There’s a pretty good chance your favorite sketch/improv comic comes from one of three places: Toronto and Chicago’s Second City, New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade, or Los Angeles’s The Groundlings. Gary Austin was the founder and longtime artistic director of the third troupe; he died Saturday at 75.
An Oklahoma native who grew up in the Southwest and in California, Austin studied theater at San Francisco State University and was a member of The Committee, the influential sketch troupe whose alumni also included Howard Hessman, Rob Reiner, and improv guru Del Close. After moving to L.A., he began conducting acting and improv workshops, which morphed into The Groundlings in 1974.
Many members of the Groundlings went on to fame and fortune on stage, film, and especially television; Saturday Night Live frequently raided its company for cast members. The troupe’s best-known alums include Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Lisa Kudrow, Phil Hartman, Kathy Griffin, Will Forte, Julia Sweeney, Maya Rudolph, Jennifer Coolidge, Jim Rash, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Rachael Harris, Cheryl Hines, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Laraine Newman, Jillian Bell, Craig T. Nelson, Edie McClurg, Wendi McLendon-Covery, Taran Killam, Chris Kattan, and Pat Morita. Cassandra Peterson developed her “Elvira” character there; Kattan and Ferrell’s “Roxbury Guys” were created in Groundlings sketches. Most famously, Paul Reubens created Pee-Wee Herman in Groundlings revues and workshops, and first presented the Pee-Wee Herman Show on their stage. Austin contributed the character’s grey suit.
As noted by the New York Times:
“My aim is to be totally present in the moment, and when I’m totally present in the moment I can do no wrong,” Austin said in 2015. “That’s a feeling I like to have, and I have it sometimes. If I had it 100 percent, I probably already would have gone off to heaven and would be enjoying eternal life.”