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COVER STORY : In Praise of Silliness : Los Angeles' own Groundlings are celebrating two decades of, well, just plain silliness. Is this someone's idea of a joke? You bet and it's paid off.

September 18, 1994|Lawrence Christon | Lawrence Christon is a Times staff writer.

Who would've thought that any performing group could gain in stitutional longevity by living on the fly? But when the Groundlings throw open their Melrose Avenue doors Monday, they begin several straight days of partying to the theme of 20 years of risky business in that most perishable of forms, improvisational comedy.

Twenty years of organized silliness on the high wire of making it up as you go along. As an exploratory form, improv is an ideal discovery process for catching the surreptitious breath of the id. In private rehearsal, it's the hand that works its way inside the glove of plausible character. But to do it in public invites free fall. There's no script, no erasies. And to make it funny is harder still.

Yet the Groundlings remain, as Bill Steinkellner puts it, "the Lexus of improv groups." Steinkellner, along with his wife, Cheri Eichen, is one of numerous alumni who've graduated into successful careers as performers or TV writers (they worked as executive producers on "Cheers" and "Bob"). But publicly he is remembered, among other things, as the string-bean swami impaneled onstage somewhere between that nice lady from Wisconsin whose son has been whisked away by aliens from outer space, and that dark, ghoulish figure who makes a living writing suicide notes for the stars.

The improvs vanish, the characters remain. Who can forget John Paragon's sendup of the oily Latino balladeer Ramon Azteca? Or the way Jim Jackman's animatronic Disney Lincoln winds down in a gruesome panoply of dysfunctional weirdness? Tim Stack's "On the Road With Guy DiSimone" prefigured Bill Murray's unctuous lounge singer, and probably made life hell for at least one Frank Sinatra impersonator.

It was at the Groundling Theatre where Julia Sweeney developed the pathologically shy office accountant Mea Culpa before she came up with the paunchy androgynous Pat (now a movie as well as TV star), whose voice is the sonic equivalent of drool (Pat's photograph is mounted on the door of both the men's and women's restrooms at the Groundling Theatre).

Paul Reubens made a career out of Pee-wee Herman; his Groundlings pals lament not only his self-destruction in that Florida porn house but his closetful of other brilliantly realized characters the world may now never see.

And it was on the strength of Phil Hartman's Chandleresque Chick Hazard that the Groundlings were tapped to represent Los Angeles in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival--no small feat, going head to head against the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre du Soleil and Giorgio Strehler's Piccolo Teatro di Milano. (L.A. theater never survived the foreign onslaught; of the nine local festival entries, only three are still around: the Mark Taper, the Odyssey Theater Ensemble and the Groundlings, who began at the Cellar Theater in 1972.)

But Hartman, who was still holding on to his semi-reclusive day job as a graphics designer at the time, had already brought any number of vivid characters to life, including the mythic sci-fi figure Light Man ("I can read your thoughts; I am reading your thoughts right now") and the international talk-show host Gunther Johann, who at the mention of certain volatile topics, like the defeat of heavyweight Max Schmeling by Joe Louis, couldn't suppress an icy Gruppenfuehrer rage.

"The Groundlings has always been a forum for evolving talent," says Hartman, who joined in 1974. "Once you learn improv, you realize there's a mechanism in you that you can trust, a flash that translates into character or something on a printed page. You're never frightened again. I know a lot of movie stars have turned down appearances on 'Saturday Night Live' because they're frightened."

Laraine Newman, Jon Lovitz, Phyllis Katz, Edie McClurg, Cassandra ("Elvira") Peterson, Helen Hunt, Maureen McGovern and B. J. Ward are among other performers who either started with the Groundlings or stopped in on their way to larger careers, a number of them on TV's "Saturday Night Live."

But as Tracy Newman, one of the troupe's earliest members, observes: "People join to become successful as performers, but the skill you learn is writing, rewriting and editing, though you don't know it at the time." (Newman, who is Laraine's older sister, also wrote for "Cheers" and "Bob," as well as "The Nanny.")

To that end, nearly 40 writers or writer-producers have gone on to movies and TV; they include Marcy Carsey, Don Siegle, Rob Gaines, Robin Schiff and George McGrath. Conan O'Brien was an almost-Groundling; he was about to come on board when "The Simpsons" beckoned. Ditto with Jeffrey Abrams, who was about to join but went on to write "Regarding Henry" and "Forever Young" instead.

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