The Improv began as a 50-seat space in Hell’s Kitchen that Budd Friedman had converted from a defunct Vietnamese restaurant in 1963 in hopes of creating a spot for Broadway performers to hang for some post-show food and drinks, along with a piano. The New York venue hosted sing-alongs with attendees including Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Dustin Hoffman – and then one night comedian Dave Astor got on stage to share material. And thus the first comedy club in the United States came to be.
The venue soon became known as the place to launch comedy careers, hosting performances from some of the greatest stars including Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Billy Crystal, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. A second location opened in Hollywood, California, in the 1970s and then the Improv continued expanding in the ’80s and ’90s. Levity Entertainment Group, now known as Levity Live, acquired the Improv franchise brand in 2018. Though the original New York location closed in 1992, The Improv now has 25 venues – including locations in Chicago, Miami, Denver, Tampa, Washington, D.C., and more – and as the franchise celebrates its 60th anniversary it continues to be an essential stop for comedians.
Erin von Schonfeldt, EVP of programming for Levity Live, has worked with The Improv for 33 of its 60 years, drawn to the club due to her love of comedy.
“I started working at the Improv [in Irvine, California] in 1991, and it was because I was a fan of comedy,” von Schonfeldt says. “I was so drawn to it. I got a job as a cocktail waitress at the Improv because I knew someday I wanted to run an Improv. That was my huge lifetime goal. And now, I book all of them across the country.”
She teamed up with Levity Live co-founder and president Judi Marmel, CEO Robert Hartmann and Comedy Gives Back co-founder and CEO Zoe Friedman to book performers for The Improv’s 60th anniversary celebrations at venues across North America, along with an anniversary show at Club Soda in Montreal benefitting Comedy Gives Back, hosted by comedian Mark Normand, and a Netflix special that premiered Nov. 7.
“It’s been amazing to see the comedians who are very grateful and feel an allegiance with us [to perform]. … Robert Hartmann, Judi Marmel, Zoe Friedman and I just used our own contacts and our friendships to see who would be willing to come join us at the party. It was fun to put together,” von Schonfeldt says.
Throughout the course of The Improv’s history, legendary comedians such as Jim Gaffigan, Mitch Hedberg, Margaret Cho, Kathleen Madigan, Dave Chappelle, George Lopez and more have graced its rooms.
Mike Birbiglia (see here) describes the venue as a comedy university that helped him perfect his craft. After performances, he’d track down the other comedians, asking them questions so he could improve his own routines.
“I would see people who were the best at being comedians and it taught me so much,” he says. He’d go to the club in Washington, D.C., and work the door with hopes of being able to step in as an opener.
Iliza Shlesinger also went to The Improv to get her foot in the door. When she was 23, she’d perform seven-minute sets, rehearsing her new material. Even today, she’ll return to the club to work on new jokes.
“The Improv has been with me every step of the way, from short sets on independently booked shows to booking me at regional Improvs to feature, to headlining me in other states,” Shlesinger says. “They have facilitated my growth. It’s nice to have a club of that caliber in my backyard. I see that staff more than I see my family. That club has watched me grow and I’ve watched it transform as well.”
The Netflix special, “The Improv: 60 And Still Standing,” features stand-up sets from Jo Koy, Bert Kreischer, Fortune Feimster, Craig Robinson, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Deon Cole, Jeff Dunham, Kevin Nealon, Mark Normand and Whitney Cummings. The special also includes throwbacks from the various venues’ most famous performances, as well as never-before-seen archival footage.
“I’m so grateful to all the comedians that participated in the special,” von Schonfeldt says. “The comedians that partner with us every day in every club across the country. I’m so grateful that we have these live experiences to share with people and get them to escape their real lives and just laugh and enjoy themselves.”
Shlesinger adds, “I’m really proud to be a career-long regular there. They were the first club to make me a regular and to really book me on the road. I’m so proud to be a part of this institution. The Improv is a great place to call home.”