It's raucous backstage at
This bunch, however, hasn't appeared onstage together since the 1980s, and so the evening is also a reunion of sorts. For its 40th anniversary, the Groundlings is hosting improv shows by the decades, bringing back alumni from each era — on this night, that included
The anniversary comes as the comedy landscape is teeming with opportunities for budding talent, including YouTube, comedy websites like Funny or Die, podcast networks such as Earwolf and Nerdist, and even Twitter — a favorite for comedians honing one-liners. But in 1974, when the Groundlings officially formed, L.A. outlets for honing improv skills and developing sketch characters were few.
"We were a giant family, and there was almost nothing outside of it," says Phyllis Katz, one of the school's founders. "There was stand-up. People were either at the Comedy Store or the Improv. But finding the Groundlings — where everything was experimental — was spectacular."
In today's quick-morphing digital culture, the Groundlings remains relevant as an analog iconoclast of sorts, sidestepping the plethora of peripheral entertainment opportunities and digital distractions. It doesn't have a YouTube channel or a TV show in the works, nor does it tour like Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade. Instead, it focuses on its core mission of in-person classes and staged performances in L.A. The company just purchased a building for its school, across the street from its Melrose Avenue theater, with plans to open in 2016.
"We're kind of Luddites and purists in that sense," jokes current company member
Comedians can find "10 times more opportunities" now than in 1974, says Fred Rubin, senior lecturer in the
"But the Groundlings and Second City are still the farm teams for comedy the world over," he says. "Invariably, when somebody shows up on 'SNL,' they came from [there] or UCB. It's a major arena of teaching comedy skills and as relevant today as when it began."
In 1972, comedian Gary Austin, who had been part of the San Francisco improv group the Committee, started a weekly improv workshop in a Hollywood theater. Classes were decidedly loose, incorporating songs, monologues and character sketches, and they drew budding actor Tim Matheson (before he starred in "Animal House") and then-singer-songwriter Tracy Newman (before she became an Emmy winning TV writer for "Ellen" and a producer on "Cheers").
Within a year, the group was performing around Hollywood, and in 1974 Austin incorporated as a nonprofit theater company. The troupe's name came from Shakespearean days: Audiences who couldn't afford theater seats and watched the show standing in the theater yard were called Groundlings.
Lily Tomlin was a regular audience member at those early shows, and she brought on Groundlings
"The Groundlings has meant everything to my career," Newman says. "The relationship between the Groundlings and
The company acquired its current property in 1975 and performed at venues around town until its own theater was ready in 1979. "I remember sitting in the office with Tom Maxwell ... this was around '75, '76," Tracy Newman says. "He was worried about his own future and the future of the company, and I said: 'Are you kidding? This is the future of comedy!'"
The Groundlings went on to become a veritable pop culture geyser, springing scores of comic actors and characters:
They all came out of an organization that runs about 20 classes a day, seven days a week. Students work through five levels over roughly five years before gaining a shot at joining the Sunday company, which itself is a steppingstone to being a Groundling. Only the best are voted in. Though close to 1,000 students are enrolled in the program, there are only 30 Groundlings at any one time — and they write and perform without pay while collectively serving as the company's artistic director.
"They're so aggressively prepared for the TV wars, navigating the audition system," says OmniPop Talent Group's Bruce Smith, a manager who represents comedians. YouTube comedians, he says, "may be talented, but they're sort of working in a bubble."
Adds Vanity Fair comedy writer Mike Stack, author of "Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers": "There's more at stake now. I wonder if some of the characters being done now are meant to appeal to a select few, like Lorne Michaels or
Competition for stage time can be fierce. Tracy Newman says it was "ugly but also familial" backstage, but that's an integral part of developing writers. The more sketches Groundlings write for themselves, the more plentiful their chances to perform.
"Phil Hartman called it 'comedy capitalism,'" says Timothy Stack, creator of
Hartman, whom many looked up to as Yoda ("He was so talented," Timothy Stack says), famously didn't intend to be a Groundling. He came to a show in 1974 and, afterward, spontaneously started doing John Wayne impressions onstage, to hilarious effect. He was encouraged to audition for classes, which by then had become necessary as so many people wanted to enroll; it's still the case today.
The craft of writing sketches taught a discipline that changed the course of careers.
"It was grad school for me for writing," says
Being part of the Groundlings' "class system" — whether reaching the top tier or simply taking one-off workshops — also has meant access to a network of Hollywood actors, writers and producers.
"Nowadays the producer has to approve it, the network has to approve it, the studio has to approve it," says Groundlings alum Doug Cox, who wrote for Reubens' show as well as for Peterson's Elvira character in various TV productions. "It used to be: 'Come on in and do a few lines.' So many of us got our start that way."
Watkins is co-creator, with Groundlings alum Damon Jones, of the
Groundlings isn't the only place to foster such a network, of course. Second City now has a Hollywood location, and UCB is opening a second training center and theater space on Sunset Boulevard this summer. Improv Olympic, Acme Comedy and
"You meet a bunch of people that don't just become your friends but your comedic colleagues," Cashman says. "It's who you turn to creatively."
The scene in the Groundlings lobby, after the '80s show, is a bit maudlin.
"That woman there, she paid for me to take the advanced class, I was so poor!" says the show's director, Groundling alum Deanna Oliver, poking Stewart in the shoulder.
"Hey, you didn't pay for any of my classes," jokes Cox, who's wearing a green camouflage kilt he calls "a utili-kilt."
Turning serious, Stewart tosses an arm over Oliver.
"Really, I'd heard she was brilliant," Stewart says, "and I just wanted to keep her here."
As the Groundlings moves ahead, the group still holds tightly to its founding principles: performing and teaching. Over the years, the company has been approached about branching out, including interest in taking the show on the road or setting up a Las Vegas-based production — none of which it pursued, says Groundlings board of directors Chairman Ron Hofmann. A short-lived TV improv show ran on FX in 1998 for one season of 65 episodes. In 2008, the Groundlings produced 50 Web comedy shorts for
"We get approached all the time, we're open to things, but it's a challenge," Hofmann says. "We're only 30 people, and the company members are all teaching and performing and also have their own [paying] careers." As a small nonprofit, he says, "we'd have to restructure and expand the company, which could compromise the core mission."
The finances appear healthy: In 2012, the most recent for which tax records are available, the company was in the black with revenue of about $2.1 million. About $1.5 million came from tuition, and almost all of the rest came from ticket sales. The school building, being renovated, will feature five large classrooms and a small black box theater. There are discussions about a green screen and editing bay for multimedia.
"You look at the founding members, and they started a theater and a school," Watkins says. Current members' legacy, she says, will be a school building.
"That's where it starts," says Sterling, who still teaches classes and directs shows. "I fell in love with the art of improv here but also got a lot of self esteem and confidence and taught and directed and wrote. This is where I feel like I came into my own — in so many ways."
'40 Is the New Groundlings'
Where: The Groundlings, 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 and 10 p.m Fridays and Saturdays, through July 12