No Joke, Here Are the Top 10 Greatest Groundlings

Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri on Saturday Night Live | Photo courtesy of Will Ferrell, Facebook

In its September 2013 look back at 40 years of The Groundlings, The Hollywood Reporter said, “Probably no institution has shaped the contours of modern American comedy more than a vest-pocket theater housed in a former massage parlor on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.” The Groundlings is a non-profit improvisation and sketch comedy theatre, founded by Gary Austin in 1974. A “Groundling” is one of the 30 company members who write and perform in the theatre’s shows and teach classes at The Groundling’s School. The school is renowned as the foremost comedy training ground in Hollywood and a springboard for literally hundreds of TV and movie careers.

The Groundlings have sent generations of its performers to Saturday Night Live, beginning with Laraine Newman in 1975, to current cast members Taran Killam and Nasim Pedrad. “Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri were genuinely good friends when they wrote all those amazing sketches together,” said Kathy Griffin in The Hollywood Reporter. “And it was very exciting to see those sketches go from our little Groundlings stage to Saturday Night Live.” 

The famed Groundlings School offers improvisational classes, taught by teachers trained in the Groundlings program. Classes last six to twelve weeks, and are held at the Groundlings Theatre and G2, their training facility. New classes are posted every Monday, and registration is ongoing throughout the year. For more info, visit www.groundlings.com/school/getting-started.

The legendary Main Company troupe performs its shows on Fridays and Saturdays. The Sunday Company, featuring up and coming Groundlings, performs on Sundays. Other shows include Cookin’ With Gas and Thursday Night Mystery Box. For more show info and to purchase tickets, visit www.groundlings.com/shows/now-playing.

At every Groundlings show, you could be watching a future comedy superstar. Read on for more about some of The Groundlings’ greatest alumni.

DECADE NIGHTS (May 2014)

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Groundlings are inviting alumni from the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s to take the stage every Tuesday in May. The Decade Nights series kicks off on May 6 with a ‘70s show directed by Phyllis Katz. Each night features an open bar with Titos Vodka and a 40th anniversary souvenir program. Shows start at 8 p.m. Online tickets are $25.

Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman" | Photo courtesy of Anchorman, Facebook

Will Ferrell is one of today’s top comedy stars, creating iconic characters during his seven-year run on Saturday Night Live and then starring in numerous blockbuster movies. After graduating from USC, Ferrell joined The Groundlings in 1994. In 1995, Ferrell became a cast member of Saturday Night Live, where he was joined by fellow Groundlings Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan. On SNL, Ferrell’s numerous impressions included George W. Bush, Harry Caray, Neil Diamond, James Lipton, Janet Reno and Alex Trebek. Two of his most popular characters - Spartan cheerleader Craig Buchanan and nightclubber Steve Butabi - were created and performed with Oteri and Kattan, respectively. The Butabi Brothers were the stars of A Night at the Roxbury, which flopped. Ferrell bounced back with memorable appearances in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Zoolander. After departing SNL, Ferrell’s breakthrough came with his first starring role, as Frank “The Tank” Richard in the 2003 hit, Old School. Ferrell followed later that year with the title role of Buddy in Elf, a modern holiday classic directed by Jon Favreau. Ferrell's string of hits continued with his Mediocre American Man Trilogy: Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), and Anchorman 2 (2013). Ferrell showed his dramatic range in the critically acclaimed Stranger Than Fiction (2006). His voice acting roles include Curious George, Megamind, and The Lego Movie. Ferrell is also the co-founder of Funny or Die, a comedy video website featuring original and user-generated content. In 2011, Ferrell was the recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin with her Grammy for Best Comedy Album | Photo courtesy of Kathy Griffin, Facebook

Kathy Griffin is an Emmy and Grammy Award-winning comedian, reality TV star, bestselling author, and tireless LGBT community advocate. After moving to Los Angeles in 1978, Griffin studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, and became a Main Company member of The Groundlings, from 1985 to 1992. After guest appearances on various TV shows, Griffin landed the role of Brooke Shields’ sidekick, Vickie Groener, on the NBC sitcom, Suddenly Susan. Her breakthrough came in 2005 with the debut of the Bravo reality series, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, which ran for six seasons and earned Griffin two Emmy Awards. In 2009, Griffin published her autobiography, Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin, which debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller List. Griffin has recorded numerous specials for HBO and Bravo, and in 2011 became the first comedian to have four televised specials in a year. After being nominated for a Grammy Award six years in a row for Best Comedy Album, Griffin finally won in 2014, for Calm Down Gurrl

Griffin is an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage. She’s participated in fundraisers and protests, organized rallies, and even went door-to-door. At the 2009 GLAAD Media Awards, Griffin received the Vanguard Award, which is “presented to a member of the entertainment community who has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for LGBT people.”

