WHAT DO WILL FERRELL, JON LOVITZ & PEE WEE HAVE IN COMMON??
THE EVENT INFO AT THE END IS OLD, BUT THE STORY TELLS YOU PLENTY ABOUT A PLACE THAT MADE TONS OF COMEDY FOLKS FAMOUS!
THEY'RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU!
The Groundlings have given improv comedy Lisa Kudrow, Pee-wee Herman, and the late, great Phil Hartman. After 30 years, the troupe is still feeding modern comedy
By CARL KOZLOWSKI
hink of American comedy over the last three decades, and chances are you'll come up with a member of improvisational comedy-theater troupe the Groundlings. After all, the company has launched the careers of top talents from original Saturday Night Live Not Ready for Prime Time Player Laraine Newman to The Critic's Jon Lovitz to Friends' Lisa Kudrow. It's also given us Pee-wee Herman, the SNL cheerleaders played by Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri, and the incredibly diverse characters of the late, great Phil Hartman.
Add the stellar, Emmy-nominated work of Cheryl Hines on HBO's groundbreaking sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm, and throw in a dash of Edie McClurg's dead-on depiction of every high school's batty, bitchy secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and you've got a recipe for comedy that's satisfied the nation's appetite for laughter like no other group in the country. Yet, the Groundlings have also slipped under America's pop-culture radar, never drawing quite the praise and attention of Chicago's and Toronto's equally influential Second City troupes. In fact, they seem to go largely unrecognized outside the heart of the Los Angeles comedy industry.
But on Tuesday night, the Groundlings will get their rightful due. The venerable troupe is celebrating its 30th anniversary at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater with an all-star, roof-raising fundraiser that's sure to be the comedy event of the year. Things have come a long way since their early days as a hippie comedy collective, where anyone could wander in and learn at a workshop or perform in a show for a mere buck a week – and, even more oddly, as a group started as a way for a boy from the Bible Belt named Gary Austin to reinvent his life and give others the chance to do the same.
"It's funny, looking back, because in the '60s, I was very conservative," recalls Austin, who founded the Groundlings in 1972. Today, at 63, sitting in the troupe's Melrose Avenue home base, he looks like Garry Shandling's slightly older brother. "But when I was a little kid, I always loved performing and getting in front of audiences. There were three things I wanted to do: be an evangelist, be a baseball player, and be a cowboy singer – all things done before crowds of people."
That need for notice stemmed from being raised in the hardscrabble oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas, as his father spent his post-Navy career working for the notorious Halliburton company. Austin remembers stories his mother told him about her own rough childhood in Oilton, Oklahoma – a town built so close to oil derricks that children were covered by the misty black spray while walking to and from school every day.
Austin spent his high-school summers working for Halliburton and his Sundays surrounded by holy-rolling members of the Nazarene church. He came away with a distaste for both that has since sparked him to write the acclaimed solo shows Oil and Church. He escaped to San Francisco State University, "where I was finally introduced to the world at large," and joined a sketch-comedy troupe that served as a fun outlet for his repressed creativity.
But it wasn't until he graduated and landed his first job as a social worker in Watts – "where my first week was right during the  riots" – that he spotted a sign on Sunset Boulevard advertising an appearance by seminal San Francisco improv troupe the Committee and decided to check it out.
"I was blown away by it and knew I had to be a part of it," says Austin, recalling a feeling that countless performers would later have after seeing the Groundlings. "You had to come to a workshop every Saturday afternoon, and there were 50 people taking the class for a buck apiece. Del Close [regarded within comedy as the ultimate improv teacher] took over directing the workshops and reinvented the form there with a game called the Harold.
"But my favorite recollection is the Group Grope, where everybody was lying on the floor, feeling each other up," he continues, cackling. "This was the '60s. Often, the Group Grope got us going, and we'd extend the experience beyond the workshop."
By 1972, the Committee had charted a decade-long run in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and founder Allan Myerson decided to move on. Those who stayed behind, however, wanted to form their own group – and thus, the Groundlings were born.
"I picked the name based on Shakespeare's description in Hamlet of the people who watch plays while sitting on the ground," explains Austin. "It was a name that didn't force us to only do comedy, like [now-defunct competing troupe] Kentucky Fried Theater, because at first we wanted to be open to all types of theater."
