Two decades-spanning generations of Saturday Night Live alums offered tributes to Gary Austin, the founder of the wildly influential improvisational theater company The Groundlings. Austin, who had been battling cancer, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. He was 75.
The SNL tributes offered just one hint at the scope of Austin’s impact on comedy.
“No words,” tweeted Laraine Newman, one of the Groundlings recruited to become SNL‘s first-generation Not Ready For Primetime Players. “We lost a legend today,” tweeted Mikey Day, the current SNL cast member who broke through this season as, among other characters, Donald Trump Jr. and a Grim Reaper Steve Bannon.
“Thank you for giving us a dream, a voice, a legacy and a family,” the Groundlings company posted. (See below).
An Oklahoma native, Austin moved to L.A. after college, soon working with the San Francisco-based The Committee and L.A.’s Comedy Store. In the early ’70s Austin began assembling the troupe that would become The Groundlings, a name taken from the ground-seated audiences of Shakespeare’s day.
As the group’s artistic director, performer and teacher of improv skills, Austin would help shape modern comedy, introducing to the world such performers as SNL‘s Newman, Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens (who, with Hartman by his side, developed his Pee-wee Herman character as Groundlings). Later Austin students included Paul Feig, Lisa Kudrow, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Gray, Mindy Sterling, Loretta DeVine, Daphne Zuniga, Helen Slater, Lindsay Crouse and Robert David Hall.
Austin stayed with the Groundlings even as some of its early performers moved on to wider audiences. He famously turned down Lorne Michaels’ offer to join SNL (along with Newman) after directing portions of the 1975 ABC Lily Tomlin special Lily. Though he’d return occasionally to direct, Austin left the Groundlings in 1979, continuing to teach through his Gary Austin Workshops.
Austin is survived by his wife Wenndy McKenzie and daughter Audrey Moore, as well as a sister, two brothers and others. Funeral plans are pending.
Performers who did stints in the Groundlings post-Austin make up a list too lengthy to publish here, but the last few decades of SNL and film comedy would have been near impossible without the improv group’s training. Ben Falcone and wife Melissa McCarthy are just two examples.