Welcome to the Improv, boys and girls, where the aspiring comedians of today are the heavy construction workers of tomorrow.
Aspiring comedian Barry Diamond

As nightclubs go, Manhattan's Improvisation has all the elegance of a bus station. Saucer-size tables press against a tiny stage, and just outside, derelicts and hookers wend their way down sleazy Ninth Avenue. The neighborhood "is a great place to hang out," says Diamond, "if you're a bullet."

Or a comedian, adds Budd Friedman, 46, the stagestruck former adman who founded the Improv 15 years ago. "I wanted to do something that would keep me out of advertising and broaden my contacts in the theater," he recalls. The club, which began as a hangout for showfolk, evolved into a showcase for young comics and singers eager enough to perform for free. Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Robert Klein developed their stand-up routines at the club, as did Gabe Kaplan, Jimmie Walker and the late Freddie Prinze, who debuted with Friedman when he was 16. Bette Midler sang there, as did one of the waitresses, Karen Black. "For a long time," says Klein, "the Improv was the only place you could go to learn."

It has never been as successful financially as artistically, and in the early years Budd also had to work as a waiter in his brother-in-law's luncheonette or sell magazines by phone. But three years ago he cloned a second Improv in Los Angeles with financial backing from Prinze, Walker and other grads. This summer a third club sprouted in Las Vegas. Its paunchy owner—who survived battle wounds at Korea's Pork Chop Hill and playing straight man to a burlesque comic in the Catskills—now often emcees the Vegas shows, shamelessly assailing his patrons with stolen jokes. "It's great therapy," he concedes. "If I'm doing well, I stay on because it's my basketball. If I'm bombing, I introduce the next act and get off."

Friedman's comics stretch from pros, like Rodney Dangerfield, who come to shake down new material, to up-and-comers, like John Di Bellis, 29, who are trying to master the proven formulas. (Laments Di Bellis, a onetime New York janitor: "I only weighed a pound and a half when I was born; my father passed out cigar butts.")

Before Budd's performers get their shot, they must survive "Audition Night," which somewhat resembles The Gong Show. Off-key singers, he finds, "invariably blame the piano player, and I have a guy in L.A. who looks like Tiny Tim's brother. He's done things like get married onstage to a doll. Bizarro!"

The Improv auditioners who make it (only one in 100) find Budd an aggressive booster. "I reflect in their glory," he says. "When they finally sign a contract with someone, I'm like a Jewish mother whose son becomes a doctor." For Friedman's protégés today, "TV's the name of the game," and he's just now coming off a great rookie season, with Improv alumni like Mork & Mindy's Robin Williams and Taxi's Judd Hirsch and Andy Kaufman. "Television is snatching up every stand-up comic it can find," cheers Budd.

Friedman hopes to keep the supply coming. Recently separated from his wife of 14 years (he has two preteen daughters), he has bought a home in L.A.'s Nichols Canyon, just a short drive from the studio talent scouts. In the next few months he hopes to start franchising Improvs nationwide and book his "stars" right across the circuit. With two dozen Sons of Improv, "A comic could travel from Philadelphia to San Francisco and end up with a pretty good idea of what material works and what doesn't," figures Budd.

As for himself, he says: "I'd like to be remembered for making an imprint on contemporary comedy." Of all the comics he's seen, Friedman regards Lenny Bruce and Pryor as the most seminal, and he most enjoys watching Pryor, Klein and Dangerfield. They may be coming back even more often. When the Improv goes national, Friedman plans to start paying the talent.