'SNL' Stars, Sex in the Green Room: 40 Wild Years of The Groundlings
Everyone from Kristen Wiig to Kathy Griffin recalls the creativity and brutal competition that sent Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz and others to work for Lorne Michaels -- or on to even greater success.
JULIA SWEENEY (1987-90) My first husband, Stephen Hibbert -- we made out so often backstage. Until, after we were married, I found out how many others he'd made out with -- I'm not judging, I was getting around myself.
GRIFFIN Certainly everybody was sleeping with each other, the normal campus high jinks.
LYNNE STEWART (1982-86) Tracy Newman said, "If you're with somebody and go to The Groundlings, you're going to break up."
CHRIS KATTAN (1995-97) Kathy Griffin and Lisa Kudrow were my teachers -- Lisa and I used to take smoke breaks. It was good to know that someone that brilliant was just as neurotic as I was.
LISA KUDROW (1991-93) In the writing lab I got the feedback: "We need to see you do a dumb girl, because you just never ever do it." And because of that I was recommended to Robin Schiff, who was writing a play called Ladies' Room, and she needed two airheads to come out of the ladies' room, Romy and Michele. And that was the inspiration for the movie, these two characters who were onstage a total of five minutes. 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.
ANA GASTEYER (1995-97) There's a lot of fundamentals to the acting program, which really sets it apart.
JIM RASH (2000-13) There are basically six levels: Basic, Intermediate, Advanced and Improv. And then you move into our Writing Lab series, and if you make it through all those elements, you are asked to join Sunday Company, which is basically our farm team. And you can spend anywhere up to a year and a half in the Sunday Company. And any time during that time, you may or may not be voted into the Main Company.
WIIG I was there six years, but honestly it felt like 27.
MAYA RUDOLPH (1998-2002) The goal is to work your way into the [Main] Company. When you're standing around in the hallway and you see all the pictures on the wall of the current Main Company members, I would see all these faces that I never saw [at the theater]. I used to play this game -- the people we'd literally never performed with, we'd go, "Get the f--- out, Get the f--- out, Get the f--- out." We're like, "Make room for us, we want to be in the Main Company, you know, get the f--- out, make some room for us kids." Then, my second or third year on SNL, I get a call: "Hey, Maya, um, we need some more space in the Main Company, so would you mind stepping down?" I was devastated because I'd worked so hard to get there, but I knew she was right. I'm not there, I get it. I'm literally the creator of Get the F--- Out. So I got the f--- out.
CHRIS PARNELL (1996-98) 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. You might be asked to repeat the class, you might be asked to leave. So by the time you make it into the Sunday show, you are guaranteed that people are going to be at a certain skill level, and then in the Main Company, even more so.
LARAINE NEWMAN It's like a salmon run.
GRIFFIN The Groundlings really is training for all of show business. The way that they have their system of checks and balances and when they cut people and when they let people kind of flourish is really kind of a microcosm for all of Hollywood.
TRACY NEWMAN When someone like Phil Hartman appears on the horizon and the first time he's on stage, you see that he's like the best one here and he's never done this, it's daunting. You know, Phil Hartman, while I wouldn't call him a genius or terribly original, he was like Danny Aykroyd, just shockingly good and committed. Phil's level of commitment is what made him brilliant.
AUSTIN Phil Hartman, as good as he was, it took him a year or two to get into the shows. Not because he wasn't good but because he had to create a lot of material to compete with the other people.
STEWART When Phil was at The Groundlings, he was hot. I mean, he was our resident sex symbol.
TRACY NEWMAN One time, Lorne was standing back in the back of the theater, clearly looking at fish in a fishpond, ready to take somebody. And I remember saying, "You should take Phil Hartman." And he said, "No, I'm interested in Jon Lovitz." Knowing Phil, I thought, "How could you not see it?" A couple years later, Phil made it to SNL because, I think, Jon had pushed for him. And I ran into Lorne at a party at Larraine's and I said, a little bit cockily, "So, how does it feel to have Phil Hartman on the show?" And he said, "Tracy, I don't even have to go into work." Because Phil filled every need. He literally could do anything and would commit to everything with the same kind of energy and fun.
GRIFFIN Cheri Oteri was a secretary at A&M Records. Cheri would get us free CDs, and we thought that was the coolest thing. Like, we were thinking, "Why would you want to be on Saturday Night Live when you could be at A&M Records?"
CHERI OTERI (1994-95) Bands on SNL my first year, like Blues Traveler, would be like, "Aren't you that girl from the office?"
GRIFFIN Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri were genuinely good friends when they wrote all those amazing sketches together. And it was very exciting to see those sketches go from our little Groundlings stage to Saturday Night Live.
WIIG I first did the Target lady at Groundlings, also Aunt Linda the movie critic on "Weekend Update."
OTERI I was always so excited to see how [Ferrell] would do something that I wrote because he was just so hysterically funny. I had written a sketch where I was a kid who allowed to visit the cockpit and I cast Will as the pilot. And when I wrote it the pilot's name was Captain Chase. And when that got on Saturday Night Live, Lorne asked me to [cast] Chevy Chase as the pilot. All those years before I had written the sketch and picked the name Captain Chase and had to change it because Chevy Chase would be doing it.
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. I really did see that strength, and I can still see it with people who come from The Groundlings. I've noticed it lately on SNL in Taran Killam. I'm like, that's totally a Groundling; 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.
GRIFFIN If I start something and the audience isn't into it, The Groundlings taught me to switch gears, let go of what you thought was gonna happen, listen to the audience -- they're gonna tell you loud and clear what they're into, and do it. Please them. Make them laugh. That's what it's about. A big part of my act to this day is I voraciously read the paper, cover to cover, I watch CNN around the clock. "Kathy's going to be playing a political figure in this next sketch, who is she?" and the audience yells "Diane Feinstein" and you don't know who that is, you look like an idiot. The Groundlings taught me loud and clear you'd better be up on your shit.
STEWART A wonderful thing about The Groundlings is also, besides doing characters, you can work on the character of yourself.
REUBENS I'm a real snob when it comes to talent. I want to be around super-talented people, and I always felt that's who The Groundlings were, always. I mean, from the first show I ever saw there, I was blown away by the talent on the stage. We just did The Pee-wee Herman Show again after, I don't know, 25 years, and standing out on the stage, doing some of the exact lines that we had written 25 years ago with the same people. It was incredible.
MAXWELL What it became was a place where people could go meet kindred spirits. And find out how good they were.
Additional reporting by Tim Appelo, Alex Ben-Block, Stacey Wilson, Alison Brower, Brandon Kirby and Rebecca Ford.