Cheryl Hines

Cheryl Hines as Dallas Royce in “Suburgatory” | Photo courtesy of Suburgatory, Facebook

In an interview with Esquire, Cheryl Hines said that she knew studying at The Groundlings would lead to something big: “I knew that if I spent time with them, and watched and learned from them, it could only help me. I was watching, you know, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri and Chris Kattan perform. And Lisa Kudrow was my teacher.” Sure enough, Hines went from being an unknown to landing a supporting role on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the critically acclaimed HBO comedy series created by Larry David, who co-created Seinfeld. During the show’s eight-year run, Hines received two Emmy nominations for her portrayal of David’s long-suffering wife, Cheryl. The improvisational and writing skills Hines honed at The Groundlings served her well on the series, which was written in a “retroscripting” style - plots are generally outlined, and the actors improvise the dialogue. Hines is currently starring as Dallas Royce in the ABC sitcom, Suburgatory, which also stars fellow Groundlings, Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell.

Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman | Photo courtesy of The Groundlings

The late Phil Hartman was an Emmy Award-winning actor, comedian, screenwriter, and graphic artist. After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a degree in graphic arts, Hartman designed album covers for bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Poco and America. Hartman joined The Groundlings in 1975, where he became friends with Jon Lovitz and helped Paul Reubens develop his Pee-wee Herman character. Hartman co-wrote the screenplay for the film Pee-wee's Big Adventure and played Captain Carl on Pee-wee's Playhouse. Hartman joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1986 and was on the show for eight seasons, playing more than 70 characters and performing memorable impressions including Frank Sinatra, Ed McMahon, Barbara Bush, and perhaps most famously, Bill Clinton. Known for helping out other writers and holding the show together, Hartman earned the nickname “The Glue” from Adam Sandler. In 1995, Hartman left SNL and starred as Bill McNeal in the critically acclaimed NBC sitcom NewsRadio. Hartman provided the voices for numerous characters on The Simpsons, including Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz.

Rachael Harris

A former performer and teacher at The Groundlings, Rachael Harris has an extensive TV resume that includes a stint as a correspondent for The Daily Show (2002–2003), a recurring role in The WB's Sister, Sister, and appearances on Star Trek: Voyager, The Sarah Silverman Program, Reno 911!, The West Wing, Friends, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Monk, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Desperate Housewives. Harris has made multiple appearances on VH1 documentaries such as I Love the '80s, I Love the '90s, and Best Week Ever. She is also a familiar face in commercials for Geico, Avis and T-Mobile, among many others. Harris’ film credits include roles in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, Kicking & Screaming, and Daddy Day Care. In the 2009 blockbuster comedy The Hangover, Harris plays Melissa, the overbearing girlfriend of Dr. Stu Price, played by fellow Daily Show correspondent Ed Helms. Her portrayal of Texas housewife Linda White in the 2011 indie film, Natural Selection earned Harris a breakthrough performance award at South by Southwest, and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.

Lisa Kudrow

Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay on “Friends” | Photo courtesy of Lisa Kudrow, Facebook

Lisa Kudrow is an Emmy Award-winning actress, writer, comedian and producer, best known for her portrayal of Phoebe Buffay on Friends. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kudrow was inspired by her brother’s friend Jon Lovitz to audition for The Groundlings, where Conan O’Brien was her classmate. Kudrow’s breakthrough role was the eccentric waitress Ursula Buffay, on the NBC sitcom, Mad About You. She achieved television immortality playing Ursula’s “twin sister” Phoebe on Friends, one of the most popular sitcoms in history, from 1994 to 2004. Kudrow’s film credits include comedic and dramatic roles in movies such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, The Opposite of Sex, Analyze This, Analyze That, Happy Endings, Wonderland, and P.S. I Love You. Kudrow is one of the executive producers of the reality series, Who Do You Think You Are? and is currently starring in the Showtime comedy series, Web Therapy.

