By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
There was the time when River Phoenix, tweaked out of his mind, bounded onstage during a show and began ranting. Or that night a pair of curious hookers walked into the group’s old Oxford Playhouse to ask what the Groundlings did, and signed up for improv classes. Then there was the way actor Casey Sanders hunted rats with a cowboy boot in hand, and the night Phil Hartman, whose friends had bought out the house for his birthday, started clowning around onstage — before a Groundling, peeking from the sidelines, saw a natural talent and talked Hartman into joining the company.
And there was the intentional comedy — 30 years of funny, sometimes bittersweet improv, monologues and scripted shows. Some of the offstage moments were more bitter than sweet — like the endless money crises, fratricidal fights among the board of directors, and the time founder Gary Austin was invited to move to New York to work for a new TV show that was to be called Saturday Night Live, but turned down the job because it meant deserting the company he had just created.
Three decades is a long life for a theater company, especially in a town that is not supposed to have a history or a theater. Yet next week, when the Groundlings stick 30 candles into their own birthday cake, they will celebrate not only their longevity but the changes they brought to the way comedy is taught and, more deeply, how they changed our understanding of what is funny.
Improv was born in the “theater games” first developed by Viola Spolin and expanded upon by Chicago’s Compass Players and, later, the Second City improv company. Before the appearance of the Groundlings, improv remained the lonely stepchild of standup, and comedians were often writers who eventually found themselves thrown onstage. Today it is often standups who have learned to become the shrewdest comedy writers, and improv is a fundamental principle of humor that is taught in colleges. The company’s gospel has extended far beyond a 99-seat theater on Melrose Avenue, because, before many performers were young Saturday Night Live players, they were younger Groundlings.
The company was officially Austin’s baby but in a sense was also the offspring of the insurgent 1960s, whose satirical spirit bred a smart, new kind of topical comedy embodied by Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Nichols and May, and, a little later, by California groups like the Committee, Congress of Wonders, Credibility Gap and Firesign Theater. Born in Oklahoma, Austin mostly grew up in Texas oil camps, the son of a Halliburton employee whose family belonged to the evangelical Church of the Nazarene. The Austins would move to Whittier, California, where Gary remembers eating Nixon Burgers at a diner run by the then–vice president’s brother. In 1960, Gary fled what he calls his “red-necked, right-wing environment” by enrolling in San Francisco State College’s theater department.
After graduation and three years of being a social worker in Watts while knocking about L.A.’s comedy clubs at night, Austin landed a spot with the Committee’s local lineup at the Tiffany Theater. He eventually joined the group’s flagship company in San Francisco. When the Committee folded in 1972, Austin found himself back in L.A., often standing in an unemployment line with Penny Marshall, then wife of ex–Committee member Rob Reiner. One day, Austin got to the head of the line and learned he’d run out of his weekly $75 checks. It was time, Austin realized, to get serious and take desperate, heretofore unthinkable measures. It was time to teach acting.
Austin begged for some favors and, with four days to prepare his first class, secured rental space at the Cellar Theater, on Vermont near First Street. With the help of folk musician and future TV producer Tracy Newman, and MGM casting director Fred Roos, Austin’s first night’s class drew 21 students, including veteran comic Stanley Myron Handelman, and would soon number Tracy’s 20-year-old sister, Laraine.
“I’ve never taught,” Austin told his debut class. “I don’t know if I can teach. Tonight’s class is free, and if you come back it’s $25 a month.” The Gary Austin Workshop was off and running.
From the workshops sprang full-blown sketch shows that were soon being staged in Austin’s new space at Oxford Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, later home to the L.A. Actors Theater, and currently to the Met Theater. In 1974, Austin persuaded a group of confidants to launch a new company that would combine his classes with regular productions. The group decided the new company should be a nonprofit (to enable it to solicit donations) and christened it the Working Class — which, almost immediately afterward, was changed to the Groundlings when Austin came across Hamlet’s speech about “the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.”
“The workshop is the main source of all the projects,” proclaimed Austin’s 1974 Groundlings manifesto, whose balloony, ’70s logo was designed by Phil Hartman, then a graphics artist. Over the years the Groundlings would produce many stars, including Hartman, Laraine Newman, Paul Reubens, Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin, Pat Morita and performance artist Bob Flanagan, making it difficult to remember that it has never existed to be a celebrity-making showcase.