Annals of Crime: Chicagoans Steal “Improv”!

Some guy named Budd Friedman out on the coast is trying to muscle in on Chicago theater. He must think there’s not an ounce of fight in us.

About 25 years ago, Friedman opened a club in New York called the Improv. Now Friedman’s based in LA, where he sits on a little empire. He’s got his LA Improv and there are Improvs in seven other cities and he’s got a show, Evening at the Improv, on cable TV.

Friedman’s joints are bogus–what they offer is stand-up comics, not improvisation. But that’s his business. Real improvisation, a great Chicago tradition, is our business. Budd Friedman doesn’t understand that.

A few days ago, a letter came to Charna Halpern, producer of Chicago’s ImprovOlympic, from Friedman’s attorney, one Stanley H. Handman of Beverly Hills.

“It is our understanding,” Handman said sternly, “that you have been trading upon the good name and reputation of my clients. . . . Demand is hereby made that you immediately cease and desist from any use whatsoever of the names Improv or Improvisation . . .” Handman warned of “actions, suits or proceedings.”

When we called Handman, he stuck to the hard line. He told us that Friedman had had the terms “Improv” and “Improvisation” trademarked, registered, “and everything else.”

“We’re going to sue her if she does not cease and desist,” he said. “You can tell Miss Halpern for me that Jenner & Block are our local counsel in Chicago and we intend to turn this matter over to Jenner & Block if we haven’t heard from her in a week or so.”

This preposterous threat could only have been made by someone who knows next to nothing about improvisation and even less about Chicago theater. ImprovOlympic has been around Chicago for seven years. Halpern and Del Close, who’s a former Second City director and one of the giants of improvisational theater in Chicago, have turned improv into a team sport, thereby ringing yet-another variation on the theater “games” created decades ago by the godmother of Chicago theater, Viola Spolin. (Among Spolin’s many books is Improvisation for the Theater.)

Friedman would not return our calls, but Handman made his own ignorance clear. He asked us about Halpern.

“Is she in the comedy business?” he said.

“She’s in the improvisation business,” we said.

“Do they do stand-up comedy there?”

“They do improvisations there,” we said.

We asked Charna Halpern why she hadn’t copyrighted “Improv” herself. “I never dreamed of doing a thing like that,” she said. “It’s a terrible thing to do.”

We asked around for other opinions.

Del Close said, “I find in moments like this, I start turning into a Trotskyite. Wasn’t it he who said ‘Property is theft’? . . . I think–just the nastiness of the thing! At a long distance he’s trying to sweep the area clean of competing references. It’s rather contemptible. We don’t have the big bucks and the reason we don’t is basically because we’re doing it right. I’m pursuing improvisation as an art form.”

Paul Sills, a father of Second City and the son of Viola Spolin, said, “I don’t see how the word ‘improvisation’ can be copyrighted. It’s in the language. Budd Friedman’s stuff doesn’t have anything to do with it, by the way. Actually, nobody has a right to it except my mother.”

Severn Darden, another of the giants, lives in Los Angeles now, and we caught him as he was rushing to catch a plane to Africa. “When I get back I’ll be happy to speak to Budd Friedman and tell him how ridiculous his case is,” Darden promised. “Poor Budd, I don’t know what’s happened to him since he had a small measure of success.”

“I don’t see any way that they are going to prevail on this,” said Tom Leavens, a crack local copyright attorney. “Charna has used ‘improv’ a long time. It’s been used descriptively here in the city for a long time to describe something culturally very important here. It’s analogous to some pizza maker coming, into Chicago and trying to claim exclusive rights to the term ‘deep dish.'”

Friedman’s scare tactics coincide with the opening of a Chicago Improv on Wells Street. Walter Gertz, the franchisee, paid big money to Friedman for access to the name and the comics on Friedman’s Improv circuit, and now he’s caught in the middle. Gertz doesn’t care what Halpern and Close call their show.

“I’m not a hog,” Gertz told us. “This is my midlife crisis. I sold a 29-year-old firm and bought a comedy business. I have no ax to grind.” He added, “If you want to start something and create a hubbub it might hurt me a little bit.”

Nobody here started anything. Budd Friedman started it. We told Handman that if Friedman pushes a suit and Chicago rises to the defense of its patrimony, Walter Gertz’s business might be what suffers.

