It's been just over forty years since Budd Friedman founded the Improvisation in New York City, the first of many Improv comedy clubs that would eventually be established in most every conceivable major market. For nearly a decade and a half, Friedman's comic empire was captured on the appropriately-titled television series An Evening at the Improv. Last year, Koch Entertainment released six volumes of highlights from the long-running series, and now Koch is taking those individual releases and collecting them into a six DVD box set. A total of fifty-six comedians are featured throughout this collection, with each assortment hosted by a different comic. The first disc is hosted by Brad Garrett, who introduces clips featuring Jim Aleck, David Spade, John Byner, Diane Ford, A.J. Jamal, Rich Shydner, Steve Harvey, and Janeane Garofalo. Bill Maher takes the hosting reins for the second volume, which includes performances by Brian Hailey, Killer Tomatoes mainstay and arguable millionaire Rick Rockwell, Hugh Fink, Paula Poundstone, Martin Lawrence, Anthony Griffin, Denis Leary, and Jeff Marder. Rita Rudner serves as emcee on the third disc with Rich Hall, Margaret Cho, Jack Gallagher, Carol Siskind, Chas Elstner, Lizz Winstead, Stephanie Miller, and Bobby Collins. The fourth volume has the most recognizable assortment of comedians, host Rick Overton aside. The performers are Tim Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Charles Fleischer, Norm McDonald, Richard Jeni (with the "when I was your age..." bit that I once had committed to memory), Paula Poundstone returning for a second time, Dennis Wolfberg, and Ray Romano. The following disc sees Richard Belzer introducing Max Alexander, Will Durst, Murray Langston, Mike McDonald, Ellen DeGeneres, D.L. Hughley, Dennis Blair, and Larry Miller. Finally, Carrie Snow whips out clips featuring Franklin Ajaye, Rosie O'Donnell, Chris Rock, Jack Coen, Stephanie Hodge, Jeff Foxworthy, John Mulrooney, Scott LaRose, Judy Tenuta, and Drew Carey.
"I'm sick and tired of these speeches from the non-smokers. It's always the same speech... 'That cigarette's just a replacement. You suck on that cigarette because you didn't suck on your mom long enough when you were a kid!' I said, 'Yeah, that's the absolute truth.' If I could buy a pack of hooters, I would. I'd be smokin' forty, fifty packs a day, are you kiddin' me? I'd never get out of the house. I'd be out at the drug store first thing in the morning. 'Hey, give me a carton of 44DDs to go.'"
The clips spread across these six DVDs weren't culled randomly by Koch, but were six special episodes of An Evening at the Improv. Budd Friedman introduces each assortment by noting the time and effort his archivists took to unearth the best performances from the funniest comedians ever to grace the Improv stage. There was a period of a few years where I watched An Evening at the Improv religiously, along with pretty much every other stand-up series on television, and I can say pretty authoritatively that not only does 'The Best of An Evening at the Improv' not feature the best of An Evening at the Improv, it's not even the best of the individual performers. Part of this is due to the way these collections are structured. As impressive as a six disc set of stand-up comedy sounds, there isn't nearly as much material packed into this collection as the number of DVDs would suggest. Each volume offers one episode a piece, with the shortest running 44:30 and the longest at 53:27, leaving the complete runtime falling just shy of five hours in total. With fifty-six comedians in less than five hours, each performer is given a slim amount of time. There aren't any complete sets, though several comedians approach that standard six or seven minute mark. For the most part, though, the comics only have a couple of minutes a piece excerpted from their original Improv performances; even Jerry Seinfeld didn't get a full two minutes. None of the performances throughout these five hours are howlingly funny, and when Margaret Cho manages to get the biggest, hardest laughs of any comedian, there is something terribly, terribly wrong. Some of the material is just stale -- references to Driving Miss Daisy, the Rob Lowe sex tape, and Yugos don't have the cultural resonance today that they did in 1989. Really, though, it's just too scattershot and uneven, with a horrifyingly large percentage of the performers coming across as bafflingly unfunny. Koch would have been better off sifting through the Improv archives themselves and selecting their favorite clips.
"Reminds me of an incident when I was staying with my lady. We got in like a real bad argument one morning, and I told her, I said, 'To hell with you!' and I stormed out of the house. I got home late that afternoon, around six. She was sitting in the middle of the floor with a razor blade in her hand. I said, 'Oh my God, what are you doing?' She said, 'You're lucky you caught me! I was just about to kill myself!' I said, 'Woman, you had all damn day to kill yourself! You should be dead by now.' And didn't do the dishes! I was ma-a-ad!"
Video: This box set is presented full-frame, just as the original shot-on-video material aired on A&E. The quality isn't anything spectacular, but that has less to do with Koch's authoring of these DVDs than the way the episodes were shot in the first place. Since the segments were selected from footage dating as far back as the early '80s, the quality's variable, with some bits appearing soft, others with all semblance of detail smeared away, others with colors almost entirely desaturated...but overall, pretty much exactly what I went in expecting, and almost certainly representative of the way these episodes appeared when they made their basic cable debut a decade and change ago. There are a few exceptions, though. A handful of segments have a 'rippling' appearance, most noticeably at the end of the final disc. A few minor tape blips -- small monochromatic chunks -- creep in as well, along with some distortion around patterns like Budd Friedman's suit in the first disc and wide shots of Carrie Snow's dress. Nothing major, though.
"What else is great is I got pinned in late afternoon Santa Monica Blvd. traffic again today, luckily right behind the Toyota pickup of migrant workers facing me, which is always really nice. Really enjoy that, especially when it's not moving anywhere, and you're just sitting there, and I have to, like, play with the imaginary tape deck for about ten minutes. Just go! Can we go?! :sobs: They broke my spirit once again. You'd think they would want to bond with me being that I have a '74 Nova."
Audio: Each disc sports a set of Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, encoded at a bitrate of 192Kbps. Again, the quality varies, depending on the age of the clip. Background hiss is pervasive throughout, and even though the tracks are overall flat and uninspired, the performers are easy to understand, which is really all that matters. There are no subtitles or closed captions.
"I was a waiter in a restaurant, and I used to speak waiter jargon. They don't do that much anymore. When you would order food from us, we would yell out to the cook in slang. Every order of food. Like 'a hamburger to go' was 'kill a cow and give it shoes.' Yeah, I'm fluent in that. Doesn't help you in life. You'll never use it again. As a matter of fact, it hurt me. I couldn't get it out of my system, every job after that. I started working at a pharmacy and some lady would come in: 'I need some Sominex and some condoms.' 'Sleeping Beauty's got a date!'"
Supplements: The only extras on this six-disc set are profiles of some of the comedians, delving a bit into their backgrounds, TV and film appearances, and their comic mentors, among other nuggets o' information. Each DVD includes 4x3 animated menus with the series' theme song booming underneath, and each comedian has his or her own chapter stop.
"She was a Dutch prostitute, which was great because she always paid half."
Conclusion: There aren't enough laughs in this five-hour set to warrant any sort of enthusiastic recommendation. Stand-up completists may want to fork over their credit cards anyway just because of the low cost; as I write this, at least, Digital Eyes carries the set for $29.98 shipped. Although the full six-disc collection is cheaper than buying all of the individual DVDs separately, I'd recommend picking up just the volumes that interest you the most, if that.