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Budd Friedman, Who Built an Empire of Comedy Clubs, Dies at 90

Budd Friedman, who revolutionized the world of stand-up comedy with his empire of Improv clubs, offering a launching pad for generations of joke tellers, including Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Robert Klein and Jay Leno, died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 90.

His daughter Zoe Friedman said the cause of his death, at a hospital, was heart failure.

There were plenty of stand-up comedians before Mr. Friedman opened the original Improv in Manhattan in 1963, but there were few if any dedicated comedy clubs. Comics had to find work in nightclubs, squeezing in a few minutes between singers, or schlep to the Catskills to perform at a resort.

Mr. Friedman gave comedians pride of place. Though the Improv started as a late-night cafe for Broadway performers and at first featured mostly singers, by the early 1970s it was exclusively a stand-up venue, welcoming both veterans and newcomers.

The club became the model not just for the many Improvs that Mr. Friedman would later open around the country, but also for many imitators that followed. The simple red brick wall behind the stage became a staple of the comedy-club aesthetic, as did the dingy bathrooms and the tight, dark space at the back where Mr. Friedman often sat, peering at the run of show through his trademark monocle.

Mr. Friedman in 2007. He would watch comics from the back of the room through his trademark monocle.Credit…Jason Merritt/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

“The Improv was a game changer,” said Tripp Whetsell, who teaches the history of comedy at Emerson College, and who collaborated with Mr. Friedman on the 2017 book “The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up.”

Mr. Friedman had an eye for talent. He hired aspiring actors as wait staff. Danny Aiello worked as a bouncer, as did Joe Piscopo. Dustin Hoffman and Barry Manilow played piano. One of Mr. Friedman’s managers, Chris Albrecht, later became the chief executive and chairman of HBO.

Mr. Friedman was frequently the M.C. of an evening’s lineup, and he also occasionally managed the performers who crossed his stage. He got Bette Midler her first appearance on “The Tonight Show,” and not only took on Mr. Leno as a client but also let the young comic crash on his couch.

“He was the first person to elevate stand-up to an art form by giving comedians a stage they could call their own in front of a willing audience,” Mr. Leno wrote in the foreword to “The Improv.”

Though Mr. Friedman could be gruff and demanding, he created a convivial, casual environment where aging stars like Milton Berle might brush shoulders with young bucks like Mr. Leno, and even pass on tips of the trade.

“The Improv was the first place where I truly felt like I had found a home,” Mr. Leno wrote.

Mr. Friedman, left, offered a launching pad for generations of comedians, including Jay Leno, center, and Robert Klein.Credit…Dan Jacino/NY Daily News Archive, via Getty Images

The locus of American comedy moved to the West Coast in 1972 when “The Tonight Show” relocated to Burbank, Calif., from New York. Mr. Friedman followed along, opening a branch of the Improv in Hollywood in 1975. Mr. Leno, who had also moved west, painted the ceiling.

Mr. Friedman went on to build an empire, with 22 clubs in 12 states. In the 1980s he developed “An Evening at the Improv,” a show on the A&E cable channel that brought up-and-coming comedians like Drew Carey and Ray Romano to viewers nationwide and juiced that decade’s comedy boom.

He and his partner, Mark Lonow, sold their company in 2018 to Levity Entertainment, which later grew the number of Improv clubs to 25.

Mr. Friedman onstage in 1973 at the original Improv on West 44th Street in Manhattan, originally called the Improvisation. Credit…Dan Jacino/NY Daily News Archive, via Getty Images

Gerson Friedman — he said his middle name was Merton, though his Social Security card said it was Lenord — was born on June 6, 1932, in Norwich, Conn., the son of Benjamin and Edith (Magnus) Friedman. His two older sisters took to calling him Buddy; shortened to Budd, the name stuck.

Budd’s father died when he was 5, so his mother made money by selling clothes, running a sleepaway camp out of her home. After the family moved to the Bronx, she worked as a hotel bookkeeper.

An average student, Mr. Friedman joined the Army after high school and was sent to fight in the Korean War. On his first day of combat, in 1953, grenade shrapnel hit his right arm and both legs; he spent the rest of the conflict recuperating.

He returned to New York and enrolled at New York University, graduating with a degree in advertising in 1957. He expected that he would have a hard time breaking into the Manhattan advertising world, so he moved to Boston and found work with a small firm there.

He dreamed of becoming a Broadway producer, and after two years in Boston he quit and once again moved back to New York. To make it, though, he needed more than money; he needed connections.

Around the same time, he noticed that there were no cheap spots for Broadway performers to hang out after their shows. Here was his chance: He could open what he called a “low-rent Sardi’s” — after the restaurant that catered to Broadway theatergoers — stay open late, draw in actors and, through them, make inroads into the industry.

Mr. Friedman rented a recently closed Vietnamese restaurant on the seedy western edge of the theater district. He tore out its mirrors and red-lacquer paneling, revealing dusty brick walls behind them. He couldn’t afford drywall, so he left them bare.

“I felt like I was lifting up without a flight plan,” he told Los Angeles Weekly in 2017. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

For the first year and a half, the Improv — originally called the Improvisation — mostly presented singers. Liza Minnelli and her mother, Judy Garland, sang together one night. It was a raucous scene: An inebriated Jason Robards once urinated on the club’s brick wall.

Mr. Friedman was game for anything, and in 1964 a young comedian, David Astor, asked if he could try out some material. Mr. Friedman liked what he saw and asked him back. Soon other comedians were dropping in to see Mr. Astor’s act and try out their own sets.

Within a few years the Improv was a fixture on the New York nightlife scene, and comedians scrambled to get a booking. Mr. Leno drove down from Boston three times to audition before Mr. Friedman, mostly out of pity, gave him time onstage. Richard Pryor recorded his first stand-up concert film there in 1971.

Mr. Friedman’s first marriage, to Silver Saundors, ended in divorce. A Broadway singer, she had helped open the original Improv and received control of it in the divorce. The club closed in 1992.

In addition to his daughter Zoe, Mr. Friedman is survived by his wife, Alix (Mark) Friedman; another daughter, Beth Friedman; his stepsons, Dax and Ross Mark; his sister, Kala Mischel; and five grandchildren.

One day in the early 1970s, a friend called Mr. Friedman to tell him about a young comic named Andy Kaufman who wanted to audition. When he arrived, Mr. Kaufman introduced himself in a vaguely Eastern European accent, saying he was from a small island in the Caspian Sea (in fact, he had grown up in the New York suburbs).

He kept up the ruse, even through his set, until he suddenly broke out into an impersonation of Elvis Presley so perfect that Mr. Friedman knew he’d been tricked. From then on, Mr. Kaufman was a fixture at the Improv, and one of Mr. Friedman’s favorite performers.

“I love to put people on,” Mr. Friedman said in a 2006 interview for Emerson College. “And I love it even more when people put me on.”

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