How the Late Gary Austin, Founder of the Groundlings, Inspired the L.A. Theatre Community

Los Angeles News   How the Late Gary Austin, Founder of the Groundlings, Inspired the L.A. Theatre Community The improv pioneer helped foster the careers of several comedians, including Kristen Wiig and Paul Reubens.
Gary Austin
Gary Austin

This week, the Los Angeles theatre and comedy communities mourn the loss of Gary Austin, who died at the age of 75 on April 1. As the founder of the Groundlings, the improv school based in L.A., Mr. Austin helped guide and shape the world of comedy from behind the scenes. His workshops and classes propelled the careers of generations of comedians, including Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, and Kristen Wiig. Pee-wee Herman’s iconic gray suit was given to Paul Reubens by Austin.

While he has had a hand in the comedy scene at large, Austin also had a direct influence on Los Angeles and its intimate theatre community. After the closing of Second City’s Los Angeles school in the 1960s, there was a dearth of improv in the community. The formation of the Groundlings quickly filled that gap. As the Groundlings grew, so did the talent of L.A.’s improv artists and the need for more schools. Thanks to Austin and the Groundlings, companies like the Upright Citizens Brigade and iO West exist in Los Angeles.

Mr. Austin spent much of his time conducting workshops and developing projects in L.A. and all over the U.S. When discussing directing and promoting works in progress, Mr. Austin said, “My purpose in presenting these original works is to help people develop projects of their own."

The Groundlings recently released a statement about their founder’s passing: “In 1972, Gary Austin taught his first improvisational workshop and directed shows under the title The Gary Austin Workshops. In 1974, Gary and 50 of his devoted students incorporated under the name The Groundlings. Today, The Groundlings Theatre and School continues to thrive and owes its success to the visionary, generous, and tenacious man who gave us a home and a creative path.”

Mr. Austin’s legacy lives on in his theatre, his school, and his students—from sitcom writers to sketch artists trying their dialogue on the L.A. stage. His influence and wit continues to inspire artists throughout the Los Angeles theatre community and around the world.

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