It’s the theatre where Pee-wee Herman was born; where Saturday Night Live found Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and many of its stars; and the venue where Melissa McCarthy met her husband and comedy collaborator, Ben Falcone. As the iconic improv theatre turns 40, all hail The Groundlings.
“O,it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.” — The eponymous excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Today, the Groundlings’ nonprofit theater company, which performs out of a red-brick theater on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, is recognized as the predominant West Coast feeding pool for improv talent, having shaped comedic performers like Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy into the Saturday Night Live stars, big-screen personalities, and pop-culture monoliths that they would become. But when the theater group began 40 years ago, cheekily naming itself after the unsophisticated spectators of which Shakespeare wrote, its founders had far more humble ambitions.
The group began somewhat informally in 1972, when Gary Austin—an out-of-work actor and former member of San Francisco’s improv group, “the Committee”—began teaching improv in Los Angeles. Within two years, he had collected enough performers in his workshop to create a proper theater company, and during a backstage meeting in 1974 at the Oxford Theatre, a tiny auditorium on Western Avenue where the performers often out-numbered audience members, the Groundlings were born.
In celebration of the nonprofit’s 40th anniversary last month, we reached out to former Groundlings including Melissa McCarthy, Lisa Kudrow, Kristen Wiig, Kathy Griffin, Paul Reubens, and Will Forte. Every single member with whom we spoke reminisced fondly about what it felt like to find a community where, as Jon Lovitz put it, “structured silliness” was not only encouraged, but required to survive. (Performers now have to graduate from a four-level training program before standing a chance at being invited to join the Sunday Company and eventually, the top-tier Main Company, which performs every Friday and Saturday night.) Ahead, some of Hollywood’s funniest men and women look back on their favorite memories with the iconic improv group.
In Which the Groundlings Christen Themselves
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.
LARAINE NEWMAN (1974–’75): The Oxford Theatre was in a part of town that comedian Blaine Capatch would describe as “a good place to give up.” Sometimes there were more people onstage than in the audience, but as we became more popular, we filled the house and that was so exciting.
TRACY NEWMAN: We didn’t name ourselves until after we had done a few shows. I remember, I think, that we were already at the Oxford Theatre and we were meeting in the back, and we voted on what to call ourselves. One of the choices was “the Working Class,” which I wanted actually, and so did my sister.
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.
In Which They Attract the Interest of Lorne Michaels, Lily Tomlin, Phil Hartman, and More
TRACY NEWMAN: Eventually, one of the things that started happening was that people like Phil Hartman just kind of started gravitating toward us. They heard that there was a funny group of people doing improv, and there was not that much improv at the time. The Committee would come through and [Chicago improv troupe] Second City would pass through, but there were no companies. So when Phil Hartman came to the show, I don’t know how he heard about it, but he just felt a sense of belonging that was common to all of us. I told Kip King about the show—he came, and then he never left. He just knew, “This is where I belong. I didn’t know that there was anything like this.”
GARY AUSTIN: Lily Tomlin and Lorne Michaels came to our shows. Lorne was producing Lily, Lily’s 1975 Emmy Award–winning ABC T.V. special. Several Groundlings were cast in the show, and I was hired to direct a portion of the show. Laraine Newman, one of those cast on Lily, went on to join the original cast of Saturday Night Live shortly thereafter.
LARAINE NEWMAN: When I left to do S.N.L., Paul Reubens, as I recall, asked me about the Groundlings, because he knew I left Cal Arts to do what eventually became the Groundlings.
PAUL REUBENS (1974–’80): Coincidentally Laraine and I had done a comedy show at Cal Arts together. And a few years later, I turned on the T.V. and went, “Oh my God, that’s the girl I did that show with!” The reason I joined the Groundlings was because I wasn’t a standup comic. The only other option at that time in the mid-70s was to go work at the Improv or the Comedy Store and I didn’t really have an act. There were other ensembles and companies around, but the Groundlings was the one to me that had the most talented people.
GARY AUSTIN: 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.
