Botched Videos and Nervous Perspiration: Comics Remember Their First Night at The Improv
“I grew up watching An Evening at the Improv with my dad,” comedian Whitney Cummings tells me. “And when I decided to become a comedian, I’d find any clips that I could — Rodney Dangerfield, Howie Mandel. And it would always say Evening at the Improv in the background.”
So it was a throwback thrill for Cummings to be included in the all-star line-up for Improv: 60 And Still Standing, a Netflix special premiering globally on November 7th. The comedy tribute honors the Improv comedy clubs on their 60th anniversary with performances by Cummings, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Bert Kreischer, Craig Robinson, Deon Cole, Fortune Feimster, Jeff Dunham, Kevin Nealon, Mark Normand and Jo Koy.
The comics say you can feel the history in the famous brick backdrop. “Seeing all the photos on the wall from back in the day, all these legends that you’re so used to seeing on TV or watching their sitcom a long time ago, you can feel the vibe, you can feel the energy, what it must have been like to be there during that time,” Johnson-Reyes says. “And so to be in (the Improv: 60 and Still Standing) lineup that honors all of their experiences in this one particular club is very cool.”
The House That Budd Friedman Built
In 1963, entrepreneur Budd Friedman opened a tiny joint in Hell’s Kitchen, a place for Broadway performers to meet up after shows and entertain each other into the wee hours. There was a small stage with a piano (sometimes Barry Manilow would accompany Bette Midler), and one night, comic Dave Astor got up to try some new material. Depending on who’s telling the tale, it might have been the night “the comedy club” was born. It was definitely the beginning of the Improv.
Wave after wave of stand-up comics followed Astor. Improv: 60 and Still Standing features archival footage of some of the comedians who have taken the stage over the decades, including early performances from heavyweights like Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, David Spade, Dave Attell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Norm Macdonald.
The special features new performances from a generation of stand-up comedians inspired by the ones who’d come before. Making their way to the Improv meant they were on their way to the big time. “All I really wanted was to be on that Improv stage,” remembers Johnson-Reyes. “I had done a couple of rooms around town, this coffee shop, this bar, and I’m like, ‘Man, if I could ever get on the Improv stage, that would be it.’”
Johnson-Reyes finally got her chance when a booker put her on a Tuesday night with an intriguing offer. “He said, ‘I’ll even film your set for $35.’ And I'm like, ‘I can get a copy of my first time on the Improv stage and save it forever?’” she says. Johnson-Reyes didn’t exactly have $35, not if she wanted groceries that week. “But you know what? I don’t need to eat for the next few days. And so I bought my copy so I could have it forever. When I got home and I watched it, the footage was so blown out that you can’t even see me on stage. You can hear the words, but I look like a ghost! At least I have the audio somewhere.”
Cummings’ first time up at the Improv was just as memorable for the wrong reasons. “It was 2005 or 2006, and I was sweating so much. Because when you see that font, when you see ‘Improv’ written with those three lines in the I, it’s just this brand that’s everything,” she says. Cummings’ anxious perspiration was so out-of-control that she asked someone at the club for a pair of shears. “They didn’t ask why, which, looking back, you guys probably should have asked why a depressed comedian was asking for scissors so early. And I cut out the armpits of my shirt. I remember it so, so vividly. I was so nervous!”
Big Risks, Delusional Confidence
Both Johnson-Reyes and Cummings tell me that the Improv clubs remain an important hub for developing new comics. “Starting out, it was so hard,” says Cummings. “It would usually take me the first couple of minutes on stage just to warm up and feel safe. But the Improv, the second you walk in the door, you’re already in that space creatively and it helps you take bigger risks. That’s what our job is — to take huge, huge risks in front of the audience and to be delusionally confident. And it’s really hard to be delusionally confident in a place that doesn’t have that kind of warm energy.”
For a beginning comic, the Improv provides an opportunity to work alongside your idols — it could be your second night and you might find yourself waiting in the hallway with Chris Rock. “You'll be standing next to one of your heroes within a week of doing this,” promises Cummings. “I remember a month into doing stand-up — they were like ‘Robin Williams is here,’ and I’m on stage like, ‘What? Robin WIlliams? What is happening?’”
Johnson-Reyes recently had an experience in an Improv green room when “this kid” was getting ready to take the stage. Before he did, he told Johnson-Reyes, “You were one of my favorite comics growing up. To be on the same lineup as you, this is such an honor.”
“And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. When you were growing up? How old am I? How old are you? What’s happening?’” laughs Johnson-Reyes. “But it’s very cool to be that for somebody. That’s exciting.”
The best way for young comics to learn, says Cummings, is in an environment like the Improv where young comics might perform after someone like Johnson-Reyes or Bert Kreischer, who may be slotted fourth in the lineup. “A comic who is coming up will have to follow that,” says Cummings, who believes the only way to get better as a comedian is “to follow comics who kill harder than you. You can totally do it.”
Building in the Lab
But it’s not only the new comics who hone their craft. In addition to the main room, which features big-name headliners, the Improv’s Lab room gives Cummings and other established comics “the opportunity to work on new material and really mess around.”
Comedians need a place to try out new material, including potentially incendiary jokes. The Lab (Cummings calls it an incubator) is a place where both new and established comics can experiment and make mistakes, even ones that might blow up in their face. “We need that ability to punch the bag, we need that ability to chisel it,” maintains Cummings. If you’re always in the headliner spot, the pressure is on to deliver polished, finished material. But “to be able to pop into the Lab with new premises or go up third or fourth is really helpful,” Cummings continues.
For Johnson-Reyes, the strategy is to balance developing material with tried-and-true bits. “People come to the Hollywood Improv from all over the world,” she says. “I don't want to just go up there and give them what I just came up with while I was driving around in traffic. So I always couple my new thoughts with a couple of jokes that I know are going to be a for-sure laugh.”
A Magical Place
If Johnson-Reyes had a comedy time machine, she’d love to travel back to the time when Adam Sandler and his peers were just starting out at the Improv. “They have their comedic films and their friends are always in their films,” she says. “I would love to have seen that friendship before they were big, that friendship in the Improv, walking through the halls, waiting to go up, watching while their friend was on stage. I would love just to witness that.”
Even today, the friendships made at the Improv are lifelong, she says. “It’s just a really great club, and I’m honored that they’ve allowed me to be a part of this show celebrating their 60 years.”
Cummings agrees: “It’s a magical, magical place.”