Behind the Improv empire of Budd Friedman, "godfather of comedy clubs"

Stand-up comics are a massive presence in today's entertainment industry. From late night to Netflix specials, to sitcoms and movies, it's at the height of influence and earnings – both in the spotlight and behind the scenes.

According to Jay Leno and many others in the industry, it was club owner Budd Friedman who changed the game of comedy. "I think he's hugely responsible for it," Leno told CBS News' Jamie Wax.

"You know, the guy who invented baseball gets all the credit. I mean, there are a lot of great players and coaches along the way, but the guy who came up with the idea – wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him, you know?" Leno said. "I mean, he was a guy who gave us all a break."

That break for Leno and numerous other comedy icons came at Friedman's now-legendary brick walled club originally called The Improvisation.

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Jay Leno with Budd Friedman

The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up

"There would not be what we know as comedy clubs, or they would be very different, had it not been for this man that I'm sitting next to," journalist Tripp Whetsell said, sitting next to Friedman. They co-authored the new book, "The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up."
 
"He started an accidental industry … because his intent was never to be in the comedy club business at all," Whetsell said.

It was a desire to get a break of his own as a Broadway producer that drove Friedman to open the original Improv in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in 1963. At first, the Improv was a more traditional nightclub, hosting a variety of acts including singers like a then little-known Bette Midler.
 
"Was it clear right off the bat that you didn't really want it to be a variety club anymore? That you wanted to focus on comedy?" Wax asked.
 
"Yes," Friedman said, adding, "Finally we dropped the singers all completely."

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Co-authors Tripp Whetsell (left) and Budd Friedman

CBS News

For aspiring comics like Leno, a few precious minutes on the Improv stage was a goal worth sacrificing for.
 
"I would drive all night from Boston every night of the week just to get three or four minutes at the Improv," Leno said.
 
"About the third night of him doing this he said, 'You mean to tell me you come down three nights in a row from Boston, and go back, and you haven't been on yet?' And he said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Okay, you're on next.' And after that it was you know, an instant level of –" Whetsell started.

"One of the best, best moves I made," Friedman said.

Leno was there again when Friedman moved out west in the mid-'70s to open the now iconic Hollywood Improv. Leno said he picked Friedman up from LAX.
 
"He was opening an Improv. I painted the ceiling, in fact," Leno said. "I mean, it was a real home. I mean, I would not have come here was it not for the Improv."

By the mid-'80s, stand-up comedy was thriving, much credited to Friedman and his counterpart comedy store owner Mitzi Shore. The Hollywood Improv stage was where top comedians went to perform, from Dustin Hoffman to Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Williams, and the bar was a scene packed with celebrities.

"Bruce Willis, John Goodman, you know, I mean, we're talkin' almost every night, singing. Bruce and John to the jukebox. We had the best jukebox in town," bartender Eddie Berke said. He's been there since 1979.

"Do you have a favorite night?" Wax asked him.

"The night Johnny Carson was here and I got to serve him here at the bar," he recounted. "And another night was just recently, actually. Paul McCartney came in a couple of times."

The Improv's success has grown to 22 venues nationwide, and now more than a half a century after opening his first club, Friedman is retiring. He sold the franchise that is so rich in history.

"It's legendary. I mean, it's a club that everybody remembers," Leno said. "You know, the first is always usually the best. And that's the way it was for me. … It's been a whole life. It's been a whole life. So I would say, rest on your laurels. You certainly will never be forgotten, and for those of us, he will always remain a very special person."

"He is the godfather of comedy clubs. The man that invented the template that for all else that followed," Whetsell said.
 
"How do you want yourself and this place to be remembered, Budd?" Wax asked.

"I would just like us to be remembered. And that's all. They can have their own opinions, but just remember me," Friedman said.