Legendary comedy school and theatre, The Groundlings, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Over the years, the much-heralded comedy institution boasts such illustrious comedic alumni as Laraine Newman, Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-Wee Herman), Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Will Forte, Melissa McCarthy, and so many more. Shows like Saturday Night Live seems to use The Groundlings almost like a feeder school for how many went from The Groundlings on to be SNL cast members.
In 1974, one Gary Austin formed the group at The Oxford Theatre that was to be known as The Groundlings after teaching improv in LA for a couple of years. It was a humble beginning in a dicier part of town on Western Ave. making big audiences hard to come by. The spirit and creativity that flourished drew both uniquely funny people and, soon enough, people to fill the seats. Two score years later, The Groundlings reside on the vibrant Melrose Ave. and often have lines out the door and down the street.
To commemorate The Groundlings’ 40th anniversary, Vanity Fair reached out to as many of The Groundlings alumni as they could and asked them about their time there and their formative experiences for a wonderful oral history. They got a plethora of stories from some our favorite comedy stars today that stretch the entirety of The Groundlings’ existence.
Below are some choice selections:
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.”
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.
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.
PAUL REUBENS: 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.
MAYA RUDOLPH: 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.
LISA KUDROW: 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.
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.
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.”
MICHAELA WATKINS: 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.
KRISTEN WIIG: [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.
Now, you can and should check out this entire rich, oral history over at Vanity Fair.