By FRANK SWERTLOW
Comedy is serious business, and few know that better than Budd Friedman, founder of the Improv in Hollywood, where such comics as Jay Leno, Rodney Dangerfield, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman and Freddie Prinze cut their teeth.
With his Hollywood club about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Friedman, 67, is preparing to depart from day-to-day operations of his chain of clubs and expand it through a franchising deal now being finalized with a New Orleans restaurateur. Discussions are underway to open new clubs in New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago and Tampa, Fla. Friedman recently met with the Business Journal.
Question: Why are you stepping away from the day-to-day action?
Answer: I have been doing this for 36 years and the day-to-day stuff is a pain in the ass. I still am involved in booking acts at gaming venues; I still book the cruises I go on. I'll be there and still maintain an office at Melrose. But we're finalizing a deal with a New Orleans restaurateur, Al Copeland, to run the Melrose club. He runs a series of family-style restaurants in Louisiana and Alabama, 40 of them, called Copeland's, and a higher-level chain called Straya. He will be my chief franchisee and he wants to open two clubs a year around the country.
Q: What will he do to the Melrose club?
A: He will bring in a manager and redecorate and bring in a new menu. I am pushing for Cajun, but they think the Southern California people might think it's too fattening.
Q: What will you be doing?
A: I'll be the Colonel Sanders of comedy. I'll get up and wave to the crowd. I'll emcee. I won't have to worry about the aggravation of being out on the floor and making sure a waitress gets an order right. They will manage it.
Q: Is running a comedy club really that tough?
A: Think of a restaurant with the added egos of the comedians. It becomes a pretty time-consuming endeavor. I have been delegating a lot of stuff, which is not the best thing. I couldn't take it any more.
Q: Is the comedy club industry healthy enough to launch an expansion?
A: Yes. It is ironic that a lot of comics are coming off TV series now. Tim Allen was in the club recently and he will start working out. Paul Reiser, I hear, wants to come back and, of course, Jerry Seinfeld. This is going to be a boom for us. If they want to go out of town, we have clubs there, too.
Q: What are the economics of the club?
A: Comics get paid per set. We pay $15 during the week and $25 on weekends. It doesn't sound like much but when you are putting 15 to 20 acts on a night, it adds up. They would love to get more, but it is not economically feasible. Anybody who says to me that I have to put them on more because he needs another $50 a week, I don't want him. Go get a day job. In the old days, a lot of guys did have a day job.
Q: But the potential money a comic can make has sure climbed.
A: It is astronomical. When I was managing acts, late '60s and early '70s, if a guy made $1 million a year that would be fantastic. Now a million a year is a schlepper. TV just changed it all.
Q: How important are comedy clubs to the Hollywood machine?
A: They are invaluable. Comedians were the opening act, but they weren't the stars. Now, the clubs have become the place to see stars and to act out material.
Q: What's the peril of network executives discovering a fresh voice?
A: They find someone with a unique voice and want to build a series around it, and then they change it. Unless you have the strength of a Roseanne who says, "No, this is what I want," they can destroy you. Roseanne found her niche as the Domestic Goddess. It was the perfect character. She was ballsy as hell and fought for what she wanted and the ratings went up. Margaret Cho didn't and they buried her.
Q: So many stars have walked onto your stage. What makes a great comedian?
A: You have to speak with your own voice. When we started in the '60s, you would never confuse one comic with another. I'll give you a list. David Fry, Robert Klein, Stiller and Meara, Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler. They were all very definitive, very individualistic. If you heard one do someone else's joke it was an accident. But now there are thousands instead of hundreds. There is a lot of overlap. Now, if you hear that one individual voice, you go, "Ah ha, this is why I am still in the business."
Q: What about Lily Tomlin?
A: My piano player, who was from Detroit, which is where she is from, asked me to look at her. I said, "Have her come in at 11 p.m. Thursday night." So, I am standing in the door and a limo pulls up and this lady comes out with the white gloves. Wow. Three weeks later, I found out that she had walked down the block to the St. James theater and hired a limo driver for $5 to take her around the block.
Q: David Letterman?
A: A smart-ass, wicked sense of humor. Before he goes on stage no one is allowed to see him. I was in the green room one time and I wanted to stretch my legs and I saw him in the corridor. He said, "Budd, what are you doing here?"
Q: Ironically, the Westwood apartment where you live is directly across the street from where Freddie Prinze killed himself.
A: It was one of my great tragedies. That and Andy Kaufman. Andy was the most tragic. Andy was clean living, was into his career and that was it, cancer. Freddie, I don't think it was suicide. It was a combination of drugs and playing around with the gun that did it.
Q: Why do so many comedians use drugs and alcohol?
A: It's there. People give comics all kinds of drugs. They are young, immature. Freddie had so much success at a young age. Unless they are strong, they will get murdered. When I make a deal at a hotel, and the operator says, "I'll give the comics free drinks," I say no. As many soft drinks as they want, but no alcohol.
Q: What got you into the business?
A: I graduated NYU in marketing and advertising. I got a job in Boston. I got this itch, but I was too middle class to become an actor. I was supporting my widowed mother. In 1962 my mother reached 62, and she collected Social Security and her brother died and left her $5,000, which was a lot of money back then. I had saved a few bucks and I said now was the time to come back to New York and try to get into the theater. It was now or never. My brother-in-law had a luncheonette and whenever I needed money I would work there as a waiter.
Q: So what's a typical day like for you now?
A: I go in the office five days a week when I am not traveling. I usually arrive at the club at 11 a.m. and stay to 3 or 4 a.m.
Q: While business is humming now, you've certainly seen tough times. What caused the problems?
A: In the '80s, people said, "If Budd Friedman can open a club, I could." There was an explosion of comedy clubs. Everybody was becoming a standup. Guys were covering over bowling alleys so they could become a comedy club. Comics were coming out of law school, med school or just the unemployment lines.
Q: How bad was it for you?
A: I cashed in my IRAs to live on. We were living high on the hog in Beverly Hills. We had a beautiful house, but I couldn't afford it. I sold it at a loss, the first time I lost money in real estate. We bought this apartment (in Westwood) and we have been fixing it up ever since. Coincidentally, I had a tax audit from the good times, but it came during the bad times. We're all clear now.
Q: Why do you keep doing it?
A: I laugh and have a good time. Comics are always around 30 years old. If I don't look in the mirror, I am the same guy I was 35 years ago in New York.
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