PAUL REUBENS: At that time, there still weren’t classes. It was just a workshop, because we didn’t have the permit to open the theater yet. And in fact, for the first two years that I was there, it was a workshop that didn’t have an audience. The Groundlings eventually became like a showcase for Saturday Night Live and for movies and producers and casting directors and lots of people to come see it. When I was there, we were just starting that [movement].
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.
PAUL REUBENS: I was the president of the Groundlings for one term. I had a lot to do with different things that are still in existence today. I was responsible for painting the Green Room green, with paint that I won on The Gong Show. I wired the makeup lights myself by hand for the men’s makeup room. I was also responsible for talking the Groundlings into using the windows they had up in the front, that face out on Melrose, to advertise.
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.
LISA KUDROW (1991–’93): Jon Lovitz was a friend of my brother’s. And I remember, after college, when I told Jon that I wanted to be an actress, he told me that I should go do the Groundlings, because that is where he learned the most. They actually wouldn’t take me at the Groundlings at first. They sent me to Cynthia Szigeti’s class so I could prepare for my beginning-level Groundlings audition. And Conan O’Brien was in that Cynthia Szigeti class, because they wouldn’t let him in either. [Laughs] He’s what motivated me to keep being an actress. I took myself so seriously, and I was so embarrassed for myself and everybody, you know, pretending to throw a baseball or whatever they wanted us to do. But Conan got up there, and it was his first night. I was like, “This is so embarrassing for everybody except that guy! He looks like he’s throwing a ball. He’s not turning it into a three-act play. Oh, that’s what we’re supposed to do!” So I knew I had to stick with that guy. So I went over, introduced myself to him, and we became friends. I stuck with him. I’m not kidding. I was like a barnacle.
JULIA SWEENEY (1987–’90): I was an accountant, and I had never seen the Groundlings, but I read a review of it in the paper and it just seemed like a wonderful place. The review said that it taught classes for non-professionals, and, at that time, I was not even admitting to myself that I wanted to be an actress. So I thought, I will just go take some classes.
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?”
ANA GASTEYER (1995–’97): It was still kind of unbroken terrain [for women]. There were plenty of women who were doing it, but there weren’t many actively engaged in careers that you could kind of emulate. From Chicago to L.A., I had heard of the Groundlings and I was at an improv audition with Kathy Griffin and we became friends. It was an all-day kind of audition. She was basically like, “I don’t understand why you’re not at the Groundlings. They’ve created everything for me.”
WILL FORTE (1998–’2002): I was working at a brokerage firm and not loving it. I had always wanted to do comedy, but I had no idea where to start. My friend said, “Oh, have you heard of the Groundlings?” I went to see a show, one that Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan were all in, who have since become family. I was like, “Oh my god, I have got to become a part of this place.
CHERYL HINES (1998–’2001): I was a bartender at a hotel in downtown L.A. and one of [Phil Hartman’s] sisters was staying in the hotel. She was sitting at the bar and we started talking, and she told me she wanted to go to the Groundlings, because that is where her brother got his start. I was really fascinated by the story and after I saw a show for myself, the Groundlings was all I ever talked about at work. I had no money. I think at that time I didn’t even have a refrigerator. But I really wanted to take classes at the Groundlings, and for my birthday the regulars at the bar and some of the wait staff chipped in and bought me my first improv class at the Groundlings. It was so sweet, I can’t even tell you, and it changed my life really.
The Groundlings Start Up a School from Which All Future Company Performers Must Graduate
PAUL REUBENS: The school [began] when I was there. I wish I could take credit for it, but there was a guy named Steve White who came in during one of our board meetings when I was the president and said, “I have a great idea, why don’t we start a school?” At that point, we were about to go out of business like every month. We had rental on the building and were always trying to figure out how to pay the rent. We all paid dues. I want to say we all paid $45 a month.
JON LOVITZ: I get there [once the school started] and my teacher is this guy Randy Bennett from Texas. I did some improv and he said, “Well, that’s funny, but you could have been funnier.” In my head, I was thinking, “You are telling me to goof off? This is music to my ears.” I was 25 and had heard that you only get out of something what you put into it. So I took notes every class, and I typed them up at the end. I showed Randy the notes and he said, “No one’s ever done this before.” That’s how into it I was.
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.
