Budd Friedman — the founder of the “World Famous Improv” comedy clubs — passed away over the weekend. He was 90 years old. Here is the announcement from the Hollywood Improv’s Twitter account:
The comedy world lost a giant today.
In 1963 he changed the world of comedy by creating the first comedy club for the masses to come together in laughter.
In 1963 he changed the world.
He went global.
He was a pioneer.
He was a gentleman.
He was a luminary. pic.twitter.com/l1pA38AGww
— Hollywood Improv (@HollywoodImprov) November 13, 2022
Calling Budd a giant is actually a bit of underselling. The comedy club world had already been dominated by just two people — Budd and the Comedy Store’s Mitzi Shore — seemingly forever when I first began performing in 1982. When young comics first got to Los Angeles, all they wanted to do was get a spot at either the Hollywood Improv on Melrose or the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. That was the dream.
Budd helped mine come true.
I did open mic sets for a very long time before I ever decided to go on the road. By the time I did, my life was a series of clubs that booked me for five or six nights a week and one-night gigs, mostly in Texas and Ohio. I was wrapping up a string of Texas one-nighters in the late ’80s and headed to a club gig in Chattanooga, Tenn., the next week. The Texas booker told me that the “Johnnie Walker National Comedy Search” was doing a preliminary round in Atlanta while I would be on my way to the next gig and asked if I wanted to do it.
By that time I’d had my fill of comedy competitions, but there was one big draw for this one: Budd Friedman would be there.
Onto Atlanta, I went.
The audition to make it to the evening round was torture. We had to be at the club at 7:30 a.m., which was when most comics are going to bed. Our only audience was the other comics who we were trying to beat. And we had to wow with a three-minute set if I remember correctly. It takes me that long to say hello when I walk onstage.
I made it to the nighttime portion of the competition and came in second. While we were in the green room afterward, Budd walked into the room in all his glory. He was wearing a monocle and carrying a small dog. The man knew how to do affectations. He made his rounds and then came up to me.
First, he told me that going just by “Kruiser” onstage wasn’t a good idea and that I should use my first name too. I began doing that the next day.
Then, in that mellifluous voice of his, he said, “Tell me, Stephen, when are you coming to Los Angeles?” I politely asked if he was going to put me on stage if I did, and he told me to call him a week or so before I was going there and he would.
I don’t think I slept that night.
As soon as I could arrange it, I made plans to go to L.A. True to his word, Budd took my call (I didn’t know how HUGE that was at the time) and gave me a spot.
Rather than slog through months — or even years — of open mic nights in Los Angeles, the very first place I ever stepped onstage and did stand-up there was at the Hollywood Improv. It wasn’t some end-of-the-night spot on a Monday either, it was prime time on a Thursday night and the place was packed.
I killed, by the way.
The following year, a comedian friend and I were on our way to be “contestants” in a test run for a new game show, which was a nice side hustle back then. We had to be there at the crack of dawn, and our route took us past the old Santa Monica Improv. There was no one out and about at that time of day but there was a line to get into the Improv. I asked my friend what was going on and she said, “You really don’t know? That’s the sign-up line for open mic tonight.” She was shocked that I’d never done any open mics before becoming a regular there.
Budd was rather aloof at times. After setting me up, I don’t think he so much as said hello when he’d see me at the club. Yet he kept being instrumental in my career. My first national television appearance was on An Evening at the Improv. I recently discovered that set on Amazon and that was quite the trip down Memory Lane. That set also cemented my status as a national road headliner.
About a year after that first set, I was doing a huge showcase for a slew of agents from William Morris. Perhaps “gaggle” would be a better term. It was a great set and they were all swirling around me in the Improv lobby after it. Never one to miss an opportunity, Budd appeared as if out of the ether to assure the William Morris gaggle that I was one of the Improv’s favorites. He then said that I needed to be back on the television show again. My second appearance was all but booked at that moment.
All the years I was in L.A. other comics would ask why I was so loyal to the Improv and I would say, “Because Budd was good to me and gave me my first shot here.”
Budd Friedman was a showman of the first order, a gentleman to me when I needed it, and he, more than anyone else in showbiz, is the reason I’ve been able to travel all over the world telling jokes and meet so many amazing people. His influence in all of stand-up will be felt long after his passing and my gratitude will never fade.
For your entertainment pleasure, dear readers, here is a grainy screenshot from that first An Evening at the Improv appearance. I think it’s a buck to watch on Amazon. It’s a great set, but the hair alone is worth it.