The Liar. The Cheerleaders. Pee Wee. Pat. Elvira. Linda.
In the 1600s, “groundlings” were the English commoners who could only afford to see theatre at the Globe by standing in the crowded pit at the front of the stage. Today, Groundlings are the most recognized and revered comic character actors in television and film.
The Groundlings Theatre & School on Melrose Avenue is Los Angeles’ premiere incubator for comedic creativity. While other improv and sketch schools are HQed elsewhere, or have satellite branches in other cities, The Groundlings has been proudly and exclusively rooted in L.A. for 41 years.
Gary Austin was a member of The Committee (in both San Francisco and L.A.), the legendary improv group that included Rob Reiner, Del Close, and Howard Hesseman. The political satire was fierce, and the voices loud. Long-form improv was growing as a challenging and effective medium for expression. In 1972, Austin started The Gary Austin Workshops (still in existence today) for developing improv talent in L.A. By 1974, he founded a non-profit performance troupe called The Groundlings. With the troupe’s first public show, the Los Angeles Times theatre critic Sylvie Drake wrote, “This could be the start of something big.” A remarkably accurate prophecy.
After renting the space on Melrose Avenue in 1975 to accommodate the growing student and audience demand, Austin and The Groundlings spent four years constructing it, by hand. “This was an interesting space. It was something in the world of adult entertainment, and a real dive. It was cheap. They painted it, borrowed chairs from churches, and cobbled together a theatre,” recalled Managing Director Heather de Michele. “Melrose was a great place for a fledging theatre.” The training facility and 99-seat theatre opened in 1979, and the big something really got started!
The heart of The Groundlings work is in the school. “It’s remained the same at its core for 40 years, which is improvisation, creating character, creating authenticity with a comic angle to it,” said de Michele. Acceptance into the program is by audition. If passed, the student begins a series of classes, one building on another to learn performance and writing for sketch and improv, for potentially five years. “We have an average of 7500 students registering for classes yearly,” noted de Michele. The focused dedication on behalf of the students and instructors is palpable when you walk into the school, which is usually buzzing with actors working out bits in the lobby and hallways.
The holy grail is stage time at The Groundlings. It starts with getting voted into the Sunday Company, which writes, rehearses, and performs new material every single Sunday night. The gold gets polished here. The Main Company is sort of the Supreme Court of The Groundlings (and what is considered the actual “Groundlings”), with actors having to retire in order to open one of only 30 spots for a new member elected from the Sunday Company.
In addition to the main productions, the rich weekly calendar includes alternative format shows. The first alternative show at The Groundlings was “The Pee Wee Herman Show.” The Melrose Avenue vibe was perfect for an adult, midnight comedy event, inspiring quite a cult following. Elvira was host of another. Thursday night’s “Cooking With Gas” is short-form improv featuring Groundlings, Sunday Company members, alumni, and special guests. Debuting in 1992, it’s the longest running improv show in L.A. “Crazy Uncle Joe Show” has been on every Wednesday night since 2001.
If you own a TV or have seen a movie in the past 40 years, you’ve seen the brilliant results of Groundling training. Laraine Newman was one of the first to find a home on a weekly series as one of the OG Saturday Night Live cast members. Jon Lovitz, Phil Hartman, Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Julia Sweeney, Ana Gasteyer, Will Forte, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris Parnell, and Taran Killam have since left indelible marks at 30 Rock.
Other small screen Groundlings include Craig T. Nelson, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Kudrow, Cheryl Hines, Rachael Harris, Jennifer Coolidge, Nat Faxon, and Wendi McLendon-Covey. Big screen alum include Pat Morita, Tim Matheson, and Adriane Barbeau. There are new Golden Globe nominees: Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone, Mike McDonald, Mitch Silpa, Michaela Watkins, and Annie Mumalo.
In January of 2016, The Groundlings opened a second location across the street from the original space. It’s “a beautiful upgrade for us,” beamed de Michele. “For us to create from the ground up a design that completely makes sense to our world is so wonderful! We have eight classroom spaces and one is a black box theatre for student performance. We’re really excited because our school continues to grow and we’re in the lucky place to keep up with demand.”
The Groundlings Theatre & School is an important part of the Melrose culture, and shares its famous brand benefits with other businesses. Whether it’s catering, dinner and drink specials, or cross-promoting, the avenue works together to create great opportunities for visitors. Said de Michele, “We’re proud of what Melrose is becoming. We have a beautiful relationship with other businesses where we help each other succeed.”
The Groundlings Theatre & School
7307 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046