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Forty Years of Groundlings: Vanity Fair Grills the Famous Troupe's Star Alumni, from McCarthy to Wiig

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood June 6, 2014 at 11:59AM

Today, the Groundlings is an institution, the kind of show-biz phenomenon that's spoken of in reverent tones. But the combination sketch comedy troupe/improv school that is now undoubtedly the preeminent West Coast breeding ground for comedic talent began 40 years ago in a much humbler way.
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The Groundlings red-brick theater on L.A.'s Melrose Avenue.
The Groundlings The Groundlings red-brick theater on L.A.'s Melrose Avenue.

Today, the Groundlings is an institution, the kind of show-biz phenomenon that's spoken of in reverent tones.  But the combination sketch comedy troupe/improv school that is the preeminent West Coast breeding ground for comedic talent began 40 years ago in a much humbler way.  Vanity Fair spoke to a wide range of the Groundlings' now-famous alums to get a taste of what it was like back in 1974, and how it's grown from there.  Here's just a small sampling of what they had to say. 

TRACY NEWMAN (1974–’76): In the early days, nobody had to audition, but you pretty much had to be funny, because if you weren’t, you didn’t get in the show. So those [unfunny] people would fall to the wayside. There were 25 of us and everyone wanted to be in the show so everyone was working hard to make sure they got onstage.

GARY AUSTIN (Founder, 1974–’79): According to the rules of our nonprofit, the name had to be voted on by all... The night before the vote I was reading Hamlet’s speech to the players with the intention of using Shakespeare’s acting lesson as a jumping off point for the next day’s workshop. The word “groundlings” jumped out at me like a flashing neon sign in Las Vegas...

I lived in West Hollywood, and one day driving home from workshop I saw a “For Rent” sign on a building at 7307 Melrose Ave. I went inside and met Bob Nachman, the owner. I told him what I needed and he told me what he had. He had leased the large empty room to a massage company. Upon inspection, it became clear that this was more than a massage parlor. I brought in several key members to see the place and to meet with Nachman. He managed to get the tenant out and the building was ours. The rent was $1,200 per month.

KATHY GRIFFIN (1985–’92): The original Groundlings, who were kind of like gods to me, they set it up—kind of like the Founding Fathers, if you will. There was sort of an invisible Constitution in the Groundlings that still stands today. It’s about working together but it’s kind of like a football team. You know they are going to make cuts so you want to try to excel and you want to try to find a niche for yourself.


This article is related to: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Will Forte, Jon Lovitz, Maya Rudolph


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.