Budd Friedman’s THE IMPROV and Leading with Your Strongest Material


In the mood to watch some great standup comedy?  I’ve compiled a GWS Companion that features 20 of the comedians who figure into the long and storied history of The Improv.  Click here if you wish to laugh.

There are so many reasons that I love comedy, but I think the primary one is that comedians have always been the true conscience of a society.  The court jester is the only person who can speak truth to the king.  Comedians push boundaries and shape how we view the language.  (Just this morning, I heard an NPR commentator mention how a politician was using rhetoric that “ratcheted the tension to 11.”)

So much of today’s comedy can be traced to Budd Friedman and his Improv, the first comedy club of its kind.  The brick wall in the background?  The cutthroat competition and dysfunctional friendships between comics?  That was all him.  The Improv was the incubator for comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler…everyone.

Now Budd Friedman has been kind enough to write his autobiography for us.  (With a little help from Tripp Whetsell.)  The Improv is a chronicle of Mr. Friedman’s early years and influences as well as a remembrance of the Improv scene in the 1960s through the 1980s.  (Purchase the book from your local indie store, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.)

Mr. Friedman is part of the long and beautiful tradition of Jewish comedy; he worked in the Catskills and started out managing comics and other performers.  He soon started a club that was primarily for singers, but comedians took over before long.  Mr. Friedman (and Mr. Whetsell) do a very wise thing, particularly in the context of this kind of book: they involved their friends in the book and included their contributions.  Now, novelists can’t exactly ask a friend to pound out a chapter or two in their stead, but Mr. Friedman blends his autobiography with healthy anecdotes from, well, tons of people.  Larry David…Billy Crystal…Bette Midler…tons of people who figured into Mr. Friedman’s life and that of the Improv.  The long interview sections create an interesting effect; The Improv is half autobiography, half oral history.  In this way, Mr. Friedman tells us that the individual and his or her place can be represented by complementary narratives.  Mr. Friedman has a life outside of his work with the Improv…but come on.  A substantial part of Mr. Friedman’s identity is surely built out of what he achieved in comedy.

As any comedian can tell you, it’s important to lead with some of your best stuff.  If you don’t impress the crowd in the first minute or two, you’ll likely bomb.  So what did Mr. Friedman do?  He front-loaded the book with a foreword from Jay Leno.  After that, did he get right into his personal history?  Nope.  He includes a prologue that is packed with star power.  Here’s just a fair use-friendly snippet:

How can you go wrong when you begin with such a lineup?

Mr. Friedman’s story and his prose are equally entertaining.  He had the kind of old-time show business experience that you see in the movies.  When writing about the tragedies of his life, Mr. Friedman evokes the proper emotion without delving too deeply into pathos or evoking inappropriate laughter.  (In one particularly powerful passage, Mr. Friedman describes how his father died at the age of thirty-six from an infection that would be a total non-issue in the age of modern medicine.)  No, the author doesn’t have to make you laugh on every page; he wisely modulates between different emotions in order to amplify the comic heights.   Just like a good hour of comedy, The Improv teaches you a little, makes you chuckle and leaves you wanting more.

The book comes highly recommended and should be on the shelf (physical or digital) of any student of comedy.  Those who don’t consider themselves students of comedy should read the book to build up their understanding of the twentieth-century blossoming of comedy.  Sure, it’s all about making people laugh, but comedians are such an important part of our society, and their understanding (and alternate take) on our world make them an invaluable part of our cultural conversation.

BONUSES:  Here‘s an interview Mr. Friedman gave to Tom Shillue.  Here‘s an excerpt from the book in which Mr. Friedman describes Andy Kaufman’s Improv debut.  What would it be like to be in a comedy club and to see this kind of routine for the first time?




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