Jon Lovitz

Jon Lovitz | Photo courtesy of The Groundlings

L.A. native Jon Lovitz joined The Groundlings in 1979, where he became good friends with Phil Hartman. In 1984, Lovitz appeared with The Groundlings on The Tonight Show, and joined the cast of Saturday Night Life a year later. Lovitz was on SNL from 1985 to 1990, creating a number of memorable characters, including Tommy Flanagan, the Pathological Liar (his famous catchphrase: “Yeah, that’s the ticket!”) and Master Thespian, inspired by a professor at UC Irvine. After leaving SNL, Lovitz played supporting and cameo roles in movies such as A League of Their Own, City Slickers II, The Wedding Singer, and The Producers. Lovitz has worked with two of his idols, starring in Woody Allen’s 2000 film, Small Time Crooks, and Neil Simon’s Broadway play, The Dinner Party. The multi-talented Lovitz has performed at Carnegie Hall three times, and sung the national anthem at Dodger Stadium and the U.S. Open. His voice work includes playing Jay Sherman, the title character of The Critic, as well as several guest appearances on The Simpsons. Located at Universal CityWalk, the Jon Lovitz Comedy Club & Podcast Theatre features live stand-up from national headliners and rising stars.

Melissa McCarthy

Melissa McCarthy as Molly Biggs on “Mike & Molly” | Photo courtesy of Mike & Molly, Facebook

After honing her skills as a stand-up comedian in New York, Melissa McCarthy moved to L.A. and became a main stage performer at The Groundlings for nine years. McCarthy first gained recognition starring as Sookie St. James on The WB series, Gilmore Girls from 2000 to 2007. From 2007 to 2009, McCarthy played the socially awkward Dena on the ABC sitcom, Samantha Who? Since 2010, McCarthy has played Molly Biggs on Mike & Molly, winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 2011. McCarthy’s earned widespread acclaim in the 2011 comedy, Bridesmaids, starring with fellow Groundlings Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Wendi McClendon-Covey. For her portrayal of Megan, the groom’s sister, McCarthy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, as well as BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. McCarthy continues to show her box office appeal, starring with Justin Bateman in Identity Thief, and the summer blockbuster, The Heat, with Sandra Bullock and fellow Groundling, Taran Killam.

Paul Reubens

Pee-wee Herman and fellow Groundling, Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira) at Club Nokia | Photo courtesy of Pee-Wee Herman, Facebook

Paul Reubens created his iconic Pee-wee Herman character with The Groundlings, where he was a member from 1974 to 1980. Pee-wee Herman originated on stage during a Groundlings performance - Reubens then developed the character with the help of Phil Hartman. Reubens took the character to The Roxy Theatre, where The Pee-wee Herman Show ran for five sellout months. HBO filmed a performance and aired The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1981. Pee-wee’s following grew after Reubens made several appearances in character on Late Night with David Letterman. Reubens took the stage show on a nationwide tour, which included a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1984. Reubens starred in the 1985 cult favorite, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure - Tim Burton’s feature film directorial debut - and the 1988 sequel, Big Top Pee-wee. In 1986, CBS debuted the seminal Saturday morning children’s show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The show ran until 1990 and received 15 Emmy Awards.

Suffering from burnout, Reubens retired the character and went on an extended sabbatical. Following some legal issues, Reubens kept a low profile, making cameos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Batman Returns. Reubens landed a recurring role on Murphy Brown and earned critical praise for his performance in Blow. Reubens began making occasional appearances as Pee-wee, a comeback that culminated in January 2010 with The Pee-wee Herman Stage Show: The Return, which played for four weeks at Club Nokia at L.A. LIVE. Reubens made a well-received appearance as Pee-wee on SNL in January 2011, and was even a guest judge on Top Chef: Texas.

Kristen Wiig

Kristen Wiig | Photo courtesy of The Groundlings

Regarding her time at The Groundlings, Kristen Wiig told The Hollywood Reporter, “The most important thing I learned there was how to write and really hone characters. I averaged about five sketches a week. Learning what it means to truly collaborate was a crucial skill when I got to SNL.” Wiig made her Saturday Night Live debut in November 2005, becoming a fan favorite with characters like the one-upping Penelope and the mischievous Gilly. The Target Lady and Aunt Linda, the Weekend Update movie critic, originated with The Groundlings. Wiig also became known for hilarious impressions of Nancy Pelosi, Suze Orman and many more. Wiig made her scene-stealing film debut as a passive-aggressive executive in Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit comedy, Knocked Up. Other film appearances include Walk Hard, Ghost Town, Adventureland, and Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It. Wiig co-wrote and starred in the 2011 film, Bridesmaids, which also stars fellow Groundlings Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy and Wendi McClendon-Covey. Wiig and fellow Groundling Annie Mumolo received Academy Award and BAFTA Award nominations for their Bridesmaids screenplay. Wiig’s voice acting credits include Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2, and Her.