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.