Catch a Rising Star: The Groundlings' All-Stars

This LA institution is a cradle of world-class comedy talent

SNL David S.Pumpkins Tom Hanks Mikey Day Bobby Moynihan
Groundlings alumnus Mikey Day (left) wrote the cult Tom Hanks SNL sketch "David S. Pumpkins" | Photo: NBC

In its 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 Heidi Gardner, Mikey Day and more.

“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.”

Michael Che Heidi Gardner SNL Angel
Heidi Gardner (right) with Michael Che on SNL | Photo: NBC

Heidi Gardner

Heidi Gardner jumped to national prominence in 2017 when she joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. A Kansas City, Missouri native, Gardner moved to LA and began taking classes at The Groundlings in 2009, joining the Sunday Company five years later and the prestigious Main Company shortly after that. She's also known as a voice actress and has appeared in Life of the Party, starring fellow Groundling alumna Melissa McCarthy (see below). At SNL, one of her standout recurring characters is the popular "Weekend Update" columnist Angel, “every boxer’s girlfriend from every movie about boxing ever.”

Mikey Day SNL
Mikey Day | Photo: NBC

Mikey Day

The OC-raised Mikey Day attended the theater program at UCLA and joined the Groundlings after graduation in 2002. “All of the Groundlings you meet, you’re like, ‘You’re like me!’ You were that kid in high school, too!',” Day told the OC Register in 2009.  After finding viral YouTube success as a co-creator of the David Blaine Street Magic parody video, Day joined Nick Cannon's MTV show Wild'n Out while continuing to appear onstage with the Groundlings. He became an in-demand TV comedy writer and it was as a writer that he was first hired for Saturday Night Live in 2013. Three years later he joined the cast as a performer, and during the 2016 season became a household name as a co-writer and performer (as one of the skeleton dancers) in the cult Halloween sketch "Haunted Elevator," featuring Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins.

Micaela Watkins Drunk History
Micaela Watkins (center) on Drunk History | Photo: Comedy Central

Micaela Watkins

Groundlings alumna Micaela Watkins is the star of Hulu's Casual, but audiences might recognize her as a character actress in several prestigious indie comedy projects like EnlightenedTransparent and The New Adventures of Old Christine. Watkins was featured player on SNL for the 2008-2009 season. Her best known recurring character was Angie Tempura, the miserable, snarky blogger who criticizes celebrities.

Maya Rudolph SNL Donatella Versace
Maya Rudolph (right) as Donatella Versace on SNL | Photo: NBC

Maya Rudolph

Actress and singer Maya Rudolph, daughter of legendary 1970s singer Minnie Ripperton, was a standout member of the Groundlings (starting right after college, in 1995) before joining the cast of SNL back in 2000.

"The Groundlings became my graduate school: I studied there for about four years, and I ate, slept, and drank improv and sketch comedy. I learned how to write pieces and how to use my singing in performances, and I got to perform with a bunch of other weirdos, who became like family. The craziest thing was, I received word that I had been made an official Groundling on the same day I flew to New York to start a job at 'Saturday Night Live'."—Maya Rudolph to Oprah Magazine

During her stellar 7-year run on the iconic TV comedy showcase Rudolph was known as one of the MVPs, armed with an arsenal of side-splitting, unforgettable impressions of celebrities like Donatella Versace, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah, Gayle King, Halle Berry, Ivanka Trump, Jennifer Lopez, (fellow Groundling) Lisa Kudrow, Liza Minnelli, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Omarosa, Paris Hilton, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Tyra Banks, and Whitney Houston.

During her stint on SNL, Rudolph appeared on the (prescient) cult Mike Judge film Idiocracy (2005). After leaving the show in 2007, her film and TV credits include Kath & KimAway We GoGrownupsBridesmaids (alongside several other Groundlings alumnae), The Simpsons, and Amazon's Forever.

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Kristen Wiig | Photo courtesy of The Groundlings

Kristen Wiig

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 film debut in Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit comedy, Knocked Up. Wiig co-wrote and starred in the 2011 film, Bridesmaids, which also stars fellow Groundlings Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy and Wendi McClendon-Covey.

Will Ferrell Cowbell SNL
Will Ferrell on SNL | Photo: NBC

Will Ferrell

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. After departing SNL, Ferrell’s breakthrough came with his first starring role in the 2003 hit, Old School. Ferrell followed later that year with the title role of Buddy in Elf. Ferrell's string of hits continued with his Mediocre American Man Trilogy: Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), and Anchorman 2 (2013). Ferrell is also the co-founder of Funny or Die, a comedy video website featuring original and user-generated content.

Cheryl Hines Curb Your Enthusiasm
Cheryl Hines in Curb Your Enthusiasm | Photo: HBO

Cheryl Hines

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 also starred in the ABC sitcom, Suburgatory, with fellow Groundlings Ana Gasteyer and Chris Parnell.

Melissa McCarthy Bridesmaids
Melissa McCarthy (left) in Bridesmaids | Photo: Universal

Melissa McCarthy

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. McCarthy 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. 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.

Lisa Kudrow The Comeback
Lisa Kudrow in HBO's cult series The Comeback | Photo: HBO

Lisa Kudrow

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 has also starred in the Showtime comedy series, Web Therapy and the acclaimed HBO show The Comeback.

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Phil Hartman | Photo courtesy of The Groundlings

Phil Hartman

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. 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.

Pee-Wee Herman
Pee-Wee Herman, the signature character of Groundlings alumnus Paul Reubens | Photo: HBO

Paul Reubens

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.

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.

Kathy Griffin
Kathy Griffin | Photo: Kathy Griffin

Honorary Mentions

Will Forte, Anna Gasteyer, Will Parnell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, Kathy Griffin, and Rachael Harris.

"The Crazy Uncle Joe Show" at The Groundlings Theatre
"The Crazy Uncle Joe Show" | Photo: The Groundlings Theatre, Facebook

Classes and Shows

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.

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.