The comic whisperer

Zoe Friedman '89 with Judd Apatow

Zoe Friedman ’89 with Judd Apatow (producer, director, actor, screenwriter, and comedian)

Zoe Friedman ’89

Bunny-hopping around Times Square with Andy Kaufman in the 1970s, little Zoe Friedman ’89 didn’t know that her childhood was uncommon. But growing up at The Improv, the legendary New York City comedy club founded by her parents, Friedman consorted with the likes of Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, and Elvis … er, Kaufman.

One Sunday a month, Kaufman would host a Children’s Cabaret at the club. At the beginning of the show, the kids would vote whether he should be Mr. Mean (Tony Clifton), the Foreign Man (Latka), or Elvis. They’d then take turns performing on stage. “My sister played the violin; I did cartwheels and stood on my head,” Friedman remembered.

As she got older, Friedman said, comedians would help her with homework as she sat at the bar finishing assignments. The level of comfort that she developed around these funny people naturally led Friedman to a career based on laughs.

“People would ask me, ‘Are you going to be a stand-up?’ and my joke was, ‘No, I’m a sit-down comic,’” Friedman recalled. And that’s exactly what she’s become.

While working for the Late Show with David Letterman, Friedman was a talent booker and producer from 1992–2000. The following year, she joined Comedy Central as a director of development and was later promoted to vice president of development and original programming. Then as a consultant for Jimmy Kimmel Live! from 2012 to 2014, Friedman recruited comedians and helped them develop their material for the show (just as she’d done for Letterman).

“I feel like a little bit of a comic whisperer; I understand how to talk to them,” she said. While working with the comics on turning their material into a five-minute TV appearance, Friedman had to be respectful of their jokes while being mindful of the show’s tone. “They’re willful people, and if I let a joke slide that Dave didn’t like, I’d get a look,” Friedman said wryly. “It was definitely a negotiation … comedy is subjective, and I’m very sensitive to that.”

In 2011, anticipating The Improv’s 50th anniversary in 2013, Friedman knew that she had to make a documentary about the club. The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall showcases a star-studded lineup of comics who reminisce about performing at the legendary spot that opened in 1963 in Hell’s Kitchen and branched out to Los Angeles in 1974. “There were no comedy clubs,” Friedman explained. “[My parents] opened up a coffee house for the Broadway set and it evolved into the modern-day comedy club.”

In the documentary, Friedman is heard, but not seen, as she interviews celebrities ranging from Jay Leno to Jerry Seinfeld to Judd Apatow. “I had known a lot of them from when I was [young],” Friedman said. “It was neat to sit down with them because they were relaxed and not being comics, just themselves.”

Today, she’s again behind the scenes — and behind the screens. At Blue Ribbon, a digital division of Warner Brothers Television, Friedman oversees comedic ideas for live-action web series. With a focus on creating web-only content, “we can be experimental because we’re trying to figure out how to tell stories on your phone or computer,” she said.

Outside of the office, Friedman has teamed up with two colleagues to prove that laughter really is the best medicine. Through the social benefit enterprise Comedy Gives Back, they organize comedy events, held annually in various locations, to raise money for charity. This summer, one show in Montreal benefited patients with cancer, while an event in Brooklyn raised funds in the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shooting.

“Comedy has created my career, my hobby, my health, and my connections,” said Friedman, who even met her husband in that realm. “I’d love to share the blessings I have from stand-up with the world.”

— Aleta Mayne