LISA KUDROW: I had to repeat a class, but the Groundlings instructor was nice about it. They said, “Look, I also had to repeat. It happens a lot. I feel like you could be a little bigger in your choices.” Bigger was my aversion. I was like, “Oh my god, bigger?”
TRACY NEWMAN: Lisa Kudrow is a brilliant, brilliant performer. And she made me laugh so hard at the beginning [when I was her teacher]. She wasn’t loud enough, because she did not have much confidence. It took her a little while, but once everyone could hear her, she was the star of the show until she was snatched away.
CHERI OTERI: [Laraine Newman] came to class with her boyfriend [who was a student at the theater]. A couple times, she would take me aside and say, “You’re going to make it.” And a few times her boyfriend even commented, “You know, I have a good enough relationship with my girlfriend to not be bothered when she takes you aside after [class] and not me.”
MAYA RUDOLPH: Mindy Sterling is such a great teacher. She told me, “You sing, and that’s a great thing to incorporate in what you are writing and what you are doing.” I wasn’t sure, but she said, “Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a voice in terms of their sense of humor. I really think you should look at incorporating music into your stuff because you are a really musical person.” It was the first time I felt like someone sort of allowed this hobby and personality trait of mine to be incorporated in the comedy that I was writing.
LISA KUDROW: I still run into people who say, “You taught me at the Groundlings!” I’m like, “Oh, were you in that one class that hated my guts and complained about me smoking in the lobby?”
CHERYL HINES: Lisa [Kudrow] was my first teacher there. I really thought she was one of the funniest, smartest people I had ever seen. And that was around the time she was on Mad About You, so I was a little star struck that my teacher was actually on T.V.
JULIA SWEENEY: Phil [Hartman] had been my teacher and he was fantastic. Some people don’t know why they’re great at improv—on some level they know what they are doing but they couldn’t explain it to you, because it’s a very unconscious process. And then there are some actors and comedians who know why they are funny and can articulate to you how they are doing it and Phil was one of those people. He could tell you why he was funny and he could tell you why the scene was funny and why this character was funny. That made him an invaluable and incredible teacher.
MICHAELA WATKINS (2007–current): It’s funny because on the first day you teach, you have to tell your students, “Be here because you want to be here and you want to learn improv. Not because you want this to be a stepping stone to Saturday Night Live.” And then the second day I was teaching that class, I had to call someone and say, “I am going to Saturday Night Live. Can you cover my classes?” So I don’t know if my students got that point.
Pee-wee, Pat, and the Other Famous Characters Formed at the Groundlings
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.” Also, I came out of art school and, at the time, Cal Arts was all about visual- and performing-arts performance, and conceptual art was very big. I kind of viewed Pee-wee Herman as partially conceptual and partially performance because nobody knew it wasn’t a real character at that time. The very first thing I did outside of the Groundlings was put on my Pee-wee suit and answer a cattle call ad for The Dating Game.
JON LOVITZ: I did my Liar piece on The Tonight Show when I was at the Groundlings. I had been working as a messenger and some guy came in the office saying that he was going to put a computer system in. I am very gullible, but it was obvious he was lying. I knew that he didn’t have a dime. He started making up all of this crap. I said, “Where are you getting your money from?” He said, “It’s a family thing. I smuggle jewels from South Africa. My aunt taught me how.” The first time I did it at the Groundlings, it was for a panel sketch. You said your name and then the audience would ask questions. So I said, “My name is Tom F. I am a member of Pathological Liars Anonymous. I am the president of the organization.”
Someone asked me, “How long have you been lying?” I said, “What are you talking about?” They told me I had kind of set it up perfectly because any answer after that will work. Even questions like, “What’s your favorite sport?” It was a simple but a great idea that I just stumbled on.
JULIA SWEENEY: Pat was based on a couple people I knew from my business/accounting world. One was a woman and one was a creepy, odd, drooling guy. I hadn’t thought about the sex of the character too much, because I thought the funny part about the character was how annoying he/she was. But when I got on stage and got into the first joke, where we don’t know if its a man or a woman, it became clear that all the jokes were about that.
