Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there were two places to go to find the best sketch comedians and improvising funny people in America: The Second City in Chicago and The Groundlings in Los Angeles.
Gary Austin put The Groundlings on the map, founding the sketch and improv troupe and nonprofit school in Los Angeles in 1974. Within a year, he already was sending students and performers to the then-fledgling Saturday Night Live. The list of Groundlings alumni is long and illustrious. Austin died Saturday, April Fool’s Day, at 75, from cancer.
If the late Del Close was The Committee’s renegade improviser who’d leave San Francisco for The Second City, then Second City to help form improvOlympic and inspire the Upright Citizens Brigade, then Austin was The Committee improviser who understood the power of creating unique comedy characters, and brought that home to roost with The Groundlings.
Austin was born Oct. 18, 1941, and grew up in and around oil camps of Oklahoma, Texas and California. After earning a theater degree in 1964 from San Francisco State University, Austin was in the right place and time to hook up with the groundbreaking improv collective, The Committee. Austin became a stage manager for the L.A. outpost of The Collective, moved back to San Francisco when that closed up in 1969, then returned to L.A., where he performed at The Comedy Store both as a stand-up as well as a member of The Comedy Store Players. Austin began offering workshops in 1972, and by ’74, he was ready to formalize his operations as a nonprofit.
From the official history on The Groundlings website:
“In January of 1974, Austin announced that he wanted to create a theatre company. Taking its name from the group of lower class audience members who stood on the ground in front of the stage to watch plays in Shakespeare’s day, “The Groundlings” was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization. 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 Blvd. and Western Ave. 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.”
Characters came out of The Groundlings like you wouldn’t believe.
Paul Reubens revealed: “My Pee-wee suit was originally his. He loaned me a custom-made suit the first time I performed as Pee-wee Herman, and I kept it.” Pee-wee began as a character, then a full show on its own at The Groundlings.
Austin stepped down as artistic director in 1979 but started the Groundlings official improv school that same year, and led workshops across America until cancer made it impossible for him to continue.
More from Reubens on Austin: “I met Gary when I joined his group The Groundlings in 1977 (at age 2). That place he created, The Groundlings Workshop, taught improvisation and specialized in creating characters. He was my teacher, mentor and friend. He was hilarious and loved to laugh. And he loved making people laugh too. He was talented and kind– and what originally drew me to the group of performers he’d assembled, was the same combination Gary himself had: everybody was talented, but also nice. That was a wonderful environment, and the amazing people and work that sprang from Gary¹s creation is staggering. To everybody influenced, befriended and mentored by Gary, I share great sadness, loss, debt and LOVE.”
The Groundlings would enjoy their own TV series in the late 1990s on FX, but you can see its influence all around you in both TV and movies.
Other alums include Jon Lovitz, Edie McClurg, Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, Chris Kattan, Lisa Kudrow, Phil LaMarr, Michael McDonald, Cheri Oteri, Mindy Sterling, Julia Sweeney, Jennifer Coolidge, Will Forte, Ana Gasteyer, Rachael Harris, Cheryl Hines, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Annie Mumolo, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Jillian Bell, Stephanie Courtney, Mikey Day, Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy, Taran Killam, Steve Little, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, Nasim Pedrad and Michaela Watkins.
The new TVLand series, Nobodies, is from Falcone and McCarthy about three of their lesser-famous Groundlings colleagues.
A collection of the tributes coming in for Austin from those who benefited from his school, his tutelage and his friendship.
RIP Gary Austin, founder of the @groundlings ! But kudos on a life well-lived!
— Wendi McLendon-Covey (@wendimclendonco) April 2, 2017
We lost a legend today. Rest in peace Mr. Gary Austin, founder of the @groundlings
— Mikey Day (@mikeyfuntime) April 2, 2017
Rest in peace, Gary Austin, founder of the Groundlings Theater. The builder of our ship. Thank you for all that… https://t.co/DF1FCEc9jD
— Phil LaMarr (@phillamarr) April 2, 2017
I don't know what my dad or I would have ever become without you. So grateful for your teachings. RIP #GaryAustin @Groundlings pic.twitter.com/rjKEkxrvEP
— Chris Kattan (@ChrisKattan) April 2, 2017
When Gary Austin founded the @groundlings Theatre, he created a comedy family that now spans generations. Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/m0uTCqob8p
— Michael Hitchcock (@hitchmichael) April 2, 2017
This is incredibly sad. I was honored to know & study with Gary. The comedy world owes him a huge debt of gratitude. A truly wonderful man. https://t.co/k4YcdkAPVI
— Paul Feig (@paulfeig) April 2, 2017
The founder of the Groundlings, the LA improv troupe where I & so many others on SNL, started their career, has passed.#RIPGaryAustin
— Jon Lovitz (@realjonlovitz) April 2, 2017
RIP, Gary Austin, founder of The Groundlings. Thanks for everything.
— Ben Falcone (@benfalcone) April 2, 2017
RIP Gary Austin. Thank you for creating @groundlings. What a legacy you have left. Forever grateful. You will be missed dearly. ❤
— Rachael Harris (@RachaelEHarris) April 3, 2017
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