The Improv at 60: Whitney Cummings, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes and Fortune Feimster on how they 'came up' and 'stayed sharp' at legendary comedy club

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images
Whitney Cummings, Fortune Feimster and Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images) (Getty)

The Improv is the stand-up comedy proving grounds.

Founded by late comedy impresario Budd Friedman in New York City's Hell’s Kitchen in 1963 — the Improv hosted the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal and Jay Leno — eventually expanding in the ’70s and now grown to more than 20 locations, including Los Angeles, Houston, Denver, Chicago and Miami.

To celebrate the comedy chain’s diamond anniversary, Netflix has gathered 10 acclaimed comedians on the Hollywood stage as the centerpiece of Improv: 60 and Still Standing, premiering Nov. 7.

“When I was asked to be a part of it, I immediately [felt] — what do they call it? — impostor syndrome. Almost like, ‘What? Me? Why me? I get to be a part of this. No way. Like how cool,’” Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, who recently released her own special on YouTube, told Yahoo Entertainment.

“My manager was reminding me of how I grew up in the Improv clubs around the country, especially when YouTube blew up my spot with that nail salon video and it was like the Improv that really welcomed me and hosted me all across the country when I was first getting started.”

Anjelah Johnson-Reyes arrives at the 34th Annual Producers Guild Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision for The Producers Guild of America/AP Images)
Anjelah Johnson-Reyes at the Producers Guild Awards in February 2023. (Jordan Strauss/Invision for the Producers Guild of America/AP Images) (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Joining Johnson-Reyes will be Bert Kreischer, Craig Robinson, Deon Cole, Fortune Feimster, Jeff Dunham, Kevin Nealon, Mark Normand, Jo Koy and Whitney Cummings. The tribute will also include rare archival footage showcasing the likes of Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, David Spade, Dave Attell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and the late Norm Macdonald.

To mark the occasion, Johnson-Reyes, Feimster and Cummings opened up to Yahoo about their stand-up origin stories, how the scene has changed over the years, and how the Improv has figured into their comedy evolution.

How did you get started in comedy?

Cummings: I started in comedy in L.A., which I actually highly recommend for people. … The first slot I ever did was at a place called M Bar, which is now closed. But doing comedy in places that aren’t built for comedy, so by the time you get to a club, like the Improv, you have this skill set that I think not a lot of comics have if they came up in other cities and just in clubs designed for comedy. And how did I get started? I think childhood, I mean how far we going back? Alcoholic home. Tried to get attention from drunk parents, that's probably when I started-started or knew I wanted to be or had to be an entertainer. My dad used to watch Rodney Dangerfield on Evening at the Improv, and I remember that couldn’t get his attention and I used to always think I gotta get in that box. I gotta get in there. I got to do that. And then I would repeat Rodney Dangerfield jokes to my dad to try to make him laugh and get his attention.

Johnson-Reyes: I took a class at a church. I know, who started stand-up comedy at a church? Not many people. But Angela Johnson did. I took a free joke-writing stand-up comic class at church on like Tuesday nights. … I would have never attempted to be a comedian. If I didn’t, it was really because the opportunity was presented to me. I was already in this acting class like, “Oh, we’ll just switch rooms and come to this class. OK, sure. Whatever, I guess it’s free.”

Feimster: It started at [the legendary L.A. improv theater] Groundlings. I started in improv and sketch. I felt that was like my path, was doing characters and improvising and I loved it. I was at the Groundlings for like six years, but this comedian came to a show of mine. I was doing a sketch show and she says, “Why aren’t you doing stand-up? Your voice is so specific.” And I was like, “It’s so scary, I don’t know how to do it.” And she goes, “My friend Adam teaches a class at the Comedy Store.” As I did it every week, I just kept falling more and more in love with it until it became like, that’s my passion.

When did you know you made it?

Cummings: I would say probably the first round of Comedy Central Roasts that I did. I did the Joan Rivers roast and that was the first one that I did and I ran the jokes at the Improv. ... The night before, I was able to test my jokes out of the Improv and I was like, “They work here, I must be OK.” So I think I made it when I did the Joan Rivers roast.

Whitney Cummings performs at The Hollywood Improv in Hollwood, CA on August 29, 2007. (Photo by Michael Schwartz/WireImage)
Whitney Cummings performs at the Hollywood Improv on Aug. 29, 2007. (Michael Schwartz/WireImage) (Michael S. Schwartz via Getty Images)

Johnson-Reyes: My MySpace page started to blow up. MySpace, this how old it is, honey. Honey, she’s old. Let me tell you. My Space starts blowing up. People are messaging me from all over the world like, “Hey, when are you coming to perform in Australia? When are you coming to the Philippines? When are you coming to every state? Ohio? When are you coming to Atlanta? All these states, right? Everybody wanted me to come perform and I only had my 12 minutes of material that I wrote in this free joke-writing class at church. Then I start getting messages from network executive assistants and they’re like, “Hey, I’m the assistant to so-and-so at CBS, at ABC, at Fox, NBC, every network, were sending their assistant to come and find me because nobody knew how to get ahold of me, I didn’t have an agent at the time, I was just this girl who blew up on YouTube. And so I started getting all these messages on MySpace. And then I started getting all these meetings, I had to buy a calendar. I didn’t have a calendar at the time because I didn’t have anything going on in my life. ... I said, “OK, you know what, this is either a little phase that I’m going through or this was the beginning of the rest of my life” — and that’s exactly what it was.

