Founded in 1974 as an outgrowth of an acting glass taught by Gary Austin, a veteran of San Francisco's The Committee improv troupe, the Groundlings Theatre has launched hundred of careers in TV and the movies.
"Groundlings really pushed me to try things that I didn't even imagine that I could do, like playing an idiot. And then I spent the rest of my life playing an idiot," says Kudrow.
Hartman, pictured here in 1984, was a graphic designer with no acting experience when he joined The Groundlings. He would become one of its most famous alumni.
Groundlings alum Rudolph as Liza Minnelli on SNL. Recalls Rudolph: "I think it was Cheryl [Hines] who used to sing this song -- if anybody in The Groundlings got a job, she'd start singing, "And the system works!" It was a system, it was a way of learning that gives you tools and a language you carry with you."
Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell
From left: Ferrell, Kattan and SteveKehela perform their "Mr. Peepers" skit in 1995, which later went on to SNL. Kattan's father, Kip King,was one of the theater's founding members. "We had his funeral at The Groundlings," Kattan says. "One of the classrooms in the back, there's a plaque that says, 'Kip King Room.' "
Chris Kattan, Will Ferrell and The Rock
Alums Kattan and Ferrell perform their "Mr. Peepers" skit on SNL in 2000 along with that evening's host, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, as Papa Peepers. Says Kattan: "What is so great about The Groundlings is the process of elimination that happens all the way up the chain. You have got to get that mark of approval at every level."
Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer
Groundling Taran Killam, with Vanessa Bayer, performs on SNL in March 2012. Former Main Company member Maya Rudolph says she can spot the Groundlings influence in Killam's performances: "He knows how to find his strengths and bring them but also be in other pieces and make the sketch better, not suck all the energy in his direction."
Sweeney created her Pat character during her tenure as a Groundling in the '80s.
Groundlings founder Austin onstage at the theater in the 1970s. "I thought of the name," he says. "It's from Hamlet's speech to the players: 'Speak the speech as I pronounced it to you trippingly on the tongue and split you not the ears of the groundlings, who are capable of nothing but dumb shows and noises.' "
The Groundlings stage today. The theater bounced around Los Angeles in its early years before landing in its present home on Melrose Avenue in a formerly dilapidated massage parlor. PaulReubens, whose father was an electrician, installed the dressing room's makeup lights and made other improvements. "I created the first green room at The Groundlings," Reubens says. "It still exists today. It was painted with a textured green paint I won as a booby prize on The Gong Show."
Lisa Kudrow, Tim Bagley and Karen Maruyama
From left: Kudrow, Bagley and Maruyama in the 1992 Groundlings play Ladies' Room, which became the basis for the 1997 film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, starring Kudrow and Mira Sorvino.
Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino
Kudrow and Sorvino in the film Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, which grew out of a Groundlings show.
Reubens created his Pee-wee Herman character at The Groundlings. "When I did The Pee-wee Herman Show there at midnight, there would be 20 or 30 people in the audience for the [Groundlings] late show, and during that show the lobby would fill up. 'Cause my show was sold out. We had a waiting list of hundreds of people," says Reubens.
Larraine and Tracy Newman
Larraine and Tracy Newman in 1974. "I think that once The Groundlings became the training ground or a farm company for Saturday Night Live, the group dynamic and camaraderie probably disappeared to a certain extent," says Tracy Newman. "It became a little bit dog-eat-dog. Even when I was there, it was already starting to be dog-eat-dog."
A typical Groundlings revue in 1974. TracyNewman (third from left) brought her sister Larraine (far right) to the theater. A year later, Larraine became the first Groundling to join Saturday Night Live.
Says Tracy Newman: "I ran into Lorne [Michaels] at Larraine's and I said, a little bit cockily, 'So, how does it feel to have PhilHartman on the show?' And he said 'Tracy, I don't even have to go into work.' Because Phil filled every need."
Cheri Oteri and Will Ferrell
Oteri and Ferrell, pictured here in 1995, teamed to create sketches and characters they took with them when they joined Saturday Night Live.
"It's like football," says Griffin. "And there are cuts just like football at every single level, and it's all about not getting cut. And then once you don't get cut, trust me, you never get comfortable. Because the weekend Lorne Michaels comes, you want to be picked."