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Budd Friedman, Improv founder who built a comedy empire, dies at 90

Budd Friedman, who turned a dingy New York coffeehouse called the Improv into a vibrant showcase for stand-up comedy, helping to usher in the 1970s and ‘80s comedy boom by showing that a club could thrive on stand-up alone — without musical acts on the bill — died Nov. 12 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 90.

His daughter Zoe Friedman confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause. Mr. Friedman had heart and kidney issues, she said.

Often described as “the godfather of comedy,” Mr. Friedman helped pioneer the modern comedy club and fostered the careers of Andy Kaufman, Robert Klein, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Richard Pryor, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams, among many others. He turned the Improv into a national chain, opening two-dozen comedy clubs across the country and brought stand-up into millions of Americans’ living rooms, hosting the long-running A&E cable series “An Evening at the Improv” beginning in 1981.

“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,” Leno wrote in the foreword to “The Improv,” a 2017 oral history book by Mr. Friedman and Tripp Whetsell. “In that sense, he’s the father of the comedy club.”

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As Mr. Friedman readily acknowledged, he got into comedy only by accident. When he started the Improv in 1963, borrowing money from his mother to rent a storefront in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, he was trying to become a Broadway producer. He had no money and “very little taste,” as he told it, but decided to open a kind of low-budget Sardi’s, where Broadway actors could sip coffee, eat and hang out after shows, singing or playing piano to pass the time.

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Originally called the Improvisation, after the spontaneous way it came together, the club was intended “as a temporary, part-time venture to help me expand my contacts in the theater, which were nearly zilch,” Mr. Friedman said. His girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Silver Saundors, was a chorus member in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and helped launch the club, bringing her castmates to sing on opening night. A few months later, Liza Minnelli took the stage, singing with her mother, Judy Garland.

But Mr. Friedman turned from music to comedy after stand-up Dave Astor began performing at the club in 1964. Eventually, he embraced an all-comics bill and demonstrated the viability of a pure comedy club after years in which stand-ups performed mainly at coffeehouses and summer resorts, sharing a bill with dancers and musicians.

“It’s hard for us to imagine now that this was bold, but it was — to imagine a venue where it was exclusively comedy and stand-up comedy, without comedians having to be openers or followers of an incredible singer,” said Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center museum in Jamestown, N.Y.

A Brooklyn club called Pips, owned by comedian George Schultz, had opened in 1962 and hosted stand-up shows. But the Improv’s late-night performances and Manhattan location helped it become New York’s top comedy venue, said Wayne Federman, a comic and comedy historian who teaches at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Friedman paid comics little more than “cab fare,” he added in a phone interview, but the club acquired a reputation as a place where comedians could get regular stage time to sharpen their material. “Once the word got out, comedians started flocking there just for the ability to work on their set,” he said. “And oh, guess who else is here: the booker for ‘The Merv Griffin Show’ or ‘The Tonight Show’ or ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” looking for new comics.

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Pryor recorded his first stand-up film, “Live & Smokin’,” at the Improv in 1971. As a struggling comic living in Boston, Leno drove three nights a week, round-trip, to go onstage at the club. Bette Midler performed there regularly (Mr. Friedman became her manager), and Rodney Dangerfield worked as the unofficial house emcee. Actor Danny Aiello was a bouncer, Barry Manilow was the house pianist and an aspiring actor named Dustin Hoffman sometimes sat in on the keys.

After Johnny Carson moved “The Tonight Show” from New York to Burbank, Calif., in 1972, Mr. Friedman moved west himself, opening a Hollywood branch of the Improv that went on to employ comedian Judd Apatow as an emcee, actress Debra Winger as a server and future CBS chairman Les Moonves as a bartender.

By the time the venue opened on Melrose Avenue, Friedman’s comedy-club model had been replicated by venues including Catch a Rising Star in Manhattan and the Comedy Club in West Hollywood, where owner Mitzi Shore became his biggest West Coast rival. Hundreds of comedy clubs eventually opened around the country, which Mr. Friedman blamed in part for diluting the quality of stand-up shows and contributing to a business downturn in the late 1980s.

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Still, he and his company weathered the bust, benefiting from the publicity of “An Evening at the Improv,” which was filmed at his Hollywood club and spotlighted comics including Drew Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, Ray Romano and Sarah Silverman. Mr. Friedman also appeared in front of the camera — “I’ve always been a ham,” he said — and usually wore a rakish monocle, which he began using at the original, dimly lit Improv while struggling to read the menu.

By the time he and his business partner Mark Lonow sold their company to Levity Entertainment Group in 2018, there were more than 20 Improvs across the country, including in D.C. There are now 25, with many of the clubs featuring a bare brick wall behind the stage in homage to a signature red brick wall that stood at the original Improv.

The brick wall has become a staple of comedy venues in general, although Mr. Friedman said that like so much else he incorporated it into his club by happenstance, discovering the brick wall while taking down mirrors and red paneling that had been left by the former tenant, a Vietnamese restaurant. He decided to leave the wall bare, he explained, simply because he couldn’t afford drywall.

Gerson Friedman — his middle name is variously given as Leonard and Merton — was born in Norwich, Conn., on June 6, 1932. The youngest of three children, he was nicknamed Buddy as a boy and soon adopted the name Budd.

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His father ran an auto parts business with his older brothers and died when Mr. Friedman was 4. His mother supported the family by selling plus-size women’s clothing from their home. She eventually moved the family to New York, where they lived in the Bronx and then in Manhattan, hopping between hotels where she worked as a bookkeeper.

After graduating from high school in the Bronx, Mr. Friedman served in the Army in Korea, where he was wounded by an enemy grenade during the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. He studied at New York University on the GI Bill, graduating in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, and worked at an advertising agency in Boston before returning to New York in 1962 with dreams of working in show business.

Shortly after he started the Improv, he married Saundors, whom he credited with helping to generate the idea for the club. When they divorced in the late 1970s, she became the owner of the original Improv, which closed in 1992. He married Alix Mark in 1981.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage, Zoe and Beth Friedman; two stepsons, Dax and Ross Mark; a sister; and five grandchildren.

Many of Friedman’s comics described him as friendly and protective, a sympathetic father figure who offered encouragement as well as suggestions. Still, he noted that he ran his clubs with a firm hand, calling himself a “benign dictator” in a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“Richard Pryor once said I had taken advantage of him because he was Black, and I was absolutely heartbroken,” Mr. Friedman said. “When I got home my wife said, ‘You should have told him you take advantage of all performers, regardless of race, creed or color.’

“I told Richard that line and he loved it. We had no trouble being friends again.”