: He came in as foreign man. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McYBatcm-0Y
BF: He said, “I am Andee Kowf-man,” and I said, “Where are you from?” And he said, “An island in the Caspian Sea.” I knew there were no islands in the Caspian Sea. But he went up on stage and he starts again with the accent, “I am Andee Kowf-man.” And people were starting to get pissed off. Then he says he wants to do Elvis Presley and he turns around and there he is, he’s Elvis Presley!
PA: And then you knew he was brilliant.
PA: What an incredible story. All of them, really. The book is wonderful.
BF: It’s selling like hot cakes!
PA: I’m not surprised. It was a real labor of love, huh?
TW: We’re very happy.
TW: It’s not the end. But it’s been a lot of fun to do.
PA: It’s a real gift to have these stories. To that end, what’s your favorite drink?
BF: Red wine.
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
BF: One at a time.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
BF: I don’t drink it as much as I used to, but when I do I drink it black.
PA: Favorite Jewish Holiday?
PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?
PA: Do you remember what you wore?
BF: A chalk-striped suit that my grandmother made.
PA: What shampoo do you use?
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
BF: I don’t carry one regularly.
PA: Favorite pair of shoes?
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.