LISA KUDROW: When I was doing my writers’ lab [class], my teacher said she hadn’t seen me ever do a ditzy character, and she would like to see that range. I was like, “Oh, god, torture. I don’t want to play an idiot.” But I just did this monologue that was like a Palm Springs spring break, because it was like 1988 or something. So I just played this surfer dumbs. I grew up in the Valley and went to high school with people who would get up at four and go to the beach, tick school off their to-do list, and then go back to the beach. Not the brightest people. I got into Vassar and they were like, “Vah—saar? What’s that? A trade school?” Someone seriously asked if it was a trade school. There were these girls who were really stupid and just would brag about how drunk and wasted they were and how they didn’t know where they were when they woke up. I just made fun of that.
Tracy Newman recommended me for a staged reading of this play by Robin Schiff, another Groundling, called Ladies Room. That was my first ever audition, it was for like “Airhead 1” and “Airhead 2.” And I got the part. Then the play was produced and I was in the play. And that play is what Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion was based on.
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.
Friendships Forged Between Funny People
PAUL REUBENS: When I was in the Groundlings, no one was married. No one had a kid. The Groundlings was my entire life, I was there seven days a week, partially as the president. I was there in workshops every single night. [Before the class structure was implemented] we weren’t the healthiest—we were a bunch of neurotic, colorful, crazy comedians, but everyone really liked each other. We were like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, you know: Let’s put on a show. Here is a box of wigs.
TRACY NEWMAN: Phil Hartman was pretty quickly recognized as the best one there. Everyone wanted to be onstage with him because he was a generous improviser. He was not scared. There are not many people who have no fear [onstage], but he was really remarkable in that way. If you were onstage with Phil, he would recognize your fear, and he would turn you into something. And suddenly you could perform onstage when you were with Phil.
JON LOVITZ: [Phil] had been in the Groundlings for, like, 10 years when I came along, and was like the king of the Groundlings. He was like a big star to everybody. Everybody looked up to him. We didn’t have any money. He had a car, a house, he had an actual job [as a graphic designer]. Because of Phil, I got in the Main Company in September of 1984. He became like my older brother. I idolized him. He was the nicest guy in the world.
TRACY NEWMAN: There was a lot of back-biting at that time, but it was never Phil. And by the way, it was never directed at Phil. You kind of get what you give. Phil was always magnanimous. Jon [Lovitz] actually got Saturday Night Live before Phil did.I remember Lorne was backstage at the Groundlings. By then, I knew Lorne because of Laraine. I looked onstage and looked at Lorne’s face, and said, “Are you looking at Phil Hartman? Is that who you’re here for?” And he said no, and he pointed to Jon Lovitz.
I remember thinking, “Oh.” I thought Jon Lovitz was funny, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t believe he wasn’t going to take Phil Hartman. I think Jon Lovitz in fact talked Lorne into taking Phil.
JON LOVITZ: I had to really push for Phil to get in [Saturday Night Live]. I told Lorne, “If you think I am good, he’s a genius.” He and Jim Carrey are the only two guys I know that can change their face and look like a character without makeup.
KATHY GRIFFIN: You never knew when Lorne Michaels was going to show up and pluck somebody out of the show—like the night that Lisa and I were there and got passed over for Julia Sweeney.
LISA KUDROW: Kathy may have been crying afterward. I remember being super disappointed. I was coming off the high from Laraine Newman recommending me to Lorne Michaels. Then they picked Julia Sweeney. I was pretty disappointed because I thought, “Maybe you’re one of those people for whom good things don’t happen.”
JULIA SWEENEY: They were looking at me, Lisa Kudrow, and Kathy Griffin, and I remember that after I got [S.N.L.], I remember hoping that Lisa and Kathy find some kind of career. [Laughs]. “They deserve to win too!” I was very naïve. Look at them now.
KATHY GRIFFIN: We are still not over it, I don’t care what Lisa says.
ANA GASTEYER: Chris Parnell and I were in the Sunday Company together. And recently, Chris remembered that somebody was housesitting at Michael Chiklis’s house. And like the entire Sunday Company went skinny-dipping at Michael Chiklis’s house.
