Everyone from Kristen Wiig to Kathy Griffin recalls the creativity and brutal competition that sent Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz and others to work for Lorne Michaels — or on to even greater success.
9/19/2013 by Michael Walker
Probably no institution has shaped the contours of modern American comedy more than a vest-pocket theater housed in a former massage parlor on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
Founded in 1974 as an outgrowth of an acting class taught by Gary Austin, a veteran of San Francisco’s The Committee improv troupe, the Groundlings Theatre has launched hundreds of careers in TV and the movies. Since the casting of Laraine Newman in 1975, Groundlings alumni have profoundly influenced the direction of Saturday Night Live: The characters made famous on the show by Julia Sweeney, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Chris Kattan, Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri and others were born on the Groundlings’ stage.
To find out how a tiny theater came to have such an outsized and ongoing influence on comedy — alums including Melissa McCarthy have scored 15 Emmy noms — THR interviewed Groundlings vets from four decades (their tenure in the theater’s Main Company is indicated in parentheses). Their recollections range from backstage trysts to loving remembrances of the late Hartman — and, always, the serious work that the theater demands for those who want to be seriously funny.
GARY AUSTIN (FOUNDER, 1974-79) I was an actor in The Committee in San Francisco. I moved down here, and I was broke. I went to the Hollywood Unemployment Office, where I used to stand in line with Penny Marshall, and I got to the window and the woman said, “Due to a technicality, you are no longer eligible.” I panicked and called Howard Storm, who was teaching at the Cellar Theater on Vermont. That was a Thursday. I started teaching on Monday night. Fred Roos, who was the head of feature casting at MGM, gave me 75 names and phone numbers. Tracy Newman, who was my friend, helped me round up a bunch of people from the Comedy Store. So my first night teaching, I had 21 students. I taught for one year, all kinds of people came through. It became kind of a magnet.
TRACY NEWMAN (1974-76) It was a bunch of people who had theater backgrounds and some in music: Archie Hahn, Valerie Curtin — Jane’s cousin, from The Committee — Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson and Rudy De Luca, who ended up being a writer for Mel Brooks.
AUSTIN We improvised scenes and monologues, and we did scenes from Pinter and Moliere and so on. And after a year of doing that, I said, “Let’s create a company.” We created The Groundlings. I thought of the name. It’s from Hamlet’s speech to the players: “Speak the speech as I pronounced it to you trippingly on the tongue and split you not the ears of the groundlings, who are capable of nothing but dumb shows and noises.”
LARAINE NEWMAN (1974-75) I had just graduated high school. I had been away to Paris, studying mime with Marcel Marceau. I came back, I spent three months at CalArts and hated it. My sister told me about this workshop.
TRACY NEWMAN I knew she was funny, but I had no idea how funny in front of other people.
AUSTIN We started doing shows at Santa Monica and Western, the Oxford Theater. We did it every weekend. Everybody in Hollywood, it seems, came to those shows.
LARAINE NEWMAN New people started being in the company, who became directors and writers in Hollywood: Bill Steinkellner and Cherie Steinkellner, who went on to run Cheers. Tom Maxwell ran Just Shoot Me!
TOM MAXWELL (CREATIVE DIRECTOR, 1977-89) I was in film school at USC and saw this flyer for an improvisational workshop. I met my writing partner there, I met my wife there. I stayed 17 years.
AUSTIN I told Laraine, “Go home and write three monologues in three different characters, bring them back tomorrow, and if they’re good enough I’ll put them in the show.” So she comes back 24 hours later with three complete, brilliantly written and memorized monologues. Those were the three monologues that got her Saturday Night Live.
LARAINE NEWMAN The monologue that I wrote — “Sheri, the Valley Girl” — ended up in the Godfather therapy scene [on SNL].
AUSTIN Just before Saturday Night Live, Lily Tomlin did a special called Lily , which won a ton of Emmys.
TRACY NEWMAN She used about seven people from The Groundlings in that.
AUSTIN One of the producers [of the special] was Lorne Michaels. And I directed some of it. Lorne and Lily hired Laraine to be featured on the show. After that, Lorne brought her into the original cast of SNL. Lorne asked me to direct the first season. There were a million reasons why I turned him down: Had I split, there would have been no Groundlings, and none of those people who are famous from The Groundlings would have been famous.
TRACY NEWMAN So Laraine packed up her costumes and drove across country with her boyfriend — and the minute she got to New York, all her costumes were stolen.
LARAINE NEWMAN Lorne told me it would be a cross between Monty Python and 60 Minutes, and I had never heard of Monty Python — but I acted like I did. It sounded like it would be fun. I had no idea what I was doing.
AUSTIN I started crying. I mean I literally had tears in my eyes when Lorne said he was taking Laraine. I was very close to her, and she was my kid in a way. And he said, “Gary, let me tell you something, Laraine is going to become a huge star and she’s going to pay you back one way or the other.”
TRACY NEWMAN Back then, a lot of people in The Groundlings were already working, like Archie [Hahn] and Liberty [Williams] — Liberty was in commercials and playing Rhoda’s sister on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lorne was interested in her, too, and Archie, but why would they go to New York to do something where it may not succeed when they were already making a fortune out here?