There are a lot of great stories in the new oral history of The Improv comedy club. Budd Friedman’s stand-up mecca, which opened in New York in 1963 and later expanded to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, served as a launching pad for Jay Leno, David Letterman, Bill Maher, and dozens of other big name comics.
Larry David, who was initially turned away from performing at the New York club, ultimately became a cantankerous fixture on the scene, as recounted by a number of comedians in the book who recall his “combative” nature and tendency to walk off stage before starting his set if he didn’t like the looks of the crowd. “OK, this guy’s funny, but he’s completely uncompromising and I wish him luck,” Sen. Al Franken remembers thinking about David when they first met in 1977.
In the exclusive excerpt below, as told to co-authors Friedman and Tripp Whetsell, Jimmy Fallon takes us back to the mid-’90s before he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. At the time, Seinfeld was the most popular show on television and a big part of Fallon’s act was his Jerry Seinfeld impression.
On his very first night performing stand-up at The Improv, Fallon not only had to go on after the most famous comedian in the world, he also had no choice but to impersonate him to his face. Just a few years later, the two men would appear side-by-side together on SNL’s “Weekend Update” as dueling Seinfelds.
These days, Fallon and Seinfeld are friends, if not quite equals. But it all started at The Improv, more than two decades ago.
You don’t forget it. You walk down Melrose Avenue, you see the lights, and it feels like showbiz. As soon as I walked in, I saw Budd sitting at his table with his monocle dangling by his lapel. He’s a very sharp dresser—fashion forward and he sticks out, because you can just tell he’s a classy, cool guy. And I thought to myself, “I can’t believe that’s Budd, that’s BUDD FRIEDMAN.”
My first time at the Improv instantly reminded me of that scene from Goodfellas where you walk in and you know everybody. And they were all there that night—Richard Lewis, Dom Irrera, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, John Mendoza, Ray Romano—just talking and hanging out. It was insane because it was like going to a party of comedians I never knew existed. I was freaking out, because I knew everybody’s act by heart and I could do everybody’s act, when all of the sudden my manager, Randi Siegel, took me over to meet Budd.
He’s one of the few guys I don’t impersonate, but when I spoke to him he was like, “Right, right. Good to meet you.” I don’t really remember much else because I was so nervous and intimidated to meet him. Then I went into the show room just to see what it was like. I went in through the swinging doors, past the bathroom area, and the first thing I saw was the brick wall, the mic stand, and the light. People could still smoke back then, so there was this kind of cool haze, almost like stage smoke like you’d see at a rock concert.
And it’s a decent-sized room and all you hear are the people laughing, so immediately I got nervous even though I wasn’t going on. I was soaking it in like, “This is the Improv.” Then this guy Brett, who was the sound engineer, came up to me. He said, “You can stand over there.” That was when I was shown the back corner of the room where the comedians sat to watch each other’s acts. So I did, too—boom, boom, boom—the people that I love.
The very next day I came back to talk to Budd’s stepson Ross whom he’d told me to come see, and we arranged a time for me to do an audition but during the daytime. When that day came, the vibe at the Improv was entirely different because nobody was there and the whole room reeked of stale cigarette smoke and beer. So I got up onstage with my troll doll and my guitar. And I started doing my act and Ross started laughing. He said, “This is good. You should come on. I’ll give you a spot Wednesday night.”
So I came back and I did my usual act—Seinfeld, Travolta. Sometimes I would close with Pee-wee Herman because that was a big scandal at the time. I said something like, “This doll is cool, but I’d rather play with myself.” My other closer was George Michael. I would play the guitar and then I’d turn around, shake my butt like George Michael did, and that would be the closing.
It was the best night of my life ever. Then I got off, and when Budd saw me he said, “Jimmy, well done. That was great.”
I was like, “How cool is that? Budd Friedman said hi to me.”
And then he said to my manager, “Let’s have him back next week during the week.”
“Wow,” I said, “now I’m a working comic at the Improv.”
For which I got paid $8.25. I still have the check that’s unused because obviously there’s nothing you can do for $8.25. But the best thing about the Improv is that they would feed you. My mom loved it when I played there because that meant I could eat. She knew I was eating. She was like, “God bless Budd Friedman. He’s feeding you. Please tell him thank you from the Fallons.” I didn’t tell her I was eating chicken fingers, but it was still great because I was flat broke.
After about three months, Budd invited me to sit at his table, which was big because the unwritten rule was that you could say hello anytime you wanted to, but you didn’t just sit down. Before I sat, he told me to get out of the aisles. Then he said, “I think you’re ready for Saturday night.” That actually was a paid gig and your name even went up on the marquee like a movie opening. It was exciting, and I was so happy that I went back to my apartment and began practicing that night, everything over and over.
So finally, Saturday night came and I showed up at the Improv with my doll and my guitar and everyone was congratulating me. And when I told them how excited I was, they said, “Yeah, it’s a big night. Seinfeld’s here.” I looked over and, sure enough, Jerry Seinfeld was eating dinner with Budd. I was like, “My God,” because this was at the height of Seinfeld and it couldn’t be any bigger. I was like, “Oh my, gosh. I’ve got to call my mom and tell her Seinfeld’s at the club.” So I ran outside to the pay phone and I called her collect. I said, “Hey, it’s Jimmy.”
“How’s everything?” my mom said.
“I’m at the Improv and Jerry Seinfeld’s inside.” My mom went berserk. She was like, “What? My God, I’ve got to tell everybody.”
I hung up and when I went back into the club, just as I was about to go on, somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Seinfeld’s getting ready to go up. He’s going to go up and do ten minutes.” So everyone, all the comedians, went back to watch and he came up and they announced him. No one else knew he’d been there in the audience.
He got a standing ovation just walking to the stage. And he killed, just a great stand-up. And I was standing over near the sound booth when the sound guy said, “Who’s next?”
Whoever the other comedian was said, “I’m not following that.” Then the next two guys after that said the same thing, so the sound guy said, “Who’s Jimmy Fallon?”
“That’s me,” I said.
“Okay, you’re up.”
I thought to myself, “I’m following Jerry Seinfeld my first night. This is like the worst ever.” And I was freaking out, but my manager tried to reassure me.
“Okay, okay,” she said. “You can do this, you can do this.”
So they announced my name, and I went up with my troll doll and my best ten-minute act—in fact, it was my only ten minutes, but I switched the order of my impressions and started with Seinfeld. I said, “Welcome to the auditions for the new spokesperson of Troll Doll, Inc. First up, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld.” And I did my impression of Seinfeld and it worked. I’ll never forget that night. Electric.
The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Stand-Up will be released on Sept. 19 and is available for pre-order now.