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2 Comics Sue Improv, Allege Illegal Use of Material : Lawsuit: Robert Shimmel and Carol Siskind say parts of their routines were recorded and distributed without their consent.

August 21, 1993|MONICA YANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comics Robert Shimmel and Carol Siskind filed a $2.5-million lawsuit Thursday alleging that management at The Improv comedy club in Los Angeles recorded and distributed their material illegally.

At the center of the lawsuit, filed in federal court, are two sets of six cassette recordings, "Live From the Improv: The Comedy Club Series" and the adult-rated "Comedy After Hours," distributed by The Improv and Atlanta-based Score Productions for sale nationally at gas stations and truck stops.

Shimmel and Siskind charge that their stand-up material--along with jokes from Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Belzer, Sinbad and more than 100 others--was taped and distributed without their consent.

The suit, in which each comic seeks $1.25 million in copyright infringement and punitive damages, targets the Melrose Avenue club, co-owner Mark Lonow and his wife, Joanne Astrow, as well as the production and distribution companies. It does not charge longtime Improv owner Budd Friedman with any wrongdoing.

"We don't have any direct evidence yet that Budd Friedman authorized these recordings," explained the comics' attorney Ian Imrich.

Lonow and Astrow would not comment. Speaking for them, Edward Blau, attorney for The Improv and Score Productions, called the suit "a personal vendetta" and "much ado about nothing," claiming that less than 20,000 cassettes were sold.

Representatives from Southeastern Tape Distributors in Duluth, Ga., also named in the suit, could not confirm the total sales of The Improv series, saying only that the "After Hours" tape (which they said had been "selling well" at $4.99 nationwide) was pulled from distribution Thursday, and that the "Live" cassette was discontinued more than a year ago.

"All these people have been a part of The Improv family for years. They have all either verbally or in writing agreed to these tapes. . . . Nobody's been taken advantage of," Blau maintained.

Calls to other comics included on the tapes found that some recalled allowing their material to be used for radio promotions, but none knew they were being recorded for cassette sales, and none received royalties from the venture.

"It was nothing I was ever involved in," said Larry Willmore, "If it was done, then it didn't have my consent."

"I am not aware of being on the tape or signing anything for it. I didn't get any money for anything," said Drake Sather, who has since stopped doing stand-up.

But at least one comic believes the lawsuit might not be the best way to settle the grievances.

"I think it's a little bit too much punishment for the crime committed," said Dom Irerra from Newark, N.J. "It might have been wrong, and it might have been sloppy on their part, but I don't think it deserves a million-dollar lawsuit."

More than a half-hour of Shimmel's often racy material is included throughout the "Comedy After Hours" series, while just one of Siskind's routines appears on the tapes. Both comics feel that the principle involved is worth the fight.

"If I went to Universal Amphitheater and recorded Frank Sinatra or Sting and released it, I'd be arrested," said Shimmel from the set of "Blankman," a Damon Wayans film he's appearing in.

Siskind, a 13-year veteran at The Improv, said the news of the recordings hit her hard. "This is my home club, this is where I started--it's like family," she said from Baltimore. "You forgive certain things, but this really got to me."

"There's no way that I would have given my consent to have them sell (my) material. There's nothing in it for me."

Both comics say that they know of colleagues who are equally angered at the recordings, but fear the repercussions of taking legal action. Indeed, one comic who wished to remain anonymous, alleged that talk of the matter to Improv management resulted in the threat of being blacklisted from the chain's 15 clubs nationwide.

"You have to keep in mind, that in the public's mind, The Improv is comedy. There are other clubs, but they don't have the power or the clout in the business that The Improv does," said Imrich.

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