“I’m not interested in Mr. Gertz, necessarily,” said Handman coldly. “I’m interested in my client.”

Self-Made Media Critic

The June issue of the Chicago Media Critic mentions us in a touching way. We’re among the editors who put out the Chicago Journalism Review during its brief lifetime from 1968 to 1975.

Actually, all we did was nurse CJR along for a year before it folded. Now it belonged–so we told ourselves–to the ages. Which was good enough for most of us, but not good enough for Bill Nigut Sr. of Skokie. A tall, stern man a quarter-century our elder, Nigut reads the papers carefully and is gripped by a desire to chastise them. He wrote for CJR occasionally that last year, and when the magazine died he believed with all his heart and soul that somehow the truth must go marching on.

“I kept wishing that somebody else would pick up from CJR and continue such a publication, and was always thinking there was someone better than myself to do it,” Nigut told us the other day. “Since nobody else was seizing the opportunity I decided, what the hell! I will.” Nigut is amazed at his own staying power: the June issue marks the Media Critic’s seventh anniversary.

Nigut, who is now 69, introduced the Chicago Media Critic in June of 1981. It is three sheets of yellow paper covered with type on both sides, darkened by reproductions of headlines, and scarred by underlining, one of the few typographical flourishes granted by the IBM 360 Executive typewriter Nigut bought in 1956 and still uses. Every issue bears his motto: “The conscience of the American media.”

“This has become my life,” Nigut told us. “I work at it seven days a week, ten hours a day, clipping, filing. . . . I feel there’s such a terrible need for the type of critique I am attempting and I see so little of it by others, it’s a little frightening to me.”

Where other critics affectionately despair the foibles of journalists, Nigut sternly addresses moral irresponsibility.

“The Congress hasn’t the moral will to see that Justice is done . . . ” he writes. “The media must see that justice is done.”

“For her contemptible, un-American acts,” he writes, “[Fawn] Hall is being glorified by editors and media executives whose professional judgments are colored by their sexual fantasies.”

“The lords of the U.S. media like to pretend they serve the people,” he writes in the June issue. “In reality, however, like their Soviet counterparts, they serve the government and cannot be trusted.”

Nigut keeps a vast file of clippings and he has a long memory. A recent Media Critic cited a Wall Street Journal editorial last January hailing “the American job machine.” This “machine,” said the journal, had created 15 million new jobs since 1983 “without major expansion of what the Democrats like to call ‘job creation’ programs, meaning the federal projects so much in vogue in the stagnant 1970s.”

Nigut pointed out that two months later the same editorial page was attacking Michael Dukakis’s claim that 300,000 new jobs have been. created in Massachusetts since 1984. Said the Journal now–in the kind of irony that Nigut delights in catching–“The only problem is that Gov. Dukakis has been at best a bystander. The state’s economic boom . . . can be traced largely to two factors: tax cuts and federal defense spending.”

Nigut, who likes to hammer his points home, both typed the phrase “federal defense spending” in capital letters and underlined it.

“It’s a very austere life,” said Nigut, a retired consultant to the supermarket industry. “In order to do this, for example, I do not own an auto. The money I would be spending for the maintenance and operation of a car I put into the Media Critic. Since I founded it, I’ve invested $10,000 of my own money on the Media Critic. It’s probably the expensive hobby of a foolish old man, but I believe in what I’m doing.

“When people ask me why I do this, I say, two reasons, Zachary Nigut, eight, and Joshua Nigut, five, my two grandsons. I have yet to buy either one of them a present of any kind. I say the Media Critic will be my lasting present to them, and I hope one day they will understand what I am trying to do.”

Nigut prints a little over 500 copies of the Media Critic each month and hand delivers most of them around town. He has between three and four dozen paid subscribers ($25 a year) hither and yon, and there are spells when he wonders if anyone is paying any attention. Then a letter comes in, such as the one in April from a journalism professor in Arkansas who remarked, “Whereas the Washington Journalism Rev. merely stirs the status quo, you put the system into question,” and he rejoices.

“I got a letter,” Nigut said, “from a guy I never thought would be interested in anything I wrote, Noam Chomsky, and I got a letter from Sally Bingham [of the family that long owned the Louisville Courier-Journal]. And checks enclosed. I get letters like this from time to time and from people I know and respect and I can’t believe they want to read something I’m writing.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.