Comedy club pioneer Budd Friedman, who helped launch the careers of Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, and many others, has died at age 90, relatives told multiple media outlets.
Friedman, who founded New York’s Improv in 1963 and eventually grew his empire to more than 20 clubs nationwide including one in Hollywood, died of heart failure Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
“The comedy world lost a giant today,” officials at Hollywood Improv tweeted Saturday. “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.
“Budd gave opportunity and support to everyone who had the privilege of performing in front of that iconic brick wall. We stand committed to his vision. His impact is immeasurable, and his legacy will be felt in comedy for generations to come.
“He will forever be woven in to the very fabric of American comedy. He is truly the Godfather of stand-up comedy, and we will love and miss him with all of our hearts. Rest in peace, Budd.”
Fans and comedians, many of whom got their start at an Improv club, shared their memories of the man who played a key role in their careers.
“RIP Budd Friedman, one of the great champions of comedy and comedians,” comedian Whitney Cummings tweeted. “Just a monumental, incredible man. I will never stop performing at the Improv Comedy Clubs.”
“So sad to learn of the passing of the legendary Budd Friedman, the owner of The Improv, who discovered everyone you love,” comedian turned filmmaker Judd Apatow wrote on Twitter. “A great man who we all loved. He made the world much happier!”
And from actor-comedian Richard Lewis’: “Budd Friedman passed tonight. In 1971, my father, a hero to me, died young. I was lost and found by this man who was a veritable kingmaker for many young comedians at his famed Improv. In many ways he was a lifesaver. I loved him and his family. RIP pal.”
The original Improv, located in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, was initially an after hours coffee house where Broadway performers could unwind with an open mic inviting impromptu musical performances, which included a famed duet between Judy Garland and her daughter, Liza Minnelli.
Gradually comedians starting using the venue to practice their acts and talent scouts from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and other New York-based television shows began coming around looking for new acts to book.
In the 1970s the Improv became a stand-up comedy club exclusively. The Hollywood Improv opened in 1974 on Melrose Avenue and hosted the A&E Network series “An Evening at the Improv” from 1982 until 1996 with Friedman as the warm-up host.
Along the way the Improv became the place for fans to see up and coming talent as well as established comedians who would often show up unexpectedly to try out new material.
The New York location closed in 1992, making the Hollywood outlet the oldest running Improv club.
In 2014, Friedman sold the chain to Levity Entertainment Group, which is now known as Levity Live.
He was born in Norwich, Conn. and earned a degree in advertising from New York University in 1957. Friedman worked as an advertising executive in Boston for two years before he returning to New York hoping to produce a Broadway show. Instead, he wound up converting an old restaurant into a performance space and discovered what would become the Improv’s icon red brick wall — the backdrop for countless stand-up performances — while renovating the site.
Friedman co-authored the 2017 book “The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up” and appeared as himself in the films “Man on the Moon” starring Jim Carrey as Improv legend Andy Kaufman in 1999 and “Funny People” in 2009.
“Budd Friedman’s influence on live stand-up comedy is immeasurable,” National Comedy Center executive director Journey Gunderson said in a statement. “From the opening of his original Improv in New York nearly 60 years ago, which ushered in stand-up comedy clubs across the country, to his much beloved club on Melrose, Budd has always been stand-up comedy’s most important cheerleader, coach and master of ceremonies.”
He is survived by his wife, Alix; daughters Zoe and Beth; sons Dax and Ross; and five grandchildren.