CHRIS PARNELL (1996-’98): It was over Sunset with a great view of the city—beautiful house with a pool. There was a group of us who went up there and had a skinny-dipping party. I guess we were drinking beer. It was fun, who doesn’t like skinny-dipping in a pool at night overlooking L.A.?
ANA GASTEYER: And I have almost no memory of it at all. We were just like, “Woohoo, it’s a famous actor, and he has a big house!”
CHRIS PARNELL: To this day, I have never met Mr. Chiklis, although I admire him immensely. He is an amazing actor. I suspect that he probably doesn’t know [about the skinny-dipping incident].
MAYA RUDOLPH: When Kristen [Wiig] got to the show, I felt like we knew each other. We were familiar, because we were family, even though technically had never worked with each other. She had seen me at the Groundlings but we had never met.
KRISTEN WIIG: You spend so much time there, not unlike S.N.L., and you go through so much together. There is something very bonding about creating these characters and sketches and writing. You all support each other.
After Graduating from the Groundlings School, the Best Performers Are Invited to Join the Sunday and Then the Main Companies
MICHAELA WATKINS: Sunday Company, which is kind of like our AAA team that performs on Sunday night, that’s like boot camp. You’re in the Sunday Company and in the trenches with everyone. Everyone is seeing your good and bad and ugly.
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.
BEN FALCONE (2002-’09): The Groundlings is like a conservatory, and that was stressful at times because you want yourself and your friends to move up to the next level. But I never felt competitive with my fellow performers because none of those choices were in our control. Also, it took me much longer than most people to make it into the Main Company from the Sunday Company, but I don’t dwell on that . . . I don’t dwell on that all of the time, every evening from 10:30 P.M. to 10:45 P.M. because that would not be productive—to dwell on that fact every evening from 10:30 P.M. to 10:45 P.M.—so that’s something I don’t do. Every evening. Sitting by the fireside. Bare-chested and brooding.
KRISTEN WIIG: [Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo] and I were in the Sunday Company together, which is pretty writing intensive. As soon as we met we started writing and it was always so easy and fun and we got to perform a lot of our sketches so it was a love at first sight. The Sunday Company was an amazing time because you are not quite in the Main Company yet and you are writing five to seven sketches a week. It was just the most fun thing to look forward to—those Wednesday nights, seeing what other people were writing. It’s also fun to remember those sketches you put up there that didn’t go well.
In Which the Groundlings Earn Their Stripes the Best Way Comics Can: By Bombing in Front of a Live Audience
ANA GASTEYER: There is this weird badge of honor that comes with completely flat-lining [during a show].
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.
CHERYL HINES: There was this one time I was in the Sunday Company, and my friend Shane Nickerson and I, we wrote a sketch that we thought was really hilarious about a pontoon boat and all the rules—all the things you can or cannot do on the pontoon boat. We spent a lot of time on this sketch and then on Wednesday night, when we went to perform it in front of the other cast members to see if it would get into the show, it did not go over well. Actually it was so bad that Tony Sepulveda made us apologize to the rest of the group for wasting its time.
MELISSA MCCARTHY (2001-’09): My best “worst” scene was with Ben [Falcone]. We were a trashy couple in matching white denim outfits and permed wigs getting professional photos taken. The second the lights came up, we knew the scene was terrible. Suddenly, half way through I flipped backward behind a desk leaving Ben out there alone. I kept reaching my hand up to signal the lighting booth to black out the lights. Unfortunately, they did not.
TARAN KILLAM (2010): I was really lucky in that I had good directors and they each had their own pretty nice way of rejecting a sketch. Ben’s response was always, “I thank you and think you are a wonderful person.”
MICHAELA WATKINS: I remember almost wetting my pants backstage because of the deafening sound of silence. I just had to keep making entrances and keep going out there in a sketch that was horrible. It’s so funny because you have this anticipation, based on the people who have laughed at it in workshops, thinking all week that it is going to kill, and then to see a live audience not think it’s funny, is so shocking and surprising.
KRISTEN WIIG: I did a sketch with Ariane Price with these two weird little boy sculptures that we found at a drug store. We put them on these pedestals and sat behind them and talked as their voices. We thought that Ben Falcone, our director at the time, was going to have a panic attack because the sketch went on for so long, there was nothing funny about the sketch, and he was genuinely disturbed. One of the boys had a hand around his mouth like he was yelling. So one of us would shout, like, “Tommy!”
