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The Groundlings are an improvisational and sketch comedy troupe and school based in Los Angeles, California. The troupe was formed by Gary Austin in 1974 and uses an improv format influenced by Viola Spolin to produce sketches and improvised scenes. Its name is taken from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act III, Scene II: "...to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise."
The troupe moved into its current location on Melrose Avenue in 1975.
The Groundlings School holds new sessions every six weeks with over 300 students per session, with over 2,000 students per year going through the program. The competitive program consists of 4 levels (Basic, Intermediate, Writing Lab and Advanced). Participants must be successfully advanced from each level by the instructor. Students must pass an audition to get into Basic. Auditions are run by a Groundlings teacher and are mini versions of a first day of class. The audition is free, a group audition and is all improvisation. Auditions are held every week and can be scheduled by calling the school office. If one does pass the audition, their results are valid for one year. If a student does not pass the audition, they are allowed to audition again in six months. Students are allowed to audition a total of three times. It takes years to go through the entire program, with year and a half to two-year wait-lists between levels being common. Students may be asked to repeat Basic and Intermediate, multiple times. Being asked to repeat Writing Lab and Advanced was previously a common aspect of the program as recently as the mid to late 2000s. But by the late 2000s, students were only allowed to take those classes once and if they didn't pass, they wouldn't be able to finish the program or be invited into the Sunday Company.
After completing the Advanced level, one may be voted into the pinnacle of the Groundlings' School, the Sunday Company, which performs every Sunday at 7:30pm. During this time, students write, rehearse and perform new material every week. After six months of performing in the Sunday Company, students are either voted to remain in the company for another six months, voted to be dismissed from the school, or voted into the Main Company (aka The Groundlings). No one can stay in the Sunday Company for longer than one year and six months and no shorter than six months. Members of the Main Company are all selected from members of the Sunday Company. All Main Company members can remain in the company for as long as they desire to. However, no one usually stays longer than a decade, with most Groundlings retiring even sooner. The Main Company (now capped at no more than 30 members at any time) collectively acts as the organization's artistic director, democratically making business and creative decisions as a group.
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, and classic plays. 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 1974, Austin announced that he wanted to create a theatre company. There were fifty founding members of the company (membership at that time required only that you pay the $25 to attend workshops), who would develop material in the workshops and then perform the best pieces in the shows on the weekend. The first show as this new group was in the 30-seat basement of the Oxford Theatre (now The Met) near the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. Esteemed LA Times theatre critic, Sylvie Drake, was in the audience that first weekend, and wrote a rave review. "This could be the start of something big," Drake predicted.
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 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. To keep the size of the company down, auditions became required to join. (Phil Hartman, who then was a graphic designer and not an actor, attended that first audition. He got in, but because of the stiff competition, it would be over a year before he started performing in the shows.) With such a large company, workshops seven days a week, and sold-out shows going up three nights a weekend, it became clear that The Groundlings needed a place to call their own.
The Groundlings School of improvisation officially began in 1978 with only 17 students and original staff members Gary Austin, Tom Maxwell, Phyllis Katz, and Tracy Newman. It now boasts an enrollment of over 4200 students. The Sunday Company was formed by Suzanne Kent in 1982 to further develop the talent coming through the school.
The Groundlings Theatre at 7307 Melrose Avenue (previously an interior decorator’s studio, a furniture showroom, a gay bar, and a massage parlor) was acquired by the company in 1975. Through equity and with the use of their own funds, company members set out to modernize the building and turn it into a performance space. It would be four years of battling red tape, building codes, and parking restrictions before any shows would appear on the stage. During that time, The Groundlings performed their revues at a handful of theaters all over town, including The Improv, The Matrix, The Hollywood Canteen, and the White House. Finally, in April 1979, the revitalized 99 seat theater was finally able to open its doors to audiences.
In November 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 at a time) collectively acts as the organization's artistic director, democratically making business and creative decisions as a group.
The Groundlings Revues (now commonly referred to as the Main Shows) were the first shows performed by the company and 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 have the word "Groundling" in the title. Initially, one or two revues were performed year, increasing to three by the 1990s, and four in 2007, in addition to a special holiday show in December. Main Shows are performed every Friday at 8:00 p.m. and every Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.
In 1992, Melanie Graham created Cookin 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 at 8:00 p.m., and is now the longest running improv show in Los Angeles. It was followed in 2001 by the long-form improv Crazy Uncle Joe Show, which runs every Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m.
Starting in 1981, alternative format shows began to be added to the theatre's regular line-up. The first one was "The Pee-Wee Herman Show" created and co-written by Paul Reubens as a showcase for his Pee-Wee Herman character, which he created in Groundlings workshops and revues. Pee-Wee and his friends (played by and co-written by other Groundlings like Phil Hartman, Lynne Marie Stewart, John Paragon, Edie McClurg, and John Moody) started performing Saturdays at midnight, after the regular revues. Quickly, the show became a huge LA hit, transferred to The Roxy 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) had a successful run in Los Angeles' Nokia Theater and on Broadway in 2011, which was filmed for another HBO Special.
Groundlings who have been cast on Saturday Night Live and Mad TV often turn their sketches and characters created at The Groundlings into TV audience favorites. Various television shows and movies are also based on Characters and sketches that were created and/or developed at The Groundlings such as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Elvira, A Night at the Roxbury, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. In 1998, the Groundlings were given their own improv television program on the F/X network called Instant Comedy with The Groundlings. In September 2008, The Groundlings began producing short form sketch episodes for Crackle.
In 2006, The Groundlings recorded a skit in the alleyway behind the theater called David Blaine Street Magic. It was later uploaded to YouTube where it has become one of the most popular videos on the website. As of June, 2013, the video has had over 36 million views and more than 77,000 comments since 12 October 2006. The skit stars Mitch Silpa parodying David Blaine in both the nature of Blaine's performance and his mannerisms. The skit is written by Michael Naughton and Mikey Day, who play the two innocent bystanders on whom Blaine performs his tricks.