A Comedy Mogul Taught Us That People Need People
I recently conducted the funeral of Budd Friedman, who founded a network of improv comedy clubs, where countless comedians’ careers were launched. He was a generous supporter of numerous charities, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and Korean War vet; but his real legacy was in creating that unique comedy club environment. It was a space where people could gather together, laugh together, and not fear condemnation.
Noting that numerous young Jewish comics in Los Angeles were far from home and had nowhere to attend a Passover seder, he asked me, as rabbi at Temple of the Arts, to conduct one at the Improv Comedy Club. It was a rowdy and irreverent evening, but we celebrated, laughed, and re-interpreted the four sons, replacing, “the one who couldn’t ask,” with “the one who couldn’t tell a joke.”
As I think back on that evening, I realize that comedy is essential to a functioning democracy. We need the freedom to poke fun at our leaders and institutions, as well as trends in our society and evolving religious practices. Sadly, in our day, fear reigns in comedy. The fear of condemnation and cancellation stifles humor. Cancel culture and indiscriminate accusations of racism have had a chilling effect on free discourse.
Should comedians be limited in finding comedic fodder in our culture? Are there boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed, as in Dave Chappelle’s recent comments? Can anyone remember our ability to laugh at and with one another, such as with Archie Bunker and Don Rickles?
Today, this form of humor and its writers would be cancelled on social media.
Speaking of social media, more than 250 people attended Budd’s funeral, while too many others opted to instead post remembrances online or livestream the service. But you can’t fully experience the camaraderie, support, and comfort people feel in attending a live event, even a funeral.
The same holds true in a comedy club environment, where we share both closeness and laughter, even if it borders on being offensive to some. We must stand against the banning of books or limits in comedy. As we have learned from the impact of the Covid lockdowns, social interaction is essential, and humans need it to survive and flourish.
Budd’s legacy of creating a place to laugh together and skewer our culture’s idiosyncrasies won’t be forgotten.
The author is the founding rabbi of the Temple of the Arts.