Paul Reiser had been away from stand-up comedy for more than 20 years. He wasn’t exactly lost in the wilderness—he’d just done what successful stand-ups from his generation did: go on to have a hit sitcom. But over the summer he started getting his stage legs back under him, and found himself at the Harrah’s Improv on February 16, as part of the chain’s 50th anniversary celebration. It was at joints like this where he and his peers made their bones, in the comedy trenches of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Backstage, Reiser held court in the window between shows. He was sweating, like he’d just gone a couple of rounds with Floyd Mayweather Jr. His act was still sharp, though. At 55, he was at the top of his game, despite the layoff.
“The first time I did the Improv, I was 4 years old. I had just learned to walk,” Reiser deadpanned as the small crowd boomed with laughter. “The Improv was the cool, veteran club. … It was cool and funky, and there was always a little cluster around the door. Just to get into the place, it felt like an accomplishment.”
When the Harrah’s location opened in 1995 with Brian Regan, it was another bureau in a sprawling empire, with outposts from New York to Hollywood. It’s still one of the more profitable locations in the 22-room collection of clubs that license the Improv name. It’s a take on a classic showroom writ small, dark and with cocktail tables up front and booths in the back, and not unlike other comedy clubs that dot the Strip.
Except that the Improv is inextricably woven in the fabric of modern American stand-up, as the first venue devoted exclusively to the art form.
In 1963, Budd Friedman, a 30-year-old ex-ad man, took over a little place in New York’s Theater District that was supposed to be a place for stage performers to hang out and sing after the shows.
Within a year, Dave Astor, whom Friedman described as the era’s “comic’s comic,” started performing there. It didn’t take long for the comedians to displace the singers.
For 12 years, Friedman presided over a roster of talent at the Improv that reads like a comedy hall of fame, with the likes of Lily Tomlin, Rodney Dangerfield, Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor all coming through the club.
“Except for the Milton Berles and Bob Hopes, comics were opening acts. The Improv was the first platform that the comedians had where they would be the stars,” Friedman says. “I always like to say that before me, comedians didn’t get laid.”
The club took off so quickly that Friedman found himself in an unexpected position of power—he called himself a benign dictator at the time—with the ability to bump sets, put comics onstage or keep them off. It was easy to carve out a market. The competition was scarce. There was Pips, but that was all the way out in Brooklyn; and the Improv’s biggest rival in Los Angeles, The Comedy Store, wouldn’t appear for another nine years.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re a genius.’ I became a comedy genius by luck, because a guy walked into my club in New York,” Friedman says. “The comics would go to see [Astor], and he’d bring them over. I just took things as they happened. I didn’t plan. I didn’t know. It was a natural growth.”
Eventually, he decamped to L.A. in 1975 to set up another Improv, leaving operation of the New York outpost to his ex-wife and future HBO head Chris Albrecht. It was just in time for the rise of modern stand-up as we know it, which had its Lexington and Concord in the 1979 Comedians for Compensation strike. The labor dispute mostly affected the Comedy Store, but only because a fire ripped through the Improv right as the strike was starting.
One of the strike’s agitators, Mark Lonow, would end up as Friedman’s partner in the Improv shortly thereafter, just in time for the comedy boom of the ’80s. It was fueled in large part by the launch of An Evening at the Improv on A&E in 1982.
“There was a sense of explosion,” Lonow says. “The United States fell in love with stand-up comedy. Evening at the Improv came on, and we went from one show a night, maybe two on Saturday, to three shows a night, seven nights a week. It was insane.”
Soon, it’d blow up into all the sitcom deals and the proliferation of comedy clubs across the country in every restaurant, hotel ballroom and bowling alley in town after town. Then there were the massively popular rock-star comics, like Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay, whose two-night sellout of Madison Square Garden in 1990 could be the high-water mark for stand-up’s commercial success. But it didn’t always jibe with Friedman’s aesthetic.
“Dice is a nice guy, but I hated his act. I took great offense to it. His rhymes were things we were doing back at P.S. 90 in the Bronx. Sam ... I liked him as a person, but I never got his act.”
The rapid expansion of Improvs to 18 clubs soon was met with contraction in the early ‘90s. Six rooms closed amid the combination of national recession and market oversaturation. Lonow and his wife, JoAnne Astrow, had bought a big house near the Hollywood sign.
“Did I think it was going to go bye-bye completely? No,” Lonow says. “The panic was definitely there, but I knew it wasn’t going away forever.”
Eventually it would turn around. There are 22 Improvs today, with more planned. Friedman and Lonow stepped away from day-to-day operations in 1999. Lonow and Astrow are eagerly awaiting the April premiere of their daughter Claudia’s sitcom How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life). Brad Garrett will play a character based on Lonow.
Friedman and his wife go to the Melrose Improv every 10 days or so just to keep an eye on the talent. He and Lonow still have a controlling interest in several of the clubs including Vegas and Lake Tahoe, just, Friedman says, so he can stay out of his wife’s hair. A documentary crew is working on something about Evening at the Improv. Friedman says he likes a lot of this generation’s comics—Patton Oswalt in particular—but worries that we could be seeing a return to the days when comics would develop a five-minute act as a stepping stone to getting a sitcom.
Backstage at Harrah’s Improv, the small, chattering crowd around Reiser falls silent as he contemplates whether today’s stand-up is any different.
“I’ll tell you what’s really funny. I hadn’t done stand-up in 20 years, really doing it: writing new material and going up. What was so funny to see was how exactly the same it was,” Reiser says. “But however much the world changes and show business changes, comedy doesn’t. It’s still the same set of intangibles. You have to write funny, you have to perform it, and you have to do it all the time.”