Feimster: I feel like you have a little peek of it, right? Like filming my first hour special in my hometown. Like that was a big, this feels big to me. Selling out some of these big, you know, theaters in Denver, selling out the Ryman in Nashville, those definitely feel like these “I’ve made it” moments. Filming cool projects with these big actors. But I think as a comedian, it's sort of ingrained in us to always hustle, so you’re never gonna feel like I’ve made it, that’s it.

How is stand-up comedy different from when you started?

Feimster: I think it has come more into the place of storytelling. It did not used to be like that. Long stories were not the thing that people did when I started out, it was very much setup, punchline. It was less about revealing who you were, it was more observational, it was more like slice of life. Now people want to know who you are, they want to know your story. They want to know what makes you you, it’s a lot more personal than it ever was in the beginning.

How has your approach to stand-up evolved?

Feimster: I think evolution has evolved as I have evolved as a person. I think when you're a younger comedian, you're just kind of trying to figure out how to tell a joke. You talk about what you are going through as a person. So when I was single, when I was younger, the material was probably a little bit sillier, it had less weight. It wasn't meaningful per se, it was just me trying to tell jokes that made people laugh and as I've gotten older, as I've evolved as a person, I feel like I've leaned more into storytelling and talking about my life in a deeper way. Talking about relationships with my mom and my wife and I just think my standup has grown as I've grown.

Fortune Feimster arrives at GLSEN's Rise Up benefit on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Fortune Feimster arrives at GLSEN's Rise Up benefit on Oct. 28, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP) (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Cummings: I think the evolution of approach to stand-up is probably pretty concurrent with your evolution as a person. The idea is you’re the same person on stage as you are off stage, so hopefully, you’re not doing the same kind of stuff 20 years later, because I’ll look back sometimes at my first or second special and I’ll cringe a little bit. I’m like, “You know what, that’s who I was at the time and that’s OK.” … I always loved how Rodney Dangerfield gave the audience a joke to go home with. You could go home and the next day tell a joke at the watercooler. … I always want to make sure, within my act, there are a couple jokes you can easily repeat the next day at work and be the funny person. Like, “I saw this person, this comic last night. Here’s this joke.” And you get to make everybody laugh. But now with Twitter, there's so many, even if they’re not comics, there are so many memes and there are so many little one-liners. People send memes to each other all day, they send these tweets to each other all day. … So, now I’m going to go a little more conversational. Now I’m going to tell these stories that no one else can tell, I’m going to get more specific, I’m going to get more personal.

Do you think live stand-up still has a place in the age of YouTube and streaming?

Johnson-Reyes: Heck yeah, I think it’s growing. I mean, there’s always been random rooms that you go and you can do stand-up comedy at this café, at this car wash or whatever. But I think even more so, and in even more towns comedy is growing. It used to be L.A. or New York, like those were the spots if you wanted to do stand-up, and now Nashville is become a little hub for stand-up comedy. There’s a thriving scene of stand-up comedians out here.

Feimster: I think stand-up is bigger than it’s ever been. It is so difficult to find availabilities at theaters every night, I just put out a ton of new dates for this tour. I’ve been touring this material for the last year and we just did the next leg of the tour. I think things like TikTok and YouTube are getting people a lot of exposure and they’re getting very popular from those mediums, and then they take that and take it on the road.

How has the Improv impacted your career?

Cummings: Not only did I come up performing there, it’s also how I’ve stayed sharp. I think something that it’s important to say about the Improv is that the way that it’s built, when you start doing stand-up, you’re shoulder to shoulder with your heroes. You’re doing your second time on stage you’ve ever done and you’re standing in the hallway next to Chris Rock because the biggest comedians in the world come back there to go work out their material and it’s like a boxing gym for them. So there’s this immediate, like, “Oh, you got to, you got to, Chris Rock in the back of the room. You better pull it together.” And it also makes you have such a respect for the stage. I’ve learned very early to not waste a second out there, to not be self indulgent.

Johnson-Reyes: I remember the first time I did perform at the Improv, it was a Tuesday night, it was a random booker, and he’s like, “You want to come to Tuesday night?” I was like, “Heck yeah, I do.” He was like, “I’ll tape your set for you for $35 and you can have a copy of it.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have $35, but I really want a copy of my first time on an Improv stage.” And I was like, “You know what, I don’t need to eat for the next few days. Let me just go ahead and get this tape real quick.” So I paid for him to film my set, and this is 2007, this is old. I don’t know what kind of VHS recording device he was using. But basically the lighting and the camera didn’t go well together, so I’m completely blown-out in the footage. You can’t even tell it’s me on stage. So much for my first time on an Improv stage being recorded. I look like a ghost on stage. It’s like the Holy Spirit saying my words.

Feimster: I was a young comic going to the Improv and I was on lineups with these really awesome comics and being around people that were so good at what they did helps make you a better comedian. I think it's like playing tennis with a better tennis player. So I love going down to the Improv because you never know who’s going to show up at any moment, it could be some huge comedian could walk through the door, you know, Adam Sandler, Bill Burr. Just was full of these awesome comedians that I had grown up watching.

Improv: 60 and Still Standing premieres Nov. 7 on Netflix.