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Opinion The heroes who built New York’s stand-up comedy scene — and changed America

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried on stage in 1980 at Catch a Rising Star in New York. (Charles Ruppmann/NY Daily News/Getty Images)
5 min

Richard Zoglin is the author of “Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.”

Bad news often comes in threes, even in the world of comedy. The death on Feb. 20 of Rick Newman, the founder of New York City’s landmark comedy club Catch a Rising Star, at age 81, came only a day after the passing of the club’s longtime emcee (and Newman’s close friend), Richard Belzer, at 78. And that was three months after Budd Friedman, owner of New York’s other big comedy club of the 1970s, the Improv, died at age 90.

I got to know all three while researching my book on a seminal era in stand-up comedy that has now definitively, inexorably passed into history. Catch a Rising Star and the Improv were the first clubs to feature comedians almost exclusively, places where young comics could work on their routines, try out new material — and maybe get seen by the agents and bookers who could get them jobs.

Robert Klein, Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis, Larry David, Billy Crystal, Gilbert Gottfried and countless other (mostly male) comics launched their careers there, igniting the stand-up comedy explosion of the 1970s.

The two clubs were friendly rivals, but they had distinct personalities. Friedman, a wannabe theater producer, opened the Improvisation in 1963 as an after-hours place where Broadway performers could hang out and get up onstage to entertain. Before long, comedians were flocking to the place, and this cramped, no-frills outpost on a seedy block west of Times Square became the go-to spot in New York to see up-and-coming comics honing their craft.

The Improv had the field to itself until 1972, when Newman opened Catch a Rising Star, a bigger, spiffier club located in the singles-bar district on the Upper East Side. Unlike the crusty, sometimes abrasive Friedman at the Improv, Newman was a gregarious impresario; he befriended the comics, promoted his club shrewdly and made Catch one of the trendiest night spots in town. Its hip, racy, rock-and-roll vibe was personified by Belzer, who introduced the acts (and helped Newman pick them) while keeping the audience juiced with ad-libbed, frequently off-color banter.

The two clubs’ success soon inspired imitators on the West Coast — a Los Angeles branch of Friedman’s Improv, Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store — where newcomers including Robin Williams, Garry Shandling and David Letterman got their starts, completing the bicoastal makeover of an art form that was moving steadily to the center of the cultural conversation.

Those heyday years seem especially idyllic today. The club comedians of the ’70s, inspired by pioneers such as Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, were intent on testing limits, breaking rules and busting taboos. Today — as Dave Chappelle, Kevin Hart, Kathy Griffin and other comics have discovered — we’ve come nearly full circle: The old taboos have been replaced by new ones, as comedians navigate a perilous new landscape, where one bad joke, one reckless Twitter wisecrack or one embarrassing YouTube clip can get you a battering on social media, a slap in the face — or even derail a career.

What some deride as “woke” culture — a new sensitivity to jokes deemed offensive to women, racial minorities or members of the LGBTQ community — has in some ways been a healthy corrective. Comedians, even the most irreverent and iconoclastic of them, should be aware of the social impact their jokes can have. But it does make you wonder how many of the stand-up innovators nurtured in the comedy clubs of the 1970s would be able to flourish, or even survive, in today’s climate.

Belzer, for example, was known for his freewheeling, often combative encounters with the audience at Catch, sometimes taking rude swipes at women in the crowd that might prompt a walkout now, or provoke the internet’s self-appointed hall monitors. Williams’s scattershot comedy riffs, with their casual ethnic stereotypes, would also be unlikely to get a free pass. And Kaufman’s put-on provocations — his boorish, misogynistic alter-ego Tony Clifton, say, or his bizarre “intergender” wrestling matches, with women he taunted into joining him in the ring — would almost surely provoke cries of outrage. In the current moment, irony is no excuse.

Even Richard Pryor, one of the most revered figures in the comedy pantheon, frequently went off the rails in ways designed to offend. At a Hollywood Bowl benefit concert in 1977, he chided a largely gay audience for ignoring racial justice while “doing what you wanted to do on Hollywood Boulevard.” The response was a torrent of booing and some bad press — but there was no internet then to shoot down his soaring career.

No one was bringing cameras or cellphones into the Improv or Catch a Rising Star back in the 1970s. And thank God. The clubs gave comedians a place to experiment, to learn from their mistakes and to find their footing as artists. And the impresarios who made that space safe for them are unsung heroes.