Today, the Groundlings is an institution, the kind of show-biz phenomenon that’s spoken of in reverent tones. But the combination sketch comedy troupe/improv school that is the preeminent West Coast breeding ground for comedic talent began 40 years ago in a much humbler way. Vanity Fair spoke to a wide range of the Groundlings’ now-famous alums to get a taste of what it was like back in 1974, and how it’s grown from there. Here’s just a small sampling of what they had to say.
TRACY NEWMAN (1974–’76): In the early days, nobody had to audition, but you pretty much had to be funny, because if you weren’t, you didn’t get in the show. So those [unfunny] people would fall to the wayside. There were 25 of us and everyone wanted to be in the show so everyone was working hard to make sure they got onstage.
GARY AUSTIN (Founder, 1974–’79): According to the rules of our nonprofit, the name had to be voted on by all… The night before the vote I was reading Hamlet’s speech to the players with the intention of using Shakespeare’s acting lesson as a jumping off point for the next day’s workshop. The word “groundlings” jumped out at me like a flashing neon sign in Las Vegas…
I lived in West Hollywood, and one day driving home from workshop I saw a “For Rent” sign on a building at 7307 Melrose Ave. I went inside and met Bob Nachman, the owner. I told him what I needed and he told me what he had. He had leased the large empty room to a massage company. Upon inspection, it became clear that this was more than a massage parlor. I brought in several key members to see the place and to meet with Nachman. He managed to get the tenant out and the building was ours. The rent was $1,200 per month.
KATHY GRIFFIN (1985–’92): The original Groundlings, who were kind of like gods to me, they set it up—kind of like the Founding Fathers, if you will. There was sort of an invisible Constitution in the Groundlings that still stands today. It’s about working together but it’s kind of like a football team. You know they are going to make cuts so you want to try to excel and you want to try to find a niche for yourself.
MAYA RUDOLPH (1998–’02): I was friends with Jack Black in high school, and we used to do improv together. When I was 14, he took me to a Groundlings show—he was older than me, so he could drive. It was still the 80s, and I think they were having a little bit of a cult following with The Pee-wee Herman Show. I was in the middle of studying improv at school, so it really impressed me and blew my mind that there were these real adults in the world doing this thing so well and so beautifully and so seamlessly.
JON LOVITZ (1984–’86): I had gone to New York for a year to try to get into acting, and I didn’t get anywhere. So I moved back to California and thought, I am going to focus on comedy like [his former acting coach] Tony Barr told me I should. I was actually staying in Woodland Hills with Lisa Kudrow’s brother, David, at the time. I remember driving down the freeway, to the Groundlings theater, sobbing because I was so scared because I made this decision: I was going to be a comedian. No one told me to do this. This was my own decision.
CHERI OTERI (1994–’95): People always said to me growing up, “Oh, you’re funny. You should do standup.” But I could never imagine doing standup. Then this one woman at the record-publishing company where I worked said, “You should do Groundlings.” I said, “What’s the Groundlings?” She said, “It’s kind of like an improv group.” I said, “What’s improv?”
KATHY GRIFFIN: The curriculum at the Groundlings is really good and really thorough, and it can be helpful to people in a lot of areas of show business . . . it was really like the greatest college that I never went to. And it would be kind of refreshing every so often that somebody who was already very well established would take a Groundlings class—someone like Darryl Hannah, at the height of her fame, would take a Groundlings class, just to learn a different skill set.PAUL REUBENS: I probably had eight or 10 pretty solid characters and maybe four or five of those were very popular and featured in the show. But when I [debuted Pee-wee Herman onstage], that got a completely different reaction. This was a reaction that made me think, Wow, this means something. And very quickly, I decided, “Yeah I am going to keep doing this.”
KRISTEN WIIG (2004-’05): [Target Lady] was one of the first sketches I had written by myself, and I remember I was so terrified to put it up, because I thought, “Oh god. Is this stupid? Am I going to make an ass out of myself?” I was so scared. It was based on a woman in the Burbank Target, I think. She didn’t walk away during ringing me up or anything but it was a terrible wait. It was a little bit of her voice so I just kind of went with it and exaggerated it and created this woman.
ANA GASTEYER: I got pulled over one time for speeding on the way to the Sunday Company, I pulled open a glove compartment and a wig fell out.
WILL FORTE: We all had our moments of triumph and our moments of miserable failures, that’s for sure. That’s the greatest thing about the Groundlings: it’s such a safe place to fail.
CHRIS PARNELL: The filthiness of the backstage area was an accepted thing for us—it was gross, but most of us didn’t seem to mind.
ANA GASTEYER: Once you hit these populations of other weirdos that like to do sketch comedy, it is an incredibly organic tribal experience, and it totally changed L.A. for me. All of my best friends here, still, are from the Groundlings. I have the most in common with them. There is a kind of shamelessness and work ethic that is specific to them.
MELISSA MCCARTHY: It doesn’t matter who you are, who you know, or what you’ve done before, everyone starts at the bottom and they work their way up. It’s so hard and so incredibly fun. The Groundlings taught me how to write, how far I could push a character and still make it real, and also how to catch a man while wearing dumpy dockers and a short curly wig . . . not bad.