It all started with a workshop.
In 1972, Gary Austin (a veteran of San Francisco’s “The Committee”) assembled a group of performers in Los Angeles who just wanted to work on their craft. Together they would improvise, perform monologues, scenes, characters, songs, dances, classic plays, you name it. After about a year, they started doing performances and inviting friends to come and watch. Word got out about the workshop, more people started coming, and soon a core group of performers began to showcase their material at various venues around Hollywood.
In January of 1974, Gary Austin announced that he wanted to create a theatre company. Taking its name from the group of lower class audience members who stood on the ground in front of the stage to watch plays in Shakespeare’s day, “The Groundlings” was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization. There were about fifty founding members of the company (membership at that time required only that you pay $25 to attend workshops), who would develop material in the workshops and then perform the best work in the weekend shows. The first show as “The Groundlings” was in the 30-seat basement of the Oxford Theatre (now The Met) near the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Western Ave. Esteemed LA Times theatre critic, Sylvie Drake, was in the audience that first weekend and wrote a rave review saying “This could be the start of something big,”.
As the buzz about the new company increased, the entertainment industry started taking notice. Comedian Lily Tomlin was a regular in the audience, and she hired several Groundlings to perform on “The Lily Tomlin Show.” Later that year, Lorne Michaels, who produced Tomlin’s TV special, asked Founding Groundling Laraine Newman to be a cast member for his new late-night comedy series “Saturday Night Live.”
Before long, membership in the company grew to 90 performers. Auditions became required to join. Phil Hartman, who then was a graphic designer and not an actor, attended the first audition. He got in, but because of the stiff competition, it would be over a year before he could start performing in the shows. With such a large company, workshops seven days a week, and sold-out shows going up three nights per weekend, it became clear that The Groundlings needed their own permanent home.
The Groundlings Theatre at 7307 Melrose Avenue (previously an interior decorator’s studio, a furniture showroom, a gay bar, and then a ‘massage parlor’) was acquired by the company in 1975. Original Groundlings member Archie Hahn oversaw the ominous project. First step: Throw out all the soiled mattresses that littered the building. Through lots of sweat equity and with the use of personal funds, Groundlings members set out to modernize the building and turn it into a performance space. Hooray! New theatre, right? Not so fast. It would be four years of battling red tape, building codes, and parking restrictions before any shows would appear on that stage. During that time, The Groundlings performed their revues at a handful of theatres all over town, including The Improv, The Matrix, The Hollywood Canteen, and the White House. Finally, in April of 1979, the revitalized 99 seat theatre was finally able to open its doors to audiences.
In November of 1979, Gary Austin stepped down as Artistic Director. Tom Maxwell was voted in as his successor, and he would remain at the helm for the next ten years. In 1989, The Groundlings began the enduring tradition of having Groundlings or Groundlings Alumni direct each new revue. The Main Company (now capped at 30 members) collectively acted as the organization’s artistic director, democratically making business and creative decisions as a group. This remains true to this day.
The Groundlings School officially began in 1979 with only 17 students and original staff members Gary Austin, Tom Maxwell, Phyllis Katz, and Tracy Newman as its teachers. The Sunday Company was formed by Suzanne Kent in 1982 to further develop the talent coming through the school. After ascending through the curriculum and honing their improv and writing skills, the cream of the crop were voted on by The Groundlings to decide if they were to join The Sunday Company. After further demonstration of their abilities in the weekly Sunday Show, the members were voted on once again in the hopes of becoming a Groundling. The Groundlings school is very proud of the fact that many former students and Sunday Company Alumni have gone on to very successful entertainment careers. Among them are Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Liz Feldman, Fortune Feimster, Rita Wilson, Tyra Banks, Dax Shepard, Oscar Nunez, Kaitlin Olsen, and Nasim Pedrad.
The Groundlings Revue (now commonly referred to as the Main Show) was the first show performed by the Main Company as they established the Groundlings improv, character, and sketch comedy style. In 1981, the Revue was given a title, “L.A. 200, Groundlings 3”. From that point on, every Revue would have its own name, and always with the word “Groundlings” in it somewhere. Initially, there would be one or two Revues a year. By the 1990’s, three shows a year was the norm. And in 2007, the company decided to do four shows per year, in addition to a special holiday show in December.
Starting in 1981, alternative format shows were added to the monthly line up. The first was “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” created by Paul Rubens as a showcase for his Pee Wee character, which he created in Groundlings workshops and Revues. Pee Wee and his friends (played by fellow Groundlings Phil Hartman, Lynne Stewart, John Paragon, Edi McClurg, and John Moody) performed every Saturday at midnight, after the regular Revues. Quickly, the show became a huge LA hit, transferred to a theatre on Sunset Blvd, and was filmed for an HBO special. In the following years, Pee Wee became a pop culture icon, spawning films, toys, and a children’s television show. An updated revival of that original stage show (with many of the original Groundlings reprising their roles) enjoyed a successful Broadway run in 2011/2012.
Another wildly popular late night show was “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark” created and performed by Groundling Cassandra Peterson, which is still performed to sold-out houses all over the country every Halloween.
Since then, other alternative format shows would play the theatre: “Waco,” “On the Road With Guy DiSimone” (Tim Stack), “Olympic Trials: A Chick Hazard Mystery” (an improv mystery starring Phil Hartman that represented LA in the 1984 Olympic Games Arts Festival), “Mea Culpa” & “Mea’s Big Apology” (Julia Sweeney), “Casual Sex” (inspired the film), “Ladies Room” (basis for the film “Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion”), “Holiday Dinner,” “Your Very Own TV Show”, “The 48 Hour Show”, and “Beverly Winwood Presents The Actor’s Showcase”, to name a few. In 1992, Melanie Graham created “Cooking With Gas”, a weekly short-form improv show performed by Groundlings, Groundlings Alumni, Sunday Company members, and special celebrity guests. The show continues every Thursday night, and is now the longest running improv show in LA. It was followed in 2001 by the long-form improv “Crazy Uncle Joe Show”, which still runs every Wednesday night.
In 1998, the Groundlings were given their own improv television program on the F/X network called “Instant Comedy with The Groundlings,” which introduced the theatre to a larger national audience. As a group, the Groundlings have also been featured on such shows as “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Today Show”. But the biggest imprint that the Groundlings have made on pop culture is through the work company members have taken from the Groundlings stage to television, films, or the internet. Groundlings who have gone onto “Saturday Night Live” (Laraine Newman, Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Michaela Watkins, Taran Killam, Mikey Day and Heidi Gardner) and “Mad TV” (Mike McDonald, Phil LaMarr, Mary Scheer, Mike Hitchcock, Christian Duguay, and Danielle Gaither) often turn their scenes and characters created at Groundlings into TV audience favorites. In 2006, on the heels of the invention of You Tube, Groundlings Michael Naughton and Mikey Day filmed their main show sketch “David Blaine Street Magic” with Mitch Silpa in the alley behind the theatre. That video, and its sequels has been viewed over 50 million times by people all over the world, broken YouTube records, and helped launch a wave of internet comedy videos. With the help of new and old Media, The Groundlings comedy continues to expand its reach beyond the four walls of 7307 Melrose and in 2018 launched the Groundlings Originals series - short films of sketches created on The Groundlings stage.
The Groundlings School landed its own 5000 square foot home in 2015, on the corner of Melrose Avenue and Poinsettia. With over 8000 improv and sketch comedy students per year, The Groundlings has become the pre-eminent training ground for comedy in Los Angeles and beyond.