And then the other was laying down on his elbow, and he would answer, “I’m right over here.” It was the dumbest thing ever and we had four different sculptures that we kept replacing in different positions. We were laughing behind the statues, it was so dumb. When we came out, Ben said, “Never again do I want to see those sculptures.”
If You Thought What Was Happening Onstage Was Funny, You Should See What Was Happening Behind Closed Doors
KATHY GRIFFIN: The lockers are nasty, the theater is small, the backstage area is tragic.
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: If you get a bunch of jackass comedians in the same room with a bunch of wigs and anxiety . . . you have to remember the anticipation. Also, I feel like every year they were holding a fundraiser to replace the couch. Because it is like that backstage Green Room frat couch. It is just the grossest senior lounge. And they would finally raise the money to replace the couch. And then in like six weeks, the couch would be super foul again. I feel like they’re on their 90th couch.
TARAN KILLAM: People are always pulling the stuffing out. There is that hard rubbery trim at the edge of the couch cushions and the material is peeled back. Part of the ritual during notes, that we would get at the end of the show, would be to peel off more material and pull that rubber wiring out even further.there so long. Actually, I believe it might have founded the Groundlings.
MICHAELA WATKINS: The girl’s dressing room is this neon pink, it’s a pink that when you look in the mirror [is so flattering], you think, “Oh, not bad.” That was suggested by Melissa McCarthy. She is the one who suggested the pink in the dressing room. And she was right. We all look in that mirror and wish that was our walking around face. It’s a fleshy, soft, rosy pink.
MELISSA MCCARTHY: [Backstage,] I mostly drank terrible beer and brushed out wigs. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon are two of the funniest human beings on earth. They used to do these obscene puppet shows in the Green Room that literally made me black out a couple of times. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.
JIM RASH (2000–’13): They weren’t for the faint of heart. I had bought so many puppets during my time at the Groundlings—I would use them for sketches too—but Nat Faxon and I did an actual piece with these two puppets, a structured improv. They probably brought more joy to the backstage than they did to the audience out front. The X-rated version of it involved an old wizard with a purple cloak, and he had those little marionette sticks so you could move his arms. I would put the hand underneath his robe and let him pleasure himself, achieve full release, and then throw the product at the audience. You have to understand that it is probably 11 P.M.or midnight by the time that we were doing this, after performing in two shows, so it didn’t take much to make us have fun.
BEN FALCONE: Backstage, I saw too many half-naked Groundlings. Kind of burns in your memory, really. A lot of high thighs and strange balls.
MICHAELA WATKINS: After the show, you drink at the Snakepit. You go and eat a terrible burger and drink a lot of beer and you basically come up with your next sketches. You are with everybody, feeling really silly and doing little bits. The Snakepit must have either loved us or hated us.
In Which Groundlings Find Success Onstage
BEN FALCONE: One of the best times I had onstage was when I did a sketch called “Blu-ray” with Melissa and Jim Rash. Melissa and I played a couple who were trying to get a sweet deal on a Blu-ray player, so we kept offering the employee at the store (Rash) sexual favors to give us a good deal. For whatever reason it tickled him (I may have truly grossed him out), and there were times when all three of us were doubled over in laughter.
JIM RASH: All of us, at the time, had played the straight man to Melissa in a number of scenes. What it entailed, quite gloriously, was just repeating the word “Ma’am” over and over again as she did something wonderfully funny. It was pretty much just me going, “Ma’am,” “Ma’am,” “Ma’am” in various stages of urgency, I guess. We pretty much worked on Melissa’s clock. So she would get a sense of when the audience had had enough and would move on, and “Blu-ray” was one of those sketches. If my memory is correct, the sketch also involved them poking at me or sandwiching me. Then I was probably saying, “Ma’am,” or, “Sir.”
BEN FALCONE: I’m pretty sure the audience never found that scene even marginally as funny as the three of us did.