Not Ready for Prime Time
Whatever Austin's intentions, the group took off quickly due to its comedic elements and rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times. Although city zoning and parking regulations tied up plans to perform in their own space for years, the doors of far more established venues, like the Improv comedy club, were opened to them, and soon the Groundlings were packing theater seats. A rotating group of 90 students competed for 25 available performing slots in the weekly shows. Stars like Lily Tomlin dropped by regularly to watch, and, one night in 1975, she brought along a young NBC producer named Lorne Michaels.
Michaels was scouting the nation for talent, hoping to create an entertainment revolution of his own with Saturday Night Live. Among the Groundlings, he immediately took a liking to Laraine Newman. A fan of improv ever since she started performing it at Beverly Hills High School at age 15, Newman had also seen the Committee in San Francisco and liked the idea of being able to create her own material with improv, rather than struggling to fit others' demands.
"I was at CalArts for about a minute, when my sister took me to a Gary Austin workshop, and I loved it immediately," recalls Newman. "So many people I came through there with became [members of] the top writing staffs on sitcoms like Cheers and Just Shoot Me. But most importantly, I learned about being in a company and how to deal with the give and take of other people's time on stage. It didn't help fully when I got to SNL, because the stakes were much higher there, but for any show folk, there is a familial feel, whether you're in summer stock or road tours or Broadway."
For Newman, the character creation encouraged by the Groundlings enabled her to come up with such SNL-worthy individuals as Cheri the Stewardess and a Valley girl who was part of The Godfather's group-therapy sessions. It also led to her currently fruitful voiceover career and a recent lifetime achievement award from the Chicago Improv Festival. "The training really holds up, no matter what you do," she says.
Michaels also wanted to hire a Groundling named Archie Hahn and invited Austin to direct the new venture, but both declined – a decision Austin still doesn't regret.
"I believe the Groundlings would have dissolved if I'd gone," Austin says. "I was the only teacher and hadn't trained anybody else how to do it yet. I'm very glad I also didn't have to deal with the drug problems at SNL, because you had actors coming in late and stoned, and they would win any argument in making NBC decide whether they or the director had to go," he says. "The chaos might not have succeeded, and I'd come back home without a theater, because I'd forsaken the same ship I'd asked everyone else to sacrifice for. To sacrifice that for anything would have been a mistake."
Yet Austin did leave in 1979, handing control of the troupe and its school to Tom Maxwell, a fellow Southerner who had come to L.A. years before as a USC graduate film student. That was also the year the Groundlings finally found their footing with the opening of their permanent location on Melrose.
During his time working with Austin, Maxwell had seen a growing need to weed through applicants for spots in the Groundlings school, and over the next decade he created a stratified system that made students' talent levels easier to define and track. But more important, his decade-long reign through the '80s saw the city and the entertainment industry becoming more aware of the Groundlings.
"It's always been a character-driven company, in that we built scenes and shows around characters rather than themes," says Maxwell, speaking from his home in Vermont, where he continues to write several produced sitcom scripts a year. "But in 1984, the Olympic Arts Festival gave us a breakout hit with Phil Hartman's Chick Hazard show; our special show Casual Sex was being made into a movie; and [Groundling member] Paul Reubens was breaking out into his own solo show as Pee-wee Herman at the Roxy."
During this time, amid the "Morning in America" era of shiny happy Reaganness, the shows also lost some of their early political flavor – a factor that continued in the Groundlings' most recent main-stage show, Groundlings' National Park. But, according to Maxwell, "It was never a conscious decision to be more or less political – just, let's work with what's happening organically. If an actor wanted to be political, they could, and if they didn't, that was fine, too."
Phil Hartman Stumbles In
Mainly, the Groundlings served as a home for an ever-changing band of comedy hopefuls. It was a place where a Columbia Pictures accountant, like Julia Sweeney, or a member of A&M Records' publishing staff, like Cheri Oteri, could finally exercise the creative spirits bursting within them. But perhaps the most famous Groundling to date (maybe next to Will Ferrell) was Phil Hartman – a man who literally stumbled across the cast when his then-girlfriend and future fellow performer Jaye P. Morgan took him to see the troupe for his birthday.
