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The Groundlings Theatre celebrates 50 years of wild and wacky characters

The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles is celebrating its 50th anniversary of impacting the art of comedy as a celebrated incubator of comedic talent.
Shawn Bishop
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Shawn Bishop
The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles is celebrating its 50th anniversary of impacting the art of comedy as a celebrated incubator of comedic talent.

Updated February 8, 2024 at 1:30 PM ET

This year The Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles celebrates 50 years of improv and sketch comedy. The group has had a huge impact on American pop culture, jumpstarting the careers of comedians like Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Coolidge. The Groundlings are known for creating offbeat, ridiculous characters. Paul Rubens created Pee Wee Herman during his time there, with the help of fellow Groundling and Saturday Night Live comedy legend Phil Hartman. One Alum compared the school's training to a branch of the comedy military.

"It brings in a certain kind of awesome weirdo that wants to play weird people and who isn't here just because 'I'm cute and funny.'" Kevin Kirkpatrick told NPR's Morning Edition "to do that takes a huge amount of talent."

Groundlings must take several improv and comedy writing courses before they are able to audition. They eventually face a vote to decide whether they'll join the main company.

Michael Churven (2019)
Jonathan Bishop / The Groundlings
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The Groundlings
Michael Churven (2019)

"The process is long and competitive," said Phyllis Katz, one of the original founders of the theater and school. "It's not a measure of who's the most talented. It's like a microcosm of the rest of show business, and for every person in the Groundlings who became a big celebrity, there were 50 more who came through the doors who were very exciting."

She says that it's sometimes obvious who's going to make it big, but many work really hard to find their voice.

"Suddenly you've done something you've never done before. And it's brilliant. you didn't see anything for ten classes, in the 11th class this thinking, this light goes on. It doesn't turn off again," said Katz

The Groundlings' relentless rehearsal and performance schedule can be grueling.

"You bomb so much and your best teacher is your last bomb," said Groundling Michael Churven. "I've never learnt so much as when I've failed miserably on the stage because you learn firstly to just let it go, which I think is a key ingredient. And secondly, it forces you to think, okay, what was missing in that sketch."

And the training doesn't just help the performers in their acting careers.

"Now I listen to understand versus listening to respond," said Emily Pendergast. "And so I think that's like a really great life lesson."

Listening to understand is a key component of the acceptance principle 'yes, and..." – which is one of the foundations of improv.

That phrase could also be a comment on our current cultural discourse.

"In the United States definitely, I think we could all stand to say 'yes and' a little bit more," said Groundling Jay Renshaw. "Because even if you feel like you have something to add that's more important, you can still agree with what someone has said and try and build upon that."

Comedy is one way to explore and push social and cultural boundaries. Katz says thatin the 1970's, the group had more women than other improv troupes and they weren't just playing the girlfriend or the mom.

50 years later it's still a place where women are free from typecasting.

"At the Groundlings, you can be anything," said Groundling Allison Dunbar. "You get to play all of those characters that you would never be cast as in TV."

Allison Dunbar, & Emily Pendergast (2023)
SHAWN BISHOP / The Groundlings
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The Groundlings
Allison Dunbar, & Emily Pendergast (2023)

In the early days, before the theater was built, the Groundlings rehearsed and performed wherever they could. Katz said sometimes there were more people onstage than there were in the audience, and she remembers one show where the group did their costume changes in an alley.

But the Groundlings have come a long way since then, evolving with the times.

"There were times we got a little more political," said Katz. Times you want to not get political because the audience just wants to get away from that, and times when you want to say things you hope the audience is ready to hear."

No matter what is going on in the world, inside the Groundlings Theater, the audience better be ready to laugh.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Alice Woelfle
Alice Woelfle is an editor on Morning Edition. She began her journalism career at Member station KZYX in Mendocino County, California. She has also worked at KQED and KALW in San Francisco. Prior to that she worked as a rancher, educator and musician. Woelfle is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.