Improv West Isn’t Laughing at Promoter

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – Improv West Associates claims a promoter defrauded it by setting up a competing business for stand-up comics “on the back” of The Improv comedy club franchise.
     The Los Angeles-based company says it hired Robert Hartmann to help market the Improv brand online but says he formed a competing chain, “Levity Live,” to promote similar services.
     “Hartmann and the other defendants, motivated solely by their own greed, hatched a scheme to siphon off the good will associated with the Improv brand for their own pecuniary gain. Hartmann and other defendants have built a valuable comedy business conglomerate on the back of the Improv Brand and have retained all benefits for themselves,” according to the Superior Court complaint.
     The Improve also sued Hartmann’s production company Levity Productions LLC, his partner Stu Schreiberg, Judi Brown-Marmel, Levity Entertainment Group Inc., Levity Live LLC and E-Comic Branding Inc.
     “Hartmann through several companies in which he is a substantial owner, has been and remains a long-time licensee of the ‘Improv’ marks in connection with clubs located in Brea, Irvine and Ontario, California,” the complaint states. “Those licenses do not permit Hartmann or his affiliated companies to make any use of the Improv brand except in connection with the operation of those specific clubs.”
     Because of their “longstanding relationship” and because it believed Hartmann had IWA’s “best interests at heart,” the Improv says it granted him a license to “market, promote, and manage the Improv Brand” online.
     But according to the complaint, Hartmann tried to seize the Improv brand, first by securing a license for all media to promote IWA products and services – which IWA declined – then by attempting to file a patent application for the Improv trademark under Levity’s name.
     IWA says that Hartmann and Levity then set up an online ticketing service for Improv but kept “contact information for hundreds of thousands of Improv customers and stand-up comedy fans.”
     Improv also claims that Hartmann set up an online community with MySpace for emerging comedians “without IWA’s knowledge or authorization,” and used “the good will associated with the Improv brand,” to promote the Gotham Comedy Club in New York as part of a chain of Levity’s own comedy clubs.
     It claims that Hartmann and Levity also set up an Improv ad network “to generate revenues for one or more websites they are building to compete with IWA,” and took credit for a NBC 40th anniversary special about the franchise.
     “Since at least 2008, Hartmann and Levity have completely leveraged their management and association with the Improv Brand to establish themselves as ‘gatekeepers’ to reaching stand-up comedy fans via the internet. Hartmann has falsely represented that he owns The Improv (he does not) and that he is CEO of The Improv (he is not),” the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
     Comedians are “forced to deal” with Hartmann and his associates who “browbeat comedians into allowing Levity to manage their careers under threat that they would not otherwise be permitted to perform at ‘Improv’ comedy clubs,” the complaint states.
     “Hartmann and his affiliates sought to assuage IWA’s concerns regarding the independent businesses he was building on the back of the Improv brand by expressing an interest in buying out or merging with IWA and making several lucrative proposals to do just that,” the complaint adds. “Hartmann and his affiliates had no genuine interest in buying out or merging with IWA, and they were instead stringing along IWA while they used the good will associated with the Improv Brand to build their own competing ventures before unilaterally abandoning all negotiations.”
     Before it terminated the license agreement, the Improv says, Hartmann registered the LevityLive domain name under Improv’s name: “A brazen signal of the defendants’ intent to transfer the good will associated with the Improv Brand and Improv Websites to their competing venture.”
     Improv West Associates seeks punitive damages for breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, constructive fraud, intentional interference with contractual relations, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, unfair competition and violations of business and professional codes.
     It is represented by Robert Klieger with Kendall Brill & Klieger.

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