JIM RASH: There was a really funny sketch Melissa and I did. The joke was that we are two employees in the break room on our lunch break, eating. And another employee starts choking on his chicken. And we don’t do anything. We just keep eating. Employees run in to see what’s happening and they say, “Jesus Christ! He’s choking.” They give him the Heimlich and he leaves and they go, “What were you thinking?” Then we get scolded by our boss for not helping him. But our defense is, “We only get 30 minutes for lunch. And it’s not our fault that Glen likes to bring bone chicken.” It was just these two horrible people talking about bone chicken. Even if the audience was lukewarm about it, it didn’t matter to me.
TARAN KILLAM: Jillian Bell [Workaholics] and I wrote a sketch where we were the inventors of the Scantron. It was us trying to basically pitch the concept of a Scantron even though neither have us had done any research whatsoever. “Grading papers by hand? Who needs it! Now you fill in the bubbles and you scan it. Scantron!” Basically, our motivation was to get people to want to buy it but to also build the excitement to the point where the entire Groundlings theater started chanting “Scantron!,” while we threw blank Scantron sheets at people.
In Which Groundlings Date Other Groundlings
LISA KUDROW: It was always fun to watch Kathy [Griffin] sort of, like, sexually terrorize the guys. It was fun to watch them so uncomfortable. It was like, “Oh, now do you understand what it’s like for us? Do you understand how it is for girls?” I loved watching her do that.
KATHY GRIFFIN: I was the sexual terrorist of the Groundling Company. When I was teaching there, I was often reprimanded by other teachers who, ironically, often went on to marry their students. When I was a Groundling teacher, I was 28 and my students were 24 or 26, so I would be carrying on multiple affairs with my students. It was a two-to-four-year age gap though and these courses were like six weeks long. We are not exactly talking about the Boston Archdiocese here.
CHERYL HINES: It was a very intimate group and you spend a lot of time sitting around each others’ apartments drinking beer and writing comedy—there’s nothing sexier than that. There were a lot of romances and breakups.
KATHY GRIFFIN: J.J. Abrams took the basic and the intermediate class or something. J.J. and Greg Grunberg were my students and a friend of mine, Nancy, was teaching at the Groundlings. We would go on double friend dates. We never dated dated, but we did silly things like go out for frozen yogurt after class—so innocent. At the time, J.J. was a receptionist. I still get enjoyment out of calling him a receptionist, and he used to work at his dad’s company called Phoenix. So we would always cold-call him and fuck with him, knowing that he had to answer the phones at Phoenix. “Is Jeremy Jr. available to take a pitch meeting about a show where a young man goes for frozen yogurt?” Nothing was off limits. That’s what’s wrong with him today. I blame the Groundlings.
MELISSA MCCARTHY: The Groundlings is one of my favorite places on Earth. It’s where I met most of my friends and my fella, Ben [Falcone]. I liked Ben immediately! His first monologue was a super creepy inmate. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I remember thinking this guy is either a sociopath or my future husband.
BEN FALCONE: I met almost all of my closest friends there and it’s where I met my lovely and great wife, Melissa. We met in the level-three writing class and hit it off right away. We were friends first and kept making excuses to hang out with each other long after the Groundlings parties were over. We were always the last ones standing at the bar, and that was our excuse to be together. We finally decided we needed to start dating or we’d become alcoholics.
MICHAELA WATKINS: Now there is such a wait to get in the Main Company that everyone is in serious relationships by then. It is not longer the crazy orgies of your 20s. Everybody is in like these long, serious relationships.
In Which Groundlings Reflect on the Importance of Their Alma Mater
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.
BEN FALCONE: Groundlings is unique because there’s no quick and easy way to get on that stage. It takes a long time, it’s really hard, and there’s no guarantee. But if you put your head down, do the work, and somehow manage to progress—it’s certainly worth the wait.
JIM RASH: One of the things I attribute to the Groundlings that I know to be true is that it was an amazing graduate school for writing for me. We were writing sketches. But a sketch at the end of the day is a beginning, middle, and end. It is writing a story that is three to five pages, which is not an easy task. I do believe, at the end of the day, the character-driven learning program at the Groundlings, working off of people you know and pulling from your own life, those are all things that attracted [Nat Faxon and I] to The Descendants.
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.