The Groundlings on Success


There are few theater companies that have produced as many big names as the Groundlings. Such superstars as Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Paul Reubens got their start at this landmark. With such talent, it’s only fitting that there are lessons we can learn about achieving success.

The Groundlings is an improv comedy theater in Los Angeles. It offers nightly shows, but the real value is in their acting school with over 2,000 students going through the program every year. It is a competitive, grueling process that involves numerous classes and auditions before making it onto the stage.

A recent Vanity Fair article tells the story of the Groundlings from the people who were there. Here are three stories that can benefit any leader.

Jon Lovitz

Jon Lovitz was a Groundlings personality in the mid-1980s before jetting into stardom on Saturday Night Live. When he started taking Groundlings classes, an instructor said to Jon, “that’s funny, but you could have been funnier.” There are a few things we can do with constructive criticism. One is to plant our feet and rebuke any feedback. Another is to accept it and let it crush our delicate ego. Jon took a third approach.

I was 25 and had heard that you only get out of something what you put into it. So I took notes every class, and I typed them up at the end…That’s how into it I was.

Just as being funny isn’t enough to make someone a successful comedian, being capable is not enough to be a successful leader. It takes effort, and lots of it.

Phil Hartman

Phil Hartman was a legend at the Groundlings for over ten years before being swooped up by Saturday Night Live. According to fellow Groundlings and SNL alum Julia Sweeney,

He could tell you why he was funny and he could tell you why the scene was funny and why this character was funny. That made him an invaluable and incredible teacher.

You can’t guide if you don’t understand the terrain. Successful leaders are detail-oriented. They know their industry, their systems, and the people working with them.

Lisa Kudrow

Lisa Kudrow was at the Groundlings in the early 1990s before being cast on Friends. In her preparatory class, she was self-conscious and embarrassed. Then she saw Conan O’Brien perform. It was his first night, too.

I was like, ‘This is so embarrassing for everybody except that guy!…Oh, that’s what we’re supposed to do!’ So I knew I had to stick with that guy. So I went over, introduced myself to him, and we became friends. I stuck with him. I’m not kidding. I was like a barnacle.

Successful people associate themselves with other successful people. Find the talented folks around you. If you’re lucky, they’ll motivate you to be better than you are.

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