The Groundlings May be Closer than They Appear

This article appeared in Variety, published in July, 2005.

The Groundlings’ latest foray of 19 scripted and improv-based sketches eschews delving too deeply into society’s foibles, favoring superficial character blackouts over sociopolitical satire. Helmed by Steve Hibbert, the scenes never develop much past their exposition, with the scripted material far outdistancing the audience-suggestion-based improvs on the laugh meter. However, a few sketches do manage to rise to the level of absolute hoots.

Each of the two acts opens with a clever but not overwhelming longform set piece. “Phantom” parodies the industrial musical, selling the wonders of the Ionic Breeze to the music of “Phantom of the Opera.” The ensemble exudes the energy but not the vocal quality to pull it off. The second-act opening, “Universal Studios Summer Spectacular Stunt Show,” is more successful in its depiction of the relentless audience-courting antics of theme-park performers.

Ensemble members Jeremy Rowley and Jordan Black prove to be exquisite yockmeisters as they offer the history of the Black Plague in the style of MTV hosts, assuring the audience, “The black plague is not the debut of BET.” In the sketch “Calling Pam,” Black portrays a corporate interviewer whose inability to properly utilize his intercom hilariously undermines the efforts of job seeker Andrew Friedman. And Rowley bares all in the show-closing ensemble sketch “Brief Brunch,” also featuring Friedman, Michael Naughton, Kristen Wiig, Larry Dorf and Wendi McClendon Covey.

Other scenes that hit their mark are “Message,” featuring Mitch Silpa as relentless phone answerer Andy, who obliterates the efforts of an increasingly frustrated caller (Friedman) to leave a message for his girlfriend; “Rhymin’ Simon,” wherein a Learning Annex-style songwriting teacher (Timothy Brennan) manically fixates on a bumbling student (Silpa) who cannot master a simple rhyme; and “Stand Your Ground,” featuring an ultra-right-wing radio jock (Damon Jones) who obliterates a pair of leftist intellectuals (Naughton and Stephanie Courtney) whenever they attempt to instill logic into the conversation.

Far less successful are undernourished drug commercial parody “It’s a New Day”; simplistic flight attendant sketch “Friendly Skies”; and the gratuitously vulgar “Love Me Tender,” featuring a pair of squeaky-clean 1950s kids (Wiig and Silpa) who end their superinnocent malt date with a graphic reference to her anatomy.

The five totally improvised routines (based on suggestions from the audience) never ignited. The most successful was the show-closing series of stylistic transformations based on the suggestion “Wal-Mart workers.”

Now in its 30th year as Hollywood’s comedic fountainhead, the Groundlings troupe has continued to work successfully in the comedic style pioneered by Chicago’s Second City and San Francisco’s the Committee. It would be interesting to see this talented ensemble occasionally emulate its predecessors’ involvement in the social and political maneuverings of contemporary life that are the building blocks of true satire.

Much of the adrenaline for the show is provided by the energetic and gifted musical duo of Willie Etra (keyboards) and percussionist Larry Treadwell.