Hartman's tragic 1998 death at the hands of his wife, Brynn, has turned his story into a shared legacy of countless Groundlings members. Much like the similarly untimely death of Second City Chicago graduate Chris Farley, Hartman's time with the troupe has taken on mythic proportions.
"I was in the backstage room giving notes to actors when I noticed our 30-seat theater was filled with laughs, and our show hadn't even started yet," Austin recalls. "But I looked, and there was this guy standing on stage. After the show, he and Jaye P. asked how to be Groundlings. We had just started doing auditions to weed people out, but he flew through them, and he soon was writing for the main-stage show."
During his decade-long stretch with the Groundlings, Hartman was best known for creating an improvised detective sketch called "Chick Hazard," in which he would construct and solve a different crime each week based on audience suggestions. But for Austin, Hartman's funniest creation was "Lightman." As Austin talks, he leaps onto the theater's stage to re-create this character.
"Phil comes from backstage and toward the audience, dressed in 27 lit flashlights and a bathing suit, with one more standing on his head," says Austin as he continues his performance. "He would shine them on the audience and then say, in a deep, dramatic voice, 'I am Lightman!' And would shine it on whomever he wanted to interview on the spot in the audience. It wasn't the best sketch he ever did, but it was the most popular."
Edie McClurg was a member of the Groundlings' official first cast from 1975 to 1985, having honed her chops with the Pitschel Players' troupe in San Francisco and as a standup at L.A.'s Comedy Store, where she battled for stage time with the late Shirley Hemphill of What's Happening!! fame. Oddly enough, she had a straight-laced ´´ career before setting foot on a comedy stage: She taught radio classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for eight years, then became operations manager and jack of all trades at Kansas City's NPR affiliate.
That officiousness and prim and proper Midwestern viewpoint helped McClurg launch a career of playing stuffy, upright women who wield a sharp tongue when audiences least expect it – particularly in Ferris Bueller and in Planes, Trains and Automobiles as the car-rental checkout clerk who suffers a foul-mouthed tirade from Steve Martin.
"When we started, it was more of a commune, and if you came up with some type of material in the workshop, it would get in the show," recalls McClurg, who sprinkles her conversation with the high-pitched chuckle immortalized in the aforementioned John Hughes films. "Improvisation has been the core of my technique, and when I'm presented with a script, I always fill it in with what I call the noise of life – little comments characters say under their breath – so it's fuller than a character just talking to another character."
While McClurg was one of the earliest Groundlings stars, Jon Lovitz came along in the early '80s as part of the second big wave of talent. In fact, when he was plucked by Lorne Michaels to become the second Groundling on SNL in 1985, Tom Maxwell laughed and said, "We've got one once a decade."
At the time he joined the Groundlings, Lovitz was torn between serious acting dreams and the comedic side his acting teachers kept trying to force him to develop. He had already bounced between New York and L.A., and felt studying with the troupe was a way to give his life and career some direction.
"I remember driving there to the theater the first time and crying, because I was really committing my life to being a comedian, and I was wondering, what if it doesn't work out?" recalls Lovitz. "But I went, and I loved it, and then I met Phil Hartman, and he invited me to understudy his show Chick Hazard: Olympic Trials."
Lovitz's voice trails off for a second.
"Jesus, it's been 20 years," he continues. "But I have a career because of it. When I was doing the show with Phil, Laraine came and saw it, and I wound up hired in '85 on SNL. They kept me for the next year and asked who I worked well with, and I said Phil, so they put him on SNL, too. Then I told Lisa Kudrow, whom I've known as a little sister since she was six, that the Groundlings were the way to go when she asked me how to get into acting. It took her 10 years before she got Friends, but look at her now."
That sense of family – of personal recommendations helping to launch careers and fulfill dreams – crops up time and again when talking to Groundlings alums. For Lovitz, who spoke at the greatest length and with the most passion of anyone interviewed for this story, going through the troupe was the best school experience he had ever known.
"The camaraderie was just great there," he says. "It was like a bunch of class clowns working together. In real school, you get in trouble for goofing off, but here was a school that taught you how to goof off really well. I was a messenger, and we all had day jobs, but people loved it so much that they were paying to be a part of it. I learned how to create characters, how to write and supervise my scenes. I still use everything I learned there."
Learning Her Enthusiasm
Although Hartman was a colleague of Lovitz's, he was a teacher to many others who passed across the Groundlings stage. Julia Sweeney started taking his classes at the Groundlings in 1984, and by 1986 was a member of the Sunday Company – the intermediate performance level that showcases alternative forms of sketch comedy and allows much experimentation en route to berths in the main performance company. After becoming a good friend and mentor to Sweeney, Hartman also gave her a recommendation that inspired Lorne Michaels to hire her for SNL in 1989.
"There's so many memories there, because it's like talking about the home you grew up in," explains Sweeney, who's now preparing to launch her third solo show, Letting Go of God. "It really taught me how people had careers in show business, and that people could cobble together fine livings in showbiz even if they weren't big stars."
It was also where she launched her most famous character, Pat – a drooling, annoying office drone of indeterminate gender, who drove people to squeamish laughter for years both on the Groundlings stage and at SNL. Whether Pat is a male or a female is a question Sweeney has to this day never resolved publicly.
"I was working with somebody as an accountant, who was a guy, who had some of Pat's mannerisms, like drooling and standing too close," Sweeney recalls, chuckling. "Then there was a woman who was annoying, too. I realized I couldn't play the man, so I combined the two."
For Cheri Oteri, who started with the Groundlings in the early '90s as part of a relatively quick journey to stardom on SNL and her own recently announced sitcom deal with ABC, the troupe offered a chance to break out of cubicle hell at A&M's publishing company. She had long been the funny person at the water cooler, with coworkers telling her to get into standup. Although the prospect of standup cowed her, she became immediately intrigued by the moment-to-moment risks of improv.
"I had never done acting or anything like that before," she says. "But then I auditioned, and it was like my world opened up, because I found something that interested me so much and excited me and would be so difficult as well. There were so many people I enjoyed watching there, and I would always run up the back stairs to catch my favorite sketches that other people did." On Friday nights, she would go to the late show by herself after work. "I would learn more than I ever had from watching improv games," she says.
Just as Phil Hartman was the teacher and gateway for so many who entered the Groundlings troupe, Lisa Kudrow was the catalyst and teacher for Cheryl Hines as she set foot in the theater to pursue her dreams. Now an Emmy-nominated star for her turn as Larry David's ever-suffering wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the theater and television production graduate from the University of Central Florida was not impressed with the Groundlings the first time she saw them in the early '90s. But she gave them a second chance two years later, after meeting Hartman's sister. Today, she maintains such a strong love for the troupe that she's the only alum to currently sit on the nonprofit theater's board.
"They really encourage you to find out what's funny about you, instead of trying to be funny for someone else. I learned that improvising and giving and taking with your fellow actors was an interesting way to work, and one that turned out to be key to what I do now," says Hines, whose work on Curb depends on improvising lines at a rapid clip. "There was a moment when I was taking a class at the Groundlings when I decided I don't really care what other people think about me. Once I stopped worrying whether someone thought I was funny or not, it really changed my perspective on comedy."
Ultimately, it's that total freedom to say and express oneself in a way that may not be flattering or polite that bonds Groundlings graduates across their numerous creative endeavors. And perhaps it's fitting that the alum who really scored in standup proudly represents brashness in all its glory every time she's onstage: the indefatigably vicious comedian Kathy Griffin.
"I had moved here from Chicago at age 18, after getting my first commercial, and didn't know anybody and assumed that the privileged kids like Emilio Estevez were always going to get the breaks," recalls Griffin. "But I went to see a Groundlings show and walked backstage and met Phil Hartman, who took me around and introduced me to people. Soon I was there and found that the people there, no matter how successful they were getting, couldn't get enough improv. It was actually kind of sick."
Griffin says she misses the political incorrectness of those times the most. "My favorite sketch was, I did a monologue as a black woman watching Rambo and talking to the screen," she says. "It was a really big hit there, got great reviews, and got me a lot of meetings and auditions. But I'd go to a meeting at, say, 20th Century Fox, only to find out an executive wanted me to crack their friends up, and there was no real audition after all. The ironic thing is that I can't even play the woman watching the screen and yelling anymore, because people are just so uptight now. Times have changed." But the Groundlings live on.