One night in the early ’70s, a singer named Betty Rhodes was performing at the New York Improv on West 44th Street, which then featured comedians and singers. Richard Pryor was there, and as Rhodes sang, he called over a waitress he knew named Liz Torres and said, “Watch this.”
He went to the bathroom and emerged minutes later completely naked but for his shoes and a tie. “He walked up onto the stage, [and stood] right in front of her for about a minute before going back into the men’s room, getting dressed and returning to the bar to finish his drink,” Torres later revealed. “Here’s the amazing part — the singer continued her song as if nothing happened. She didn’t blink.”
That was just another night at the city’s most seminal comedy club, as detailed in the new book “The Improv: An Oral History of The Comedy Club That Revolutionized Stand-Up” (BenBella Books) by Budd Friedman with Tripp Whetsell.
The Improvisation, as it was then called, opened in February 1963. Initially a place where Broadway performers could unwind and sing for friends after shows, comedians quickly became part of the mix, and it eventually became the first club in the world solely dedicated to stand-up comedy.
The list of comedians discovered or nurtured there (and at its LA branch, which opened in 1975) is a who’s who of the art form, including Pryor, Robert Klein, Richard Lewis, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Rodney Dangerfield and Larry David, to name just a few.
Pryor began performing there in 1964 and continued dropping by into the ’70s, at the height of his fame. Improv comedians and customers got to see him at his most outrageous, and his most introspective.
One quiet night at the club, Torres, also a singer and comedian, was performing, while Pryor, at a table in the audience, had his head down, writing in a notebook. Club founder Friedman (who co-authored this book) asked Pryor to go on, and he agreed.
When he hit the stage, he told the few people there, “Tonight, I’m going to recite some poetry.” He opened the notebook, and, according to Torres, “started reciting the most incredible romantic poetry I ever heard . . . [It was] on a level with Byron or Keats. He didn’t pause or hesitate for a second.”
This went on for almost 20 minutes. When Pryor left the stage, he went to the bar, leaving his notebook on a table. Torres dashed over to see what he had written. The pages were blank.
Dangerfield debuted at the club in 1966,…