Budd Friedman's claim that he runs the best comedy club in the country may be challenged by some (Mitzi Shore and her gang up the hill at the Comedy Store may have something to say about that). But there's no question that his Improv on Melrose Avenue is a prototype for one of the nouveau cultural venues of the '80s--comedy clubs with similar formats may be found as far afield as Australia--and that Friedman himself has come to enjoy a kind of baronial status as a result.
There's no question either that a lot of high-powered talent has come through the Improv. And on Saturday, Home Box Office threw a 15th anniversary party for Friedman & Co. at the club, and invited the rest of the country to watch on a live telecast. (The show will be repeated Feb. 12, 14 and 25.)
Robert Klein hosted, and Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Paul Rodriguez and Robin Williams all sat on stage more or less dutifully (nobody can keep Williams down for long) and took turns paying tribute: "I feel like I'm doing a talent show in a mental institution," moaned Lewis. Crystal followed with: "I feel like I'm doing a dog act."
It was a great party. It had high energy, the pleasurable edginess of a volatile mix that doesn't touch off into a conflagration, and the wisdom of brevity.
Klein was an unselfish and ebullient host, free of the self-importance that has dogged his act of late, who told us (jokingly) how "Budd has been giving beautiful girls the Heimlich Maneuver for 15 years" as well as other more unprintable practices.
Lewis followed with a note that fealty to Friedman means opening chancy new venues such as Chuckles Chapel (a joke on a couple of Friedman's Improv spinoffs), but that one never has to suffer personal recrimination. ("The worst he threatened was to break my therapist's legs.") He followed with 10 minutes or so of his characteristically urban neurotic incantations, but the vigorous depth of his sexual misery has to make anyone feel good in comparison.
Klein got up to recall a funny ventriloquist lady from the Improv days of old who moved her breasts rather than her lips. Williams excitedly broke in with, "I'm sorry, we're male lesbians. Talk about it. It's the 'Donahue Show.' "
Crystal followed with some deft and improbable impressions, such as Yul Brynner playing the Babe Ruth story, Fernando Lamas playing Willy Loman and a dead-on impression of the girlish voice of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, which Crystal fears he may live to regret. (There's an innate fondness in Crystal's style that lends it a certain tact; his observations aren't mean.)
Rodriguez came on as "the first Gentile of the night" (while Williams mimed spray-painting Rodriguez's name on the back wall) and acknowledged to Friedman, who sat like a grand inquisitor in the middle of the crowded room, that "there's a thin line between comedy and working again."
Rodriguez had more difficulty than anyone else in getting his act untracked. (Williams once again jumped in with "Gentiles are people who eat mayonnaise for no reason.") Complained Rodriguez: "Guys, thanks, you fall in whenever you feel you can ruin my act. Do I look like a lottery winner or not?" He finished with his routine on the hairiness of Iranians, and the implicit note that, in the face of our liberal sensitivities, being a minority means never having to say you're sorry.
It didn't seem that Martin Mull would stand much of a chance amid the on-stage shenanigans--his style is generally dry and refracted--but he inflicted some deep razor-cuts into the cheery assumptions about comedians and club life.
"Tonight we are gathered to pay tribute to a fully licensed restaurant," he said. "This mother stage suckling the comedy babes. . . . I never performed in a comedy club, as a believer in capitalism and the minimum wage."
Mull observed wryly how the Improv's comedians traditionally have received the smallest portion of the club's thousands of dollars a night take. He offered the image of comedians' double-digit salaries kept "as a comedy escrow for that hoped-for 'Tonight Show' shot."
"I'm sorry I'm not an Improv alumnus, standing here for half an hour asking hayseeds where they come from," Mull said. "If you've never been here, you don't know what you're missing. If you have, you'll understand why Budd Friedman is to comedy what a stewardess is to the women's movement."
Mull's bit was as about as devastating an indictment of the lock-step rigors of the comedy club convention as has ever been handed down, a moment of rare iconoclasm in a milieu that fancies itself in the vanguard of cutting comment. He even momentarily stopped Williams' mugging with: "Here's where Robin Williams worked his debilitating disorders into a seven-figure paycheck."
Williams' turn was wisely saved for last, and he came out in characteristically manic overdrive, leaping between images and dialects like a fast-forwarded videotape whipping off its spool. He worked the crowd. He did George Jessel announcing, "Before this was Budd's place, it was a leather bar. . . ." He prayed for a reconciliation between Budd and Mitzi, where they could achieve a ceremonial peace by exchanging each other's hair. Williams lived up to the Improv's name.
Friedman came on to thank everyone at the end of the taping. He's been in the business for closer to 25 than 15 years, and if it occasionally seems less wild, it obviously isn't any less fun. In California, he acquired an astute and beautiful wife who softened his rough edges and helped him shape a show-biz format that has now, for better or for worse, become institutionalized. It was a fitting tribute.