“Cut!” yelled the director. “Are you all on drugs?
Tragedy had struck Tornadoes of Eden, a ’90s-era disaster flick. An extra had sabotaged the scene by sticking out his tongue. “Can you tuck your little tongue back in your mouth?” the director asked four times. And then peals of laughter offstage stopped the action.
Turns out the movie wasn’t real. It was improvised on a Thursday night in early November by the Groundlings, L.A.’s famed comedy school and theater. Their snug 99-seat venue on Melrose brimmed at capacity for the 30th anniversary of Cookin’ with GAS, a cult show that’s seen things—and people—you wouldn’t believe.
It started with Groundling Melanie Graham, who created GAS in 1992. She’d long admired the Groundlings’ Main Company stars like Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens, but they’d moved on. So GAS mixed Groundlings, alumni, and rising stars in the Sunday Company (hence GAS) for a night of what they loved most: improv. “Improv is kind of like heroin,” explains alum Michael McDonald. He’s talking about the high of going onstage sans script—and having it work.
Graham became the show’s first director—”a true narcissist would’ve directed herself,” she quips, “I was only a half-narcissist”—and established its structure: two acts, six to eight players. The first act opens and closes with an improvised song, with short scenes between. The second act is usually an extended improv. Audience suggestions fuel it all.
Early on, special guests were invited in. The challenge of playing with a celebrity you’ve never met, says alum and GAS mainstay Mindy Sterling, is a thrill. “We get up there, we don’t know who we’re gonna work with, and it’s, like, boom! Go!” But the bonds cast members forge with guests can be fast and durable.
One of the first was Mike Myers (who later used the Groundlings’ stage to work out his Austin Powers personae). “The Groundlings were character-based, which really spoke to me,” he says. It was here that Myers met Sterling, who “might be the best improviser I’ve ever worked with.” He loved her so much that he wrote the part of Frau Farbissina for her.
Quentin Tarantino also performed in the ’90s. “I remember him being really playful,” says GAS icon Karen Maruyama, who eventually got cast, along with Kathy Griffin and other Groundlings, in Pulp Fiction.
Big-name guests are usually won over by the Groundlings’ team-oriented approach. Paul Feig, a 2013 invitee, felt nervous because he hadn’t done improv in two decades. “But they’d kind of clean up your mess,” Feig recalls, “if you shit the bed.”
To this day, the unpredictability of improv, the proximity to Hollywood, and the mystery of the celebrity guest combine for an only-in-L.A. show that’s hard to pass up.
You never know what or whom you’ll see. Perhaps Minnie Driver embodying a WNBA player. Or Jordan Peele splitting his pants. Even during lockdown, Graham’s brainchild united people who wouldn’t normally be together. Lisa Kudrow almost broke a Zoom show, as more than 200 people clamored to join.
“It’s so cool,” says Graham, now retired. She never anticipated such a long run.
Back in the theater, Main Company members Leonard Robinson and Lauren Burns have helmed the latest iteration with zeal. (A new director will assume the mantle in 2023—they rotate every three to six months—as GAS is “100% here to stay,” says Robinson.) Their vision, a weekly celebration of the Groundlings’ history and future, held close ties to their predecessors while also establishing an effort to further diversify the casts and guests
November’s anniversary show, for instance, saw an electric blend of veterans and up-and-comers in a ’90s-themed romp that made a case for 30 more years. As actor H Michael Croner tried to stay stone-faced while begging Julian Gant to tuck in his little tongue, it was easy to see GAS’s enduring appeal. The joy’s infectious.
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