History of The Improv

History of The Improv

For over half a century, the Improvisation Comedy Clubs have remained the premiere stages for live comedy in the United States. Over the decades, the talent who has played center stage represents the Who’s Who of American Comedy, including Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Freddie Prinz, Andy Kaufman, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Ellen DeGeneres, Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, Jeff Dunham, and Dave Chappelle

Today, the Improv stage continues to be the most important live venue for new comedians. But, its start in 1963 was anything but legendary.

The Improvisation was founded in New York City by Budd Friedman as a place where Broadway performers could meet after their shows.  The Improv was meant to be an intimate setting where performers could simply eat, drink (coffee, at first, as the Improvisation did not have a liquor license) and, most importantly, sing. The Improvisation quickly gained attention as the gathering spot where young Broadway artists would hold sing-alongs into the wee hours. You could see Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli singing, accompanied at the piano by Peter Allen. (Google them if you aren’t sure who these legends are!)

Our iconic brick wall started in the NY club as well belonging to the Vietnamese Restaurant that inhabited the site previously.  When the conversion from restaurant to hangout bar took place, and the old walls were removed to redecorate the brick wall was discovered.  Since dry wall was expensive, the brick wall was simply left in place and soon became the club’s signature.

One year later, one of the Improvisation’s first comedian, Robert Klein, appeared on stage to try new material while he was working on Broadway in a show, The Apple Tree.  Quickly comics heard about it and followed him onto the Improv stage. In no time, comedians began to crowd out the singers.  That’s when the rotation moved from singer, comic, singer, comic…, to comic, comic singer, comic…, and eventually to comics only.  The first comedy only showcase club in the world, where the future giants of American comedy were all vying for stage time, the New York Improv was born.

Some of them went to great lengths to be seen at the club. Lily Tomlin hijacked a parked limousine and had the stunned driver circle the block so she could make the proper.  Jay Leno drove weekly between Boston (he is a graduate of Emerson College. His major: Speech therapy) and New York, hoping that someone would notice him hanging around the Improv. Or sleeping in the Improv parking lot.  Finally, he got a spot and the rest, as they say, is history.  Andy Kaufman interviewed for a spot and never broke out of his “Latka” accent.

Quickly, a remarkable list of talent was building; the debut of 16-year-old Freddie Prinz one night, legendary Milton Berle the next. In one month, audiences could catch the greats and soon-to-be-greats-- George Burns, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Richard Lewis, and Rodney Dangerfield, who was the Improv’s part-time emcee for four years.

Contrary to popular belief, Bette Midler was never a waitress at The Improv. But she regularly performed on stage and got her first “The Tonight Show” booking from the Improv stage. Next to Johnny Carson, The Improv stage was arguably the most important stage in all of show business. For a young comedian, success at the Improv meant everything.

Many future stars however did work at the Improv— even if not on stage. There were door hosts Danny Aiello (“Godfather II”, “Moonstruck”), Keenan Ivory Wayans (“In Living Color”, “Scary Movie”), and Joe Piscopo (“Saturday Night Live”). Waitresses included Karen Black (“Easy Rider”, “Five Easy Pieces”) and Elayne Boosler. A guy named Barry Manilow would play piano. And, it was not unusual to find Dustin Hoffman at the piano when the regular Improv pianists were on break!  As in New York, the next generation of artists and entertainment executives worked the Improv in Hollywood either on stage, in the house, or at the bar.  Actor Daniel Baldwin, uber comedy manager Jimmy Miller (Jim Carrey), and writer/producer/director Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin” “Knocked Up”) were part of the fraternity of door managers. Debra Winger (“Urban Cowboy,” “Terms of Endearment”) and writer Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise” and “Nashville”) were waitresses. And, mixing drinks at the bar, Lesley Moonves, the current President of CBS.

And when the Improv expanded to Hollywood in 1975, Chris Albrecht who became the somewhat noteworthy President of HBO was left in New York as the manager in-charge.  The second Improv was established on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, California, where it still stands today. The club included the trademark piano and the iconic brick wall. Jay Leno helped paint the ceiling.

In 1979, after seventeen years of going solo and running the club on a modest budget, Budd realized he needed some support.  Enter Mark Lonow to become a co-owner of the club.  Mark Lonow, once part of a New York comedy trio with his wife JoAnne Astrow and Henry Winkler, (the Fonz from “Happy Days”) that performed at the Improv, had been acting in movies (Thank God It’s Friday, The Last Married Couple in America) and TV (Husbands, Wives and Lovers) along with being a successful producer/director was now in a position to help make the Improv a more profitable business.

An Evening at the Improv

An Evening at the Improv

In the 1980’s, a new cable network, the Arts & Entertainment Network (better known now as “A&E,” the home of Dog, the bounty hunter) began airing "An Evening at the Improv", a weekly comedy series taped at the Hollywood Improv. Cable television was exploding across America at point it time and the Improv became as well known to viewers as Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan. "An Evening at the Improv" offered television exposure to new comedians and brought stand-up comedy into homes across the country as never before.

Comedy Boom of the 80’s

In the 1980’s, spurred by the growth of cable television and hit movies, comedy dominated pop culture. Robin Williams was on virtually every magazine cover for his movie roles. Along with “An Evening at the Improv,” there were widely popular HBO comedy specials and the juggernaut “Saturday Night Live.” Together, Budd and partner Mark began a national expansion of The Improv, opening locations in San Diego, San Francisco, Brea, Irvine, Tempe, Washington D.C., Dallas, Addison, Cleveland, Miami, Las Vegas, Reno and London, England.

Comedy fans, often for the first time in many cities, were able to see their favorite comedians in an intimate club setting. For the grand opening of the Improv in San Diego, Robin Williams performed and was surprised onstage by his idol, Jonathon Winters. They performed together for the very first time. The Improv continued through the 80’s and into the 90’s when, thanks to such huge prime-time successes as Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen, Rosie O’Donnell, Joy Behar and Ellen DeGeneres, the stand-up comedian-as-actor began to grab. In fact, many of the concepts for those hit series were developed on our stages, and the deals negotiated at our tables.

A New Era of Expansion

A new century began with a new generation of explosive comedy talent. Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Jeff Dunham, Dane Cook, David Spade, Pablo Francisco, Brian Regan, Sarah Silverman, Daniel Tosh, Gabriel Iglesias, Jo Koy, Sebastian Maniscalco, Todd Glass, Aisha Tyler, Bobby Lee, Anjelah Johnson, and Jamie Kennedy, to name a few, have once again helped make The Improv the place for top comedy.

And The Improv is once again expanding with new clubs being planned, both domestically and internationally, ensuring that The Improv promise will remain true— To deliver the best comedy talent, quality food and service in the most celebrated—and largest—comedy club chain in the world.  As a matter of fact, if you wish to open an Improv in your city, contact Mark Lonow at 323-656-7914.

Improv on the big and little screens

The Improv has long been as much a part of Hollywood as any other establishment in the country. We’ve been the site of hundreds of tapings for both film and television, not to mention a countless number of comedy CD recordings.

For television – other than the obvious 400+ hours of An Evening at the Improv-- we’ve been featured on Last Comic Standing (which has taped in multiple Improv locations) and dozens of comedy specials on HBO, Showtime, and Comedy Central. Other shows include A & E's “Gene Simmon's Family Jewels,” E's” Denise Richards: It's Complicated” and the short-lived NBC series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” as well as our own HBO’s “An All-star Toast to the Improv” and “The Improv 40th Anniversary Special” on NBC and “The Improv 50th Anniversary Special on EPIX and Comedy Central.

